Why Jon Stewart Matters More Than Keith Olbermann

Why Jon Stewart Matters More Than Keith Olbermann
Why Jon Stewart Matters More Than Keith Olbermann

Earlier this year Comedy Central's Jon Stewart called MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on the carpet for making some mean-spirited comments about Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown. The host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann eventually conceded that his Daily Show critic was right.

This week, Olbermann went after Stewart again over comments he made during last weekend's Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, which the newsman said "jumped the shark" in its criticism of cable news networks. Olbermann took particular umbrage that Stewart equated his divisive behavior to that of his right-wing counterparts at Fox News.

Now, it looks like the comic's observations have hit home again.

On the air last night, Olbermann announced he was suspending his show's well-known "Worst Person in the World" segment indefinitely, and is likely going to scrap it outright. That part of the broadcast was Olbermann's chance to vent at things that amused or annoyed him. Mostly, though, it was a vehicle for him to unload on his mortal enemy: Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Though the segment was informative at times, it became shtick because O'Reilly was often dubbed the "Worst Person in the World."

"Media critics are certain predictably say that Olbermann somehow caved to Stewart's critique, but that would miss the point entirely," writes Colby Hall on the website Mediaite. "What Olbermann announced was remarkably sane, and regardless of where one finds him or herself on the political spectrum, he should be lauded."

Not Just a Bigger Audience, but a Better One

This is a huge change for Olbermann, whose recently penned book is named The Worst Person in the World: And 202 Strong Contenders. While toning down political rhetoric is a good thing, this episode underscores the idea that many people, particularly Democrats, may be far more interested in Stewart's opinions than they are in Olbermann's. In fact, Stewart, 47, has been the gift that keeps on giving for Comedy Central and its corporate parent Viacom (VIA) ever since he took over the hosting the The Daily Show in 1999. According to Advertising Age, Stewart's show generated $52.4 million in advertising revenue in 2009. The Colbert Report, which his production company produces, generated another $41.8 million, the trade publication notes. Stewart's contact with the network expires in June 2013, while Stephen Colbert's deal ends at the end of 2012.

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The average audience of the Daily Show is about 1.9 million viewers, and Colbert's viewership is about 1.3 million. Olbermann, by contrast, attracted about 1.07 million viewers to the 8 p.m. broadcast of the show during the week of Oct. 29. Both programs are also downloaded and DVRed by many people. News shows and entertainment shows are usually compared separately though in the case of Colbert and Stewart that line can be blurry. Moreover, Olbermann sometimes plays the news for laughs too. Ratings, though, don't tell the whole story.

For advertisers, the make-up of an audience can be as important as its size. Younger viewers are difficult to attract in today's fragmented media environment. For obvious reasons, well-heeled and educated audiences are attractive as well. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are rarities because they reach all the demographics advertisers want. In fact, the network was able to get Volkswagen and Reese's (a brand of The Hershey Co.) to sponsor Stewart's rally.

"It's does get a very narrowly defined niche audience," says Shari Anne Brill, media industry analyst and consultant, in an interview, of the The Daily Show. "They are definitely among the opinion leaders of their social group.

Beating the Late-Night Crowd

News shows have a difficult time attracting younger viewers. Advertisers, though, who may be interested in Olbermann's audience may not necessarily want to reach reach Stewart's and vice versa. Companies who are interested in reaching younger audiences will pay a premium to reach them. The Comedy Central shows that make fun of the news enjoy a huge advantage over the cable shows that they mock, and other players in the world of late-night TV.

Late-night network shows such as The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Show with David Letterman attract viewers whose average age is over 50, which in the eyes of some advertisers makes them older than Methuselah. MSNBC's average viewer is about 59. Nielsen estimates Stewart's average viewer is 39.5 and Colbert's is 36.8. The two shows also attract far more young male viewers than their counterparts on broadcast television. Their audiences also have median incomes above $60,000 a year, according to data provided by Comedy Central. By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the U.S. median household income at $52,029.

According to Comedy Central, Daily Show viewers are 63% more likely to be college educated, and Colbert Report viewers are 62% more likely to be college educated. They also are almost 30% more likely than other consumers to purchase or lease a vehicle, 23% more likely to buy a desktop or laptop computer and 21% more likely to purchase a flat-screen or plasma TV.

Though cable news is treated separately from entertainment, they are in the same business of delivering viewers to advertisers. It's a strange world, though, when Americans look to comedians to guide their political behavior.

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