How The Daily
Show Triumphed

(By Enabling Disruptive Technology and Embracing Media Inventions, But Only When It Made Sense, Which Was Less Often Than One Might Think;
Also: Some Luck)

Rex Sorgatz
The Message
Published in
9 min readMar 12, 2015

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A few weeks ago, when Jon Stewart announced he would be absconding his sixteen-year perch atop The Daily Show, a fount of digital ink gushed open. From every internet tributary, eulogies and reminiscences poured down the media mountain. Riding a gurgling wave of roundups and recaps, the #slatepitches and identity politics flowed mightily. Even as the viral storm calmed, a surge of claim chowder and hot takes hit the social shores. You might say the story was on fleek. (Except, no, you wouldn’t.)

This deluge was a fitting response to a show so shaped and challenged by its time. The Daily Show’s brilliant conceit was to take the dominant cultural trend of the past thirty years — the clash of high and low — to its furthest logical conclusion — political news meets gallows humor. The mashup known as truthiness worked perfectly.

But the show was challenged along the way.

During its long reign, a barrage of new technologies appeared, each posing a confounding new question. TiVo — does it grow audience or shrink revenue? YouTube — friend or foe? Ugh, cord-cutting millennials? Ack, Hulu strategy? Fuuuuuh, Twitter? Vine?! Snapchat?!?!?

I would argue that The Daily Show rode the disruptive waves as masterfully as one could. It adopted a sound strategy: experiment with new platforms and technology, iterate on success, and, perhaps most importantly, shrug and move on from what fails.

But it also got lucky. While certain new technologies posed a corporeal threat, other media inventions fit perfectly into the show’s DNA. Technology both imperiled and propelled the show. Much of the The Daily Show’s success can be attributed to shrewd decisions; some of it, sublime coincidence.

Here is a brief history of the obstacles and serendipities provided by technology:

circa 1999

The DVR

No one foresaw its importance at the time, but January 1999 would become a momentous month in media innovation, when two events coincided:

  • A new recording device called TiVo was announced.
  • Jon Stewart became the host of The Daily Show.

It’s difficult to remember what life was like before either of these things. In theory, a VCR could record something like The Daily Show, but that prospect was impossibly fraught. (Did you swap out yesterday’s VHS tape? How do you create a “11 pm, Mon-Thurs” recording recurrence? Why the fuck is that clock blinking?)

I was living in Minneapolis when TiVo hit the market. That winter, after my mother gifted me one for Christmas, the media habits for me and my roommates changed instantly. Not only did we watch more television, but we watched more television together.

“I created my first Season Pass,” I wrote in an email to a friend who lived in Ohio, because I wanted to tell everyone about my favorite new toy.

“Which show?” he asked.

“That new thing on Comedy Central, The Daily Show,” I replied, knowing its cultural currency.

The Daily Show instantly became the poster child of the time-shifted, on-demand future. Chunked into discrete pieces, the DVR-friendly format created a new viewing experience. Everyone seemed to have their own methods for manipulating the show — some people just watched the interviews; others, loved the sketches; and still more, wanted only the news. Pick your favorite, skip the rest.

The Daily Show was the first show that you controlled how it should be watched.

The atomized content was timely and topical, so its appearance in the queue created urgency. Most of all, you wanted to tell people. The Daily Show was conversational — social before social media.

This thesis is unprovable, but it seems to me that no show has ever benefited more from the DVR than The Daily Show.

circa 2002

The Database

Television is, by nature, a derivative craft. It copies and refines more than it invents.

But it would not be a stretch to say that The Daily Show invented a specific genre of story, which has since become a staple of television. This particular narrative technique did not exist in the past, because the technology that enables it did not exist. For it to flourish, we needed advances in deep tech: data archiving and search indexing and speech-to-text.

Of course, the invention was the montage segment — those stories that splice together snippets of video, sometimes culled from across decades, to expose moments of political hypocrisy or media duplicity.

Here is a classic of the research-and-remix genre, from 2003, using statements by President George W. Bush to “debate” with Governor George W. Bush:

I used to call those types of segments “database mashups,” because I am a brutish doof. In 2008, my fellow Message-ist Andy Baio coined the perfect (slightly more specific) term — supercuts. Jon Stewart the other day called them “Juxtaposition of Soundbite Theater

The Daily Show’s montages have always struck me as one of television’s most conspicuous uses of new technology. When you see a supercut of Fox News correspondents with contrasting use of “war on women” and “war on Christmas,” compiled from across years of television history, it feels like a bit of futuristic search wizardry.

“The Battle for the War on Women” from April 2012

How the show’s producers find the source video for these elaborate montages has been a bit of a trade secret, but various reports suggest the use of so-called television-monitoring services like Snapstream, TVEyes, and Critical Mention. (Interesting sidenote: Fox News sued TVEyes for copyright infringement — and lost.)

Outside of sports, and those odious CNN election holograms, there might not be a more conspicuous use of new technology to create television.

circa 2006

The YouTube Leak

At the end of 2005, I landed a job building a website for the Winter Olympics. Overwhelmed by 15-hour work days, I stopped looking at the internet for a few months. When I returned, a drastic change had occurred. Every page on the web seemed to have a strange new box embedded on it: a rectangle, in a perfect 4:3 ratio, with a circle floating in the middle, and a triangle inside that.

Here, the alien object:

The embedded YouTube clip seemed to appear overnight. The box was instantly ubiquitous. And by December, someone put something in the box:

SNL’s “Dick In a Box” was the first viral video clip. As it racked up 35 million views, with zero revenue made by anyone, media execs started to freak. And no one freaked more than Viacom.

In 2007, Viacom — the owners of Comedy Central, plus other web-ish properties like MTV, VH1, BET, and Nickelodeon — sued YouTube (by then owned by Google) for $1 billion for copyright infringement. The lawsuit alleged that Viacom programming had been viewed 1.5 billion times — much of it, The Daily Show, uploaded illicitly and anonymously.

And then things got really weird.

During the discovery phase of the trial, it was revealed that Daily Show producers were likely complicit in uploading the show to YouTube. This meant that Viacom was suing YouTube for hosting video that Viacom put on YouTube. A lawyer from Google later recounted the madness of that Wild West Web era:

For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately “roughed up” the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko’s to upload clips from computers that couldn’t be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users. Executives as high up as the president of Comedy Central and the head of MTV Networks felt “very strongly” that clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should remain on YouTube.

[Emphasis mine, to highlight the intrepid genius of Daily Show producers.]

circa 2007

The Reblog

Embedded video radically changed web publishing. To this day, one of the most prevalent, if somewhat lazy, forms of web prose is the write around — an inelegant term for an embedded video clip with a modicum of descriptive text. Sometimes, it’s called a reblog.

The Daily Show surely must be the most reblogged show of all time. Its arguments are easy to summarize and its buzzy quality fits perfectly into pageview-driven publishing cycles. Just drop some <iframe> embed code onto a page, tap out a few clever sentences, and watch the pageview hydrant spew. Video reblogs now seem to be the primary distribution vehicle for The Daily Show — possibly bigger than Comedy Central itself.

Today, web publishers race to be the first to embed new clips from Stewart’s protege, John Oliver, the new master of rebloggable video. The industry has even adopted a semi-joke-term for the sprint to reblog Last Week Tonight: The John Oliver Video Sweepstakes. The winner takes home all the viral pageviews.

The first time you saw the hugely popular segment about net neutrality was most likely as a YouTube clip embedded on a blog post, just like this:

Did I win? Is it too late to enter the video sweepstakes?

Of that video’s 8.5M views, a huge portion came from embed-driven sites like Upworthy, Mediaite, The Verge, Buzzfeed, Business Insider, Devour, Slate, and — well, basically every online publication today.

And the end of the clip, Oliver pointed his audience to fcc.gov/comments, telling them “We need you to get out and, for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction.” It worked:

Now it’s almost impossible to imagine shows like The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight without reblogs and shares.

circa 2009

The Extended Clip

“Can you stick around to talk more for the web…?”

The first instance of Jon Stewart posing that question was in 2007, to Bill Clinton, but the extended web interview didn’t become a recurring feature until a couple years later. True fans of the show have seen that inquiry become as ubiquitous as “your moment of zen.”

The longform interview has longtailed into a diverse archive: Jay-Z, Elon Musk, Condoleezza Rice, Pervez Musharraf, and Barack Obama, among many. These clips are seldom viral smashes (a recent extended interview with Jimmy Carter has only 24,000 views), but they allow Stewart to show his range. And they give people something to talk about.

The next time someone asks if you saw the Steven Brill interview on last night’s Daily Show, try this retort: “Yeah, the extended version was dope.”

circa 2016 and beyond

The Platform

“Platform” is one of those jargon-alarm tech terms to use with great trepidation. And the strategic merits of The Daily Show website, its social media strategy, or its use of Hulu are of marginal interest to this writer. The truly remarkable achievement has been in amassing a talent platform.

The Daily Show has become a solar system of talent.

The Colbert Report was the first satellite to spin into orbit, and Colbert is scheduled to land on CBS in September. Last Week Tonight, hosted by Jon Oliver, took off on HBO last year. And my current personal favorite, The Nightly Show starring Larry Wilmore, has been a supernova of conversation. And the first female star was just announced: Samantha Bee is headed to TBS. (Along the way, The Daily Show has propelled the careers of Steve Carell, Olivia Munn, John Hodgman, Jessica Williams, Lewis Black, Michael Che, Kristen Schaal, Rob Corddry, Josh Gad, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, and many more.)

One gets the feeling that this roster will continue to sprout new kinds of media, whether comedic, dramatic, journalistic, or futuristic. If you wanted to speculate on who will find the most compelling uses for whatever media technologies come next, that talent pool seems the best bet.

And now, here it is, your moment of zen.

Rex Sorgatz (@fimoculous) has watched nearly every episode of The Daily Show since circa 2000, but he usually skips the sketch segment.

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Rex Sorgatz
The Message

creative technologist, author, entrepreneur, designer, consultant rexsorgatz@gmail.com