New Comedy Central ads: 'You can trust us' for political coverage

"The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are back, after being on hiatus following coverage of both national political conventions. In the next few weeks, viewers can look forward to seeing more unadulterated political coverage of the presidential election, including fact-checking. The network will also increase its scrutiny of those who are supposed to be keeping the U.S. citizenry informed.

In other words, Comedy Central will be reporting on the “reporters.”

That’s nothing new. Poking fun at the foibles and hypocrisy of the news media has been a staple of both "The Daily Show" since host Jon Stewart took it over in 1999 and "The Colbert Report," launched by Stephen Colbert in 2005. What’s new, said a spokesman via email, is an ad campaign that is questioning the trustworthiness of news sources and personalities.

The double purpose of 'The Daily Show'

Two ads attacking CNN and the Fox News Channel are already up and running on the network. "You can trust us on election night, unlike some news networks," one of the ads says. This claim comes at a time when 60 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup say they don't trust the media.

Viewers can expect to see six to eight more spots running on Comedy Central between now and election day, the spokesman said.

The ads will target news sources and personalities, according to a press release.

So what are we to make of all this? Comedy Central has always said it does comedy, not news. By highlighting that it is now the go-to source for political news and analysis, especially for younger viewers, is the network finally acknowledging that it is more than just a place for a good laugh?

Comedy Central declined to be interviewed for this story, but what the business side of the TV network does to try to raise ad rates or attract advertising doesn’t necessarily reveal the editorial intent or mindset of Stewart and his writers, said Tom Rosenstiel, Founder and Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In 2007, Stewart landed on a list of journalists Americans most admired. Among people under 30, he ranked top on the list that included NBC’s Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw as well as Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper. After that happened, Pew studied the show for a year and released a report in 2008 that found The Daily Show closely resembles the news agenda of cable news programs and talk radio.

“Comedy Central isn't trying to do the news, but they are trying to comment on the news,” Rosenstiel told Poynter in a telephone interview. Some of what they do is journalistic, but their main goal is entertainment, he added.

The shows use tape archives that show how news-makers are using the same talking points over and over to reveal the repetition as political spin or to show how people have changed their stories or have contradicted themselves. “That’s a journalistic act,” said Rosenstiel. “They’re using archives as a documentary tool. They do a very good job of that. In many ways they sometimes do a better job of that than anybody else on television.”

In a 2009 interview with Poynter, "Daily Show" writer Elliott Kalan said, “I feel like there are lot of critics of the government but there are very few critics of the media who have an audience and are credible and keep a watch on things ... That’s a role that we provide that we take very seriously.”

Who is watching

In addition to the often scathing coverage of politicians and the news media it already provides on the network's two highest-rated shows, Comedy Central adjusted the broadcast schedules for both "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" to accommodate the two national political conventions. The decision paid off. According to Nielsen, both shows spiked in viewership and the network announced that it had bested CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC in head-to-head competition during the Republican National Convention last month, a fact Comedy Central touted in a press release calling attention to its "ratings victory" over the cable news channels and their post-convention coverage.

Nielsen data shows that "The Daily Show" usually averages about 1.5 million viewers per night, but on the second night of the Republican confab in Tampa, Fla., 1.8 million people tuned in live to watch Stewart’s post-convention analysis. Viewership reached as high as 1.7 million live viewers on the first night of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. Unlike "The Daily Show," which sent an entire crew including Stewart to cover the conventions, "The Colbert Report" remained in New York. It usually averages 1.1. million viewers who watch live, but viewership spiked as high as 1.4 million on the final day of the GOP convention and 1.3 million on the last day of the Democratic convention.

Comedy Central announced that it was the “choice among the crucial youth vote” who tuned into its “award-winning political coverage” of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" “in greater numbers than Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN in the head-to-head battle during the Republican National Convention.” The network was the top-rated and most viewed among adults 18-34, men 18-34 and the coveted advertiser demographic of adults 18-49.

Last year, "The Daily Show" topped all cable and broadcast nightly talk shows among adults 18 to 49. Both it and "The Colbert Report" are especially popular among men 18-34. And while audiences for all three cable news channels are aging and stagnating, Comedy Central's shows are actually growing viewership. In 2011, "The Daily Show" audience rose by seven percent, while "The Colbert Report" grew by two percent, according to data released by the network, based on Nielsen research (here and here).

The fact that Comedy Central's post-political convention ratings were higher during the RNC meeting than during the DNC confab may suggest that Democratic viewers chose to watch more serious coverage of their own convention a week later, Rosenstiel suggested, or it could be an indicator of where the hosts of the two shows fall on the ideological political spectrum: Stewart is viewed by many as a liberal; Colbert parodies a conservative news host, but is also seen as liberal. Something that doesn't escape the Fox News Channel.

The debate

Shortly after Comedy Central ran its ad targeting his network, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," challenged Stewart to a live debate. Stewart accepted. The two have appeared on each other's shows in the past, but this is the first time they will meet for what Stewart described as an "old-fashioned duel of the wits."

The debate will take place Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C. As with the actual presidential and vice presidential debates, Stewart and O'Reilly will spar at a college, The George Washington University, suggesting that there will be an educational element to the event in addition to humor. But money will change hands.

While the contests between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will be free for people to attend, the rumble between Stewart and O'Reilly will cost $100 a ticket to see in person, or $4.95 to watch live online. Half the proceeds will go to charity, the hosts said.

The 90-minute debate will be moderated by E. D. Hill, a former Fox News anchor who recently reported on the RNC for The Blaze, a conservative news and opinion website. In addition to contending with each other, Stewart and O'Reilly will also take questions from the audience.

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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