“That’s a bold move, coming out as pro-toilet. Finally someone is taking on the powerful, Hastily-Dug-Ditch-in-a-Field Lobby.” It was the most poignant line in John Oliver’s news-satire “Last Week Tonight,” airing Sundays on HBO. His entertaining delivery masks the gravity of a major issue, not a bad strategy to get the public, particularly a younger audience, to engage with heavy topics.
There is not enough of these kinds of news shows to go around. The fact is that TV news these days is in direct competition with more entertaining programs like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “Game of Thrones” for the audience’s attention. Even if you’re a college-educated self-professed nerd like myself, channel surfing on your couch, what’s more likely to grab your interest: a b-roll and voiceover-ridden report about poverty or a story driven by excitement and helmed by an interesting character?
Demographics that would choose the former, or traditional news programs, do exist. Half the viewership for Fox News is over the age of 68. CNN’s median age is around 60 and MSBNC’s is 61. An Atlantic article from January about TV news viewership states that “the entire cable news industry relies on building a product for ages 60 and up.” It’s good that older citizens are staying informed on current affairs, but rather alarming that younger citizens, whose considerable voting power will shape the course of our future, are being left out of the equation by the gargantuan cable news industry. Only an informed public makes informed decisions.
The popularity of news-based shows like John Oliver’s indicates that there is definite interest in the genre among younger audiences. Just look at fellow network personalities Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. The average age of “The Colbert Report” is around 38, Stewart’s “The Daily Show” 41. Still younger is “Vice on HBO” with a predominant viewership age of 18-34. This is all the more interesting considering that “Vice” is straight-up reporting (albeit with an attitude) compared to the aforementioned news satires. Currently in Season 2, the show was recently renewed for two more seasons, claiming its place in mainstream TV through 2016. (Disclosure: I produced a documentary for its Vice News vertical).
What they do differently from traditional news outlets that attracts so much success is that their gritty, character-led stories are perfectly catered to the youngsters. Youngsters, namely Millennials, who also constitute 80% of the 150 million unique monthly visitors to Vice’s online platforms.
Given Vice’s success, one simply can’t make the argument that Millennials aren’t interested in world affairs or can’t constitute a majority TV news viewership. It’s just that there are so many fun-to-watch alternatives to traditional news—across multiple platforms, no less—that the appeal of watching a dry, facts-packed news segment in the midst of a busy day is close to zero. Young people like myself don’t want to watch a show that tries to shove another bit of information down our throats. With unprecedented college fees, unemployment rates, and mounting debt passed on to us from our parents’ generation, we don’t want to hear about another serious issue. If it’s packaged to us as entertainment, though, as something that makes us laugh or gasp or flinch, we’ll be more likely to not just watch it, but actually absorb it.
That’s why I actually watched John Oliver’s new show. Not only was the Indian democratic elections, the subject of his first episode, an important event that probably wouldn’t have caught my attention if it was on a traditional news report, but it’s also something that’s been underreported in mainstream news. As Oliver said about his pro-toilet statement, “This is both funny and incredibly important as a public-health issue.”
With more shows like Oliver’s and “Vice,” the major news networks could finally tap into the Millennial market that has long eluded them and detracted revenue. They’d also fulfill their original purpose: delivering news to the larger audience and sustaining an informed society.