Last night, Jon Stewart hosted his last Daily Show episode. Also last night, Fox News hosted the first presidential candidate debate of this election cycle. It was a mile marker night for politics on television. It's just a shame the former won't be here today, to give us his insights into the latter.
Political TV looks very different now than it did when Stewart took the host seat at the Daily Show in 1999. We thought this would be a good time to review some of the research documenting the rising importance and popularity of satirical shows, like Stewart's, to young, liberal voters. Over the last decade or so:
1. SATIRE SHOWS CAPTURE YOUNG AUDIENCES EVEN AS TV NEWS LOSES THEM
In 2006, 42 percent of American adults under age 30 watched local television news, the Pew Research Center found. By 2012, that figure dropped to 28 percent. Meanwhile, satirical programs held their ground as the one TV news source that young people did watch. The largest portions of the Colbert Report's and the Daily Show's audiences were 18 to 29 years old, in contrast to the audiences of CNN (ages 30 to 49), Fox News (50 to 64), and MSNBC (50 to 64).
2. SATIRE SHOWS EFFECTIVELY TEACH THEIR VIEWERS ABOUT POLITICAL ISSUES
Although Stewart and other satire hosts have publicly said their goal is entertainment above education, a few studies have demonstrated satirical news shows' ability to inform. One well-known study found that watching the Colbert Report's segment on super PACs increased people's knowledge of campaign finance regulations. Another survey found watchers of Last Week Tonight, the Colbert Report, and the Daily Show knew more about net neutrality than those who got their news from newspapers, online publications, or cable news.
3. SATIRE SHOWS UNDERMINE VIEWERS' CONFIDENCE IN OTHER TV NEWS
Satire news hosts often make fun of cable news stations. Stewart, in particular, earned fame for appearing as a guest on CNN's now-defunct Crossfire, and promptly telling the hosts their show was "hurting America." On another occasion, Stewart invited finance show host Jim Cramer onto the Daily Show—and took the opportunity to openly criticize Cramer. All this has an effect: A study published earlier this year found that viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report had more negative views of cable news. Perhaps that explains the networks' above-mentioned drop-off in young viewership.
Stewart leaves behind a number of political TV satirists in his tradition, including Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Larry Wilmore. It will be interesting to watch how they shape the political landscape in this coming election and ones to come. They've certainly got some big shoes to fill.