The purpose of my blog is to discuss satire news/late night television, and to see how digital disruption is affecting this medium, whether it is positive or negative. Late night television is not a new concept. There have been satire shows on television since its invention. However, the ways late night hosts take advantage of the emerging technology that is forming in our digital age is definitely evolving. YouTube is a huge part of the late night sphere, and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram help to promote and shape each show’s image. The particular show and social media site I will be focusing on is John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and how he uses Twitter to not only engage viewers and promote the show, but to bring forth social issues that he feels passionate enough to rant about for much longer than any other late night host.
I was fortunate enough to talk to Mary-Bridget Welch, a former Michigan student who got the chance to intern for Last Week Tonight last summer. She was there for the show’s premiere, which is something that not many people get to say.
Mary-Bridget: As an intern I was responsible for mostly running errands for the office and assisting as a receptionist. We also transcribed new stories and researched hot topics that week. We occasionally helped with the social media aspect of the show by taking pictures of various things around the city for internet and YouTube bits and scoured the internet for both good and bad comments on the show. One time I got to pick up a puppy from a doggie day care. We really did anything and everything.
She goes in depth about the different types of methods the show used in their social media platforms, and is a huge advocate for the show and how successful it has been thus far. However, I can’t help but notice the show’s ratings and how it falls short compared to Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. Is this a discussion about network vs. premium television? (Last Week Tonight airs on HBO, a cable subscription network) Or are the other shows simply rising to the top as a result of content and promotion?
John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight is known for its innovative social media tactics.
Mary-Bridget: LWT has become what I would say a show that thrives on their social media, especially their twitter. Josh Gondelman (web producer and now writer for the show) is a stand up comedian and essentially runs the social media for the show. He told me that the twitter needed a different kind of tone because it isn’t “John’s voice” (he has his own twitter), it is mostly the “show’s voice” and the kind of attitude that they want to bring to their viewers, serious news with a humorous yet in depth take on really important topics that not a lot of news outlets are covering.
It’s interesting how popular Oliver’s hashtags have become, seeing as John Oliver himself barely uses twitter (he only has 160 tweets!). The twitter page for Last Week Tonight is a lot more substantial, but it makes it that much more impressive that Oliver is able to create these twitter movements while barely promoting it himself. He says it on the show (if anything he will tweets about it once) and then that’s it. The rest is up to the viewers of the show.
Mary -Bridget: The importance of the hashtags pertains to what a hashtag is supposed to do, get a large group of people talking about one particular thing. #gogetthosegeckos was a big one about an issue that was kinda dumb but really fun (that is the kind of stuff people on twitter like!) but it also brings awareness to the show and what it is doing, they had a real discussion about Net Neutrality which was hugely important in recent legislation! News actually making a difference.
The following chart that I compiled lists each hashtag that John Oliver has mentioned on the show, and what each hashtag stands for. Each hashtag was taken from a bigger discussion that was seen on the show. Oliver is infamous for his lengthy rants, and these hashtags have surfaced from these discussions. A lot of them are about prevalent issues that are affecting America, but like Mary-Bridget mentioned, some of them are more geared toward entertainment purposes.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a website that tracks the amount of impressions a hashtag gets for free, but there was a website I found that counts the impressions it has for the day. It’s clear that #GoGetThoseGeckos, #JeffWeCan and #ShowMeYourPeanuts are the most popular hashtags. It’s true that you need to factor in the time that the particular hashtag aired on the show, because that would explain why more people are talking about it now. However, the episode that had the hashtag #GoGetThoseGeckos aired back in July of 2014, and 9 months later it’s still the most talked about hashtag of Oliver’s! That’s when the question arises, what makes one hashtag more “tweetable” compared to the others?
In my opinion, I think it’s because of the quality of the story. The absurdity of the #GoGetThoseGeckos story explains why the hashtag is so popular. Basically, Russia lost contact with a satellite of geckos that we’re “possibly mating”. This story is completely irrelevant to social issues, which sadly could explain why it’s still such a popular hashtag. Meanwhile #BetterCIATweets, a hashtag that sheds light on the CIA and its infamous secrecy, is getting barely any mentions. Unfortunately, this is the way that television today works. The most popular and talked about stories are the ones that barely have anything to do with social issues that need to be changed.
One of my favorite hashtags that Oliver implemented was #mutuallyassuredhumiliation. Oliver’s rant discussed a European law that would allow people to “erase themselves from the internet”. He later created the hashtag to prove the point that with the digital age we live in today, this is something that is basically impossible. Things we do on the internet will live with us forever, which explains the culture we live in today where public figures are constantly getting in trouble for the things they post on the internet. People can immediately delete the tweet, but there will always be that one person that will screenshot it and share it with the world.
I loved the hashtag #mutuallyassuredhumiliation, because not only did it bring to light the dangers of the internet, but fans were able to interact and tweet their embarrassing pictures. A digital footprint isn’t a particularly pressing issue, but his rant was still very informative and helped educate people who weren’t previously aware of this new law. An example of the Last Week Tonight social media team taking advantage of this hashtag would be this video that contains the best pictures tweeted by fans. The video even features a picture of Mary-Bridget!
Although #MutuallyAssuredHumiliation was my favorite, I strongly believe that the hashtag that not only was the most informative but became the most popular was the hashtag #JeffWeCan. This 18 minute long rant discusses tobacco industry regulations and how it is different across several countries. Thanks to marketing restrictions, smoking rates in the United States have lowered significantly. However, the same thing cannot be said for other countries. Oliver slams cigarette companies for their branding (specifically Malboro for their cowboy image), and to compromise between cigarette company branding and countries trying their best to warn their citizens of the hazards of smoking, Oliver created Jeff the diseased lung in a cowboy hat. This particular segment was not only informative, but it was entertaining and almost instantly #JeffWeCan was trending in both the United States and Australia. This is the perfect example of using Twitter to not only publicize the show, but to inform viewers AND entertain them at the same time. But, can Oliver achieve all of this and still make the network he’s working for happy?
“The exciting thing is that [HBO] let[s] you do whatever you want. They don’t say anything. They’re amazing. It’s almost a confusing amount of freedom.”- John Oliver
This quote was taken from an NPR article where Oliver discussed his show and some of the drawbacks of being a comedian. He lists some disadvantages to his career, but working for HBO definitely has its perks. What other network would let a host rant about one single issue for 18 minutes straight? Although he’s given this freedom, in the end the ratings are what determine if the show is making money for the network. Although HBO has this laissez-faire approach from their programming, they could pull the plug on Oliver’s show if it isn’t bringing in viewers. It was then that I had to figure out, how exactly does Last Week Tonight compare to other late night shows?
There are a number of factors that contribute to ratings and popularity of late night television, but overall I think Last Week Tonight is doing innovative and creative things with Twitter, and John Oliver is changing the way that late night television uses social media. He’s not only making it a publicity tool, but integrating the social justice aspect of social media to not only bring light to social issues, but inadvertently promote his show.
The following graph presents the first quarter T.V ratings of this year (December 29th, 2014- March 29th, 2015). As you can see, Last Week Tonight is right around the middle in terms of both total viewers and its Nielson rating for ages 18-49. The Tonight Show is dominating the Tonight Show sphere by far. Could this be because of Fallon’s involvement with Twitter? Every week, he plays a hashtag game that is very popular with fans, which could definitely be a contributing factor to why people watch. If the tweet is good enough, it gets picked to be on the show.
Although Oliver is falling short in the ratings compared to other late night hosts, it’s definitely important to keep in mind that Last Week Tonight premiered in April of 2014, so it’s still very new to the television world. Also, Oliver’s show is on HBO, which is a network that viewers need to pay for in order to watch.
Mary-Bridget: Unlike the Daily Show, LWT doesn’t have the luxury of being showcased every night. But for good reason because it gives them more time to research.
His ratings are very good for a show that has these setbacks, and at this rate it’ll be topping the charts soon enough.
Mary-Bridget: While I’m not working for the show anymore it is really really special what they are doing there and the ratings show how popular it has become. The social media aspect helps with bringing real topics to the forefront of the screens that everyone is constantly staring at. Shows like LWT remind us that is really fun to learn and watch something that isn’t cats dancing or Kim Kardashian’s nip slip. I might be bias but it’s a damn good show.
Mary Bridget’s point is one of my favorite things about Last Week Tonight. Sure, Jimmy Fallon may have the best ratings, but looking at the content of his show, it’s purely for entertainment purposes only. Last Week Tonight is a show that is doing pretty well for a new show on HBO , and on top of that it’s a show that is educating its viewers with informative topics and social issues that are going on not only in the United States, but around the world. His hashtags are a big part of the show, and does a great job keeping audiences engaged and informed.
Although it’s clear I’m a fan of the show, there is a downfall. Sure, Oliver’s hashtags have caused awareness for the problems he discusses, but have they actually caused change to happen? All of the hashtags I’ve looked at have merely addressed the problem. Nothing has been done to actually make change. This is a major setback for Oliver’s show. What’s the point in making a hashtag if it’s not going to do anything to help the cause? Creating awareness is not always good enough. However, working in news satire is not always 100% about changing social issues.
You know, satire isn’t journalism. That’s not to suggest that we’re not responsible for the content that we put out there. I stand behind the point of view. That being said, the tools we use are exaggeration, hyperbole, puns, imitation, ridicule. Sometimes they can cut through things in an easier way but generally in a more superficial way. It distils something to a more visceral element that does not generally present a grander picture. – Jon Stewart
This has been an ongoing issue in satire news, and something that we’ve discussed in class. Are these political satirists responsible for informing the public? My vote is no, if they want to have more entertainment than news, so be it. But I think the track that Oliver is taking in terms of informing viewers while providing entertainment is going to make him very successful.
So in conclusion:
Five Things You Should Know About John Oliver and his Hashtags
1. Digital disruption is causing late night television to take advantage of social media sites such as Twitter, specifically John Oliver and the hashtags that form out of his discussions on Last Week Tonight
2. Unfortunately, it seems as if the most popular hashtags are the ones that don’t have to do with important social issues (excluding #JeffWeCan), but there are still many important issues that are being brought to viewer’s attentions from the hashtags, even if they’re not the most popular.
3. Despite being only once a week and on HBO (a subscription channel), Last Week Tonight is doing surprisingly well in the ratings, which could be a result of the way the show uses social media.
4. Last Week Tonight isn’t formally obligated to inform viewers, but the hashtags Oliver uses on the show is a great way to not only engage viewers, but educate them as well.
5. According to Mary-Bridget, Last Week Tonight is a great place to work. If anyone on staff happens to be reading this, I can forward you my resume!