4 topics John Oliver explained more clearly than television news

The political satirist brings explainer comedy to HBO viewers

It’s not often that news broadcasters warn audiences of how boring a subject is before jumping into a 13-minute segment on it. John Oliver, of course, isn’t a newsman. But the lead story in a June episode of his HBO political satire program, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, broke down the complex issue of net neutrality as well as any real journalist ever has. Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor credited with coining the term “net neutrality,” tweeted that it had “rendered every other explanation obsolete.”

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert heralded a new age of news-anchor satire over the past decade. But Oliver is changing course. Instead of deploring the absurdity of the political-media complex — Stewart has been consumed by it, while Colbert will soon retire his on-air character entirely — Oliver has seemingly aimed higher, often dissecting complex policy issues better than the TV programs he parodies. That’s not to say he breaks news or does original reporting, but rather that he often relays information in a clear, comedic way that’s easier for viewers to comprehend. Call it explainer comedy.

Tedious subjects like these showcase Oliver’s greatest advantage over much of television news: He can hold viewers’ attention through long segments. What’s more, the nature of HBO affords him the freedom to spout such lengthy riffs, as commercial breaks don’t interrupt his half-hour show. The fact that the program airs only weekly, meanwhile, allows Oliver to dissect issues to the extent that Stewart, Colbert, and nightly newscasts cannot. Since the British comedian aggregates many others’ reporting, he can talk about issues in much wider contexts.

To be sure, Oliver is neither a journalist nor an alternative to broadcast news. Shows like 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning still provide indispensable reporting. Network newscasts still air respectable journalism every night. And cable stations still cover breaking stories in a way no other outlets can, despite myriad hiccups.

But broadcast news’ standard-bearers often assume viewers have a baseline awareness of current events and issues. This holds the potential to scare off casual news consumers. Oliver, on the other hand, doesn’t work with this assumption, and that couldn’t be more important for unsexy stories that don’t get much attention on the airwaves. Networks largely avoided net neutrality, for example, and coverage of such dull stories that does happen is usually condensed into packages lasting a few minutes, if that.

That’s where Oliver has stepped in with his nascent program, making hard-to-understand discussions more accessible. While he’s not a journalist, he does occasionally commit acts of journalism.

Here are three more examples of topics the faux newsman explained better than his professional counterparts: 

Dr. Oz and nutritional supplements

While most outlets focused on the drama of the day — TV personality Dr. Oz testifying before Congress —  Oliver broadened his focus to include the supplement industry’s powerful lobbying arm and the elected officials it sways.


Payday loans

Predatory lending has often been covered by mainstream news outlets. But few programs clearly illustrate the full scope of the problem. Oliver did just that.

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Gay rights in Uganda

Though news shows did cover a new statute in Uganda effectively outlawing homosexuality, they didn’t stay with the story for long. Oliver gave it 17 minutes of airtime, spotlighting the underlying prejudice that led to the law, including its American roots. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , , ,