When The Colbert Report premiered nine years ago, Comedy Central tried something different. It made the first week of episodes available to download and watch online. If you didn’t stay up to watch the show, or you didn’t have cable, you could still see Stephen Colbert try to turn his Daily Show character into a new kind of television show, one whose politics, format, and satirical tone were particularly suited to the mid-2000s internet.
It was a rare case of a network blessing the still-emerging practice of video sharing online. The Colbert Report had only an eight-week initial order: the combination of internet fans returning to watch the show live and the strong Daily Show lead-in helped win it a year.
It was the future. Of course, it couldn’t last.
Clips from The Colbert Report soon became a staple at YouTube, a startup that was making it easier for anyone and everyone to upload and watch home movies, video blogs, and technically-illicit-but-increasingly-vanilla clips of TV shows from the day before. And Colbert’s show was about to find itself at the center of a conflict between entertainment media and the web over online video that’s shaped the last decade. In fact, The Colbert Report has been defined as much by this back-and-forth between Hollywood and the web as by the cable news pundits it satirizes.
Colbert was perfect for 2005 YouTube, and both were perfect for the time. The lefty blogosphere was picking up steam, consoling itself for a second Bush term with grim jokes and dreams of restoration in 2008. It loved Colbert, especially after he skewered President Bush in person at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Stewart and Colbert distrusted the Bush administration, found the Democrats were laughably ineffective, and were dedicated to ridiculing the official news media. They fit with the college-educated, post-Dean left of that time like a hand into a glove.
I remember this moment very well. I was in graduate school, had begun writing my dissertation, and didn’t have cable. I found out about YouTube because of Colbert. It was the first show that I watched hacked into bite-sized, upload-limit friendly clips. It was not the last.
Increasingly, you could see a pattern. Colbert Report episodes were modular: you could break them down into bits and reassemble them. Here was “The Wørd,” here was “Better Know A District,” here was a guest interview. Any part could become an object for attention. What’s more, their modularity seemed less like a production tool or an imitation of news show buckets than something built for the internet.
For lack of a better term, each bit of Colbert was blockquotable.
In 2005, Facebook was expanding beyond the Ivy league, and then to high schools, laying the groundwork for an official networked pass-along for internet media. College kids loved Stewart and Colbert too, increasingly saying they learned more about the day’s political events from the two Comedy Central shows than from newspapers or CNN.
Broadband internet was spreading across the nation, making web video a genuine proposition. We’d shared music on Napster and we’d shared photos on Flickr; video was obviously next. Viral media networks were leaving the shadows and becoming part of everyday life. It wasn’t about Pamela-and-Tommy-Lee porno any more; it was about television shows. There was an enormous audience there, with a proven business model: show popular entertainment, sell advertising against it.
A year after The Colbert Report premiere, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock. Five months later, Viacom sued YouTube and Google for copyright infringement, asking for $1 billion in damages. The value of these videos and their audiences were clear. The Colbert Report and “Stephen Colbert” are mentioned three times in Viacom’s complaint against YouTube, as much or more than any other show or artist.
There was no stopping YouTube. The only open question was who was going to get paid, and how much. That’s what Viacom’s lawsuit was about.
By the time of the lawsuit, the market for online video had already gotten much more sophisticated. Comedy Central now offered YouTube-style clips of its shows on its own website. YouTube had begun partnering with copyright holders to share revenue from officially posted videos and use filtering technology to prevent users from uploading copyrighted video and to find and identify unauthorized uploads. Viacom’s claim wasn’t that YouTube was just turning a blind eye to users infringing copyright — it was that YouTube was offering filtering technology to its media partners that it wasn’t making available to companies who weren’t playing ball.
Revenue sharing, filtering tech, copyright lawsuits — all of this was part of a complex dance between two corporations who were trying to strike a deal. It wound up taking seven years — almost the entire life of The Colbert Report.
(That’s right: Viacom v. YouTube, which feels like ancient history in internet time, was only settled in March. After all the posturing, the decisions and counter-decisions, and billion-dollar claims, a source close to the two parties said that no money actually changed hands.)
To me, the most fascinating wrinkle of the Viacom lawsuit comes from a 2010 blog post by Zahavah Levine, YouTube’s chief counsel. Levine wrote that even as one part of Viacom was screaming about blatant infringement, other factions within the company were still working to promote its shows on YouTube, including The Colbert Report (emphasis added):
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.
Viacom’s efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.
It wasn’t the last time Colbert would be the subject of a digital media turf war: in 2010, Viacom pulled The Colbert Report and The Daily Show from Hulu, where the two shows had been among the most popular on the service, because the site wasn’t generating and sharing enough revenue. Hulu was created in no small part to address the market YouTube had helped create for online video.
2011's Stop Online Piracy Act was essentially the continuation of the Viacom lawsuit by other means. Really, what it let copyright owners do was herd all websites, regardless of their national origin, into the sphere of domesticated, remunerative media sharing it had created in Hulu and was bit by bit building with YouTube. Sure enough, Stephen Colbert was on the front lines, playing both sides against each other:
Comedy Central would eventually build enormous sites for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report alone, recognizing the value of their streaming videos. They offer clips, full episodes, archives, all supported by advertising. The shows are also on YouTube and Hulu. All of these services offer easy embeds so that blogs, news sites, and social media services can display these videos with these ads attached. Every embed has links to social media networks. (Obviously, almost none of this existed in 2005.)
Posts built around embeds of Colbert, Last Week Tonight, and The Daily Show have become a genre unto themselves. Music artists can premiere new songs, knowing that nothing can make it go viral faster than an embedded video from a beloved web-savvy television show. (Sure enough, rapper Kendrick Lamar stole the show by turning his appearance on one of the last episodes of Colbert into his own launch party.)
Everything is official, everything is paid for, everybody gets a slice.
YouTube can now even recognize bits of media used in fan videos and compensate rights-holders accordingly. Google and the entertainment companies have created an entire elaborate apparatus built to solve the problems posed by watching Stephen Colbert tell a joke on the internet.
Thursday’s finale of The Colbert Report is perhaps the apotheosis of this process. Every piece of it is modular, each part carefully engineered to go viral. You can write a blog post about any or all of it. (Many sites did.) The fake news show, built on aggregating and commenting on a universe of media, is itself the substrate for an entire layer of media news.
We live in a world of digital media, corporate convergence, and inseparable layers of attachment and detachment, irony and sincerity, that Stephen Colbert and YouTube have made.