After watching the Sunday debut of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” his comedic weekly news roundup show on HBO, it would be natural for me to compare Oliver, an alumnus of “The Daily Show” to the host of that show, Jon Stewart, or to discuss Oliver in the context of various other shakeups in the late-night television landscape. But Oliver, who is breaking from the daily model in late-night, and explicitly shaking off the tyranny of the news cycle, may be better considered in the context of other media startups like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and Ezra Klein’s Vox.com. Oliver’s show does not have a clear distinguishing point, be it a dedication to a particular methodology, like FiveThirtyEight’s focus on statistics, or a signature product like Vox.com’s cardstacks and ability to toggle between a piece and the interview that informed it. But all three outlets face a similar challenge: It is easy to point out what is wrong with the existing landscape, but to thrive, “Last Week Tonight,” like FiveThirtyEight and Vox, will have to come up with something genuinely new.
The best illustration of the challenge “Last Week Tonight” faces in figuring out its own brand, rather than simply existing to critique the rest of the media, was in Oliver’s long segment on the Indian elections. The initial hook was for the piece was talking heads’ focus on 2016. “Cable news does not need to be focusing on an election happening in 926 days, when there’s an important one happening right now,” Oliver groused. “The biggest election in human history is happening right now.” He is totally correct that Americans tend to need a media phenomenon like “Slumdog Millionaire” to get interested in the subcontinent. And his comparison of American cable news to similar Indian programs is a moderate relief if you are worried that we are beating everyone else in a race to the bottom.
Did Oliver actually do that much better, though, in informing his viewers about Narendra Modi, the current frontrunner for the Indian presidency? The segment is clear about Modi’s Hindu Nationalism, and his refusal to distance himself from anti-Muslim violence that took place in his state during his tenture in office. But Oliver also spent plenty of time talking about Modi’s use of holograms in campaigning without providing much context on the phenomenon. He also made a lot of jokes about Modi’s campaign promises about toilet access, before reassuring viewers that there were actually important public health issues at stake, not that he went into detail.
The other segments were a similar mix. A piece on a lawsuit between Pom and Coca-Cola raised some interesting issues about food and beverage labeling. But it was not clear why “Last Week Tonight” chose to highlight this item on the Supreme Court’s docket over the Aereo case or the affirmative action ruling, other than for comedic value. And a segment on cheerleaders’ lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills was welcome, but mostly as an amplifier of reporting that other outlets have done about wage theft and obscenely sexist codes of conduct.
Oliver is a supremely genial host, and he will benefit from spillover from HBO’s Sunday night lineup, stacked with “Game of Thrones,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep.” He also has a lighter lift than his competitors on TV, who need fans to tune in nightly, or his counterparts in new media, who have the task of attracting repeat visitors. On HBO, Oliver can cuss, and he can exercise his considerable charm without commercial breaks. It will take more than that, though, for Oliver to establish a new brand on a new platform.