By Thomas Goetz
Wake up, television executives of America: Jon Stewart – the wiseacre host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show – knows more about your business than you do. Sure, The Daily Show may just seem like a smart comedy program on basic cable; nothing more than good political satire and a spot-on parody of TV news pieties. But it’s also a demonstration of television done right. In the six years since Stewart took over, the audience for The Daily Show has grown almost threefold to 1.4 million viewers a night. It boasts a legion of young, smart fans who are among the most demographically desirable audiences in the industry – further collapsing the caste distinctions between networks and cable. It has raised the bar for tie-ins, with a best-seller (America [The Book] has sold a stunning 2.5 million copies), a hit DVD (Indecision 2004), and – starting in October – a full-fledged spinoff (The Colbert Report). And The Daily Show may be the most popular TV program on the Internet:
Between blog links and BitTorrent downloads, hundreds of thousands of people watch clips online each day rather than on TV. In other words, in form if not in tone, Stewart’s Daily Show offers a glimpse of what all TV may one day become: something we can consume in many distillations, at a time, place, and device of our choosing.
Stewart likes to protest that he doesn’t pay any mind to this. All he and his crew do, he says, “is try and put out a funny, well-written show about current events.” But push a bit and he shows himself to be a savvy observer and critic of his industry. Not entirely surprising: He’s spent 15 years in cable and syndicated television, a stint that includes three failed MTV projects. And his scorching critique of television on CNN’s Crossfire last fall was so dead-on that the network’s president cited Stewart’s indictment when he canceled the show in January. Wired sat down with Stewart and Ben Karlin – The Daily Show’s executive producer, Stewart’s partner at Busboy Productions, and a guy who can finish Stewart’s sentences – for a conversation about television: where it might go, and whether Stewart will get there first. (more…)