A traditionalist would tell you John Oliver ought not be mentioned in the same breath as Scott Pelley, David Muir, or Brian Williams. In just a few years, however, traditionalists won’t be the people consuming the bulk of TV news.
Oliver is the HBO host who combines humor with investigative reporting on the premium cable network’s “Last Week Tonight” to such an illuminating degree that he’s made the cover of Rolling Stone after less than a year on the air and has been held up as a new example of presenting analysis of current affairs to a generation of viewers who find the usual sources to be too compromised or, worse, irrelevant. Would you have known that much about the pernicious influence of native advertising without Oliver on the beat? Or the flaws of the Miss America pageant?
He isn’t doing this all by himself. HBO has quietly amassed what could be called a current-affairs programming unit: Bill Maher’s Friday-night “Real Time” has grown in influence since it debuted in 2003, and a documentary series from Vice Media has won plaudits for its “on the ground” reporting style (and includes Maher as a producer, incidentally). The Time Warner network clearly sees opportunity for the programming. HBO recently put Maher through an obstacle course of sorts by having him host an episode of “Real Time” and then scurry across Washington, D.C. to do a live stand-up special immediately following. It has renewed the Vice series so that it will air through at least 2016. What’s more, it has carved out Monday primetime as a place for documentaries.
Should the network just admit it’s got an “HBO News” unit on its hands?
“We are not a news division,” says Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming, in an interview. Even so, the network recognizes a “huge appetite to be engaged with an opinion, as opposed to being fed facts.” HBO isn’t looking to compete with “NBC Nightly News,” Lombardo says, but “we continue to work at shows that resonate in what I’ll call the ‘non-fiction’ area, and I think you’ll see more from us.”
HBO’s ongoing push into this arena doesn’t take place in a vacuum. In recent months, any number of unlikely suspects has begun to embrace either in-depth explorations of the far-flung corners of the world or analysis from a “voicier” host. Witness recent reports of NBC News considering Jon Stewart as candidate for its “Meet The Press.”
You can also see it in CMT’s recent push into the form: 20 hours’ worth of docs that include everything from a Ridley Scott-produced look at the American farmer to an eight-hour chronicle of the rise of outlaw country. The Viacom network hoped to “bring a voice to that form of storytelling that I believe is underrepresented,” Jayson Dinsmore, executive vice president of development and programming at the Viacom-owned network, said last April. Or consider a new alliance between Discovery’s true-crime network ID and Vanity Fair to transform complex investigations by some of that magazine’s best known writers, like Mark Seal or Bryan Burroughs, into hour-long episodes.
You can find such stuff in increasing abundance at HBO sister CNN, where Jeff Zucker, the cable-news outlet’s president, has been quite open about a debate emerging inside the network about whether to push forward more rapidly into original docu-series featuring personalities including Anthony Bourdain, Lisa Ling, Morgan Spurlock and Mike Rowe. Rowe’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” which debuted on Wednesday, was CNN’s top original-series premiere to date in the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming, people between 25 and 54. In a recent interview, Rowe said he intended to dive more deeply into the background of the people he’d be chronicling, rather than focusing solely on their crazy occupations, as he had done for many cycles on Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs.” In doing so, he helped CNN trump a heady primetime competitor, Rachel Maddow’s nightly program on MSNBC.
The emphasis on investigation and commentary comes as many TV viewers find things speeding up – including their news. Yes, there are programs like “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours” and “Nightline” that devote a chunk of time to the exploration of a single story, but the norm – perpetuated, perhaps, by the ongoing beat of cable news – is shorter stuff, and more of it.
With so much information hurled against the TV screen in short bursts, viewers may be developing a yen for what Ben Agger, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies media culture, calls “slow journalism.” People can gobble up as many 140-word bursts and quick social-media posts as they like, he says, but longer takes and deeper analysis will be harder to find. Without such efforts, he theorizes, the news gap will be filled by social-media feeds and “Investigative reporting will give way to apocalyptic bursts that compete with other flotsam and jetsam clogging the web. The daily news cycle will be even more abbreviated.”
Sounds dire. But the idea is already starting to gain traction. Viewership for the three broadcast-network evening newscasts – which are like encyclopedias compared to their cable counterparts – actually increased in 2013 by 2.3% over the previous year, to analysis by Pew Research of Nielsen data. Meantime, the viewership of the three biggest news outlets on cable – Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC – dropped 11% in 2013, to about 3 million – the smallest, according to Pew, it has been since 2007.
The danger may come in thinking the long-form stuff represents a full substitute for the meat-and-potatoes job of providing daily news coverage. It’s not.But an emerging generation of millennials seems to be putting more emphasis on the non-traditional stuff at the same time that the nation’s Baby Boomer generation heads for retirement and has more time on its hands to watch the evening news and dip its collective eyeball into non-fiction programming of substance.
“The number of college students in my department who watch TV news daily seems to be shrinking over the last few years, and many of those who are interested in news are gravitating toward programs like “Vice,”noted Peter Jaroff, an assistant professor in Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, who worked as TV-news producer for 30 years. “Many have also relied on John Stewart, John Oliver or Stephen Colbert for their news, which is hilarious and disturbing at the same time.”
HBO’s Lombardo has no illusions that the network is doing what traditional players are. “There is a real desire for news, for current events, to resonate in ways that don’t feel pre-packaged, don’t feel canned,” he says. What it boils down to , it seems, is audiences want the facts, and then some sort of analysis immediately afterwards, whether it be a look at lesser-known tidbits surrounding the topic at hand, or just a couple of jokes.
If that’s the case, is the nation really that far from embracing someone like Tina Fey as a likely candidate to replace Brian Williams or Scott Pelley on the evening news, or Bob Schieffer or George Stephaopoulos on Sunday mornings?