John Oliver is becoming a god; or, at the very least, a guy in a toga ascending Earth’s meridian via a complex system of wires and pulleys. Since the premiere of his half-hour comedy news-show Last Week Tonight on HBO last year, the British comedian’s reputation has taken flight, so much so that his weekly fifteen-minute segments have started influencing global politics.
This phenomenon has become known as the “Oliver Effect”.
Since the “Oliver Effect” is mainly a sociological anomaly, and we, as geeks, are anomalies to anything involving the word “social”, we decided to sit down with Scott Golder, a staff sociologist at Context Relevant and PhD candidate from Cornell, to get some perspective on the “Oliver Effect.”
The “Oliver Effect” lacks a crisp definition, so when Golder asked me to define the Effect for the sake of our interview I couldn’t. All I could do was cite a few examples of events that occurred in close proximity to Oliver’s show. There are many reasons why the Effect is hard to describe.
For starters, the Effect permeates through media and the Internet rather than law or policy. “The idea,” says Golder, “is that on the shows these comedians host, they mention a particular issue and suddenly that issue brings attention from others in the media and popular consciousness.” Identifying what the Effect impacts directly is next-to-impossible unless someone comes out and gives Oliver credit.
Then there’s the fact that there’s a slight cultural bias to the Effect: some of Oliver’s segments have produced notable results, while others have influenced no action whatsoever. “For example,” Golder said, “one of my favorite segments [sic] that Oliver did was on the rise of payday lenders in poor communities. Great segment, but it didn’t have nearly the same impact as the FIFA or the Net Neutrality one did.”
With cultural bias in mind, one has to wonder if audience demographics plays into the Effect at all. Oliver’s audience is largely comprised of two types of people: those who can afford HBO or it’s Apple-based mobile compatriot, HBO Now, and those who can’t and are motivated enough to seek out Oliver’s weekly musings on YouTube or go the extra step and pirate each episode in its entirety.
Golder said that audience demographic is definitely a “plausible explanation” behind the way we measure the Effect’s impact and that there basically is no single “driving reason” for why the Effect has been working so well, but he also posited an interesting example of something comedians like Oliver do that could be playing a significant part in their power over popular culture.
“The effect that these guys are having,” he said, “is partly an effect of them doing things outside of their TV programs. They’re not just discussing an issue and then the cultural impact follows through. For example, [Stephen] Colbert started his SuperPAC and he and [Jon] Stewart had their rally a couple of years ago; they’ve testified before Congress; John Oliver bought airtime on Trinidadian television; they’re very much trying to engage with the world outside of just what they’re doing through their television shows, and I think that that’s different because the other late night hosts, other comedians, don’t necessarily do that.”
“These guys have much smaller audiences than their network peers,” he continued, “By having a smaller more specific audience, these guys, the Colberts, the Stewarts, the Olivers, can speak to the specific concerns of the specific audiences that are watching them.”