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Saturday, October 25th, 2014


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Daily Show, Colbert Report, and The Onion = Big Bucks

Back in September, I reported on the troubles of college newspapers and yearbooks, how the trend of declining sales and decreased ad revenue for traditional print media was now taking its toll on college publications as well. I think we can all agree that the old-fashioned newspaperman doesn’t have it easy any more. Just last week, Henry Blodget’s blog post "New York Times Running on Fumes" for the Silicon Alley Insider was all over the web. "The company has only $46 million of cash," Blodget wrote. "It appears to be burning more than it is taking in — and plugging the hole with debt.

Specifically, it is funding operations by rolling over short-term loans – the kind that banks worldwide are cancelling or making prohibitively expensive to save their own skins."

However, 24-hour cable news stations, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, have all done well, with a steady rise in 5 year profits (though consistently less than economic projections.

And of course alternative free-press publications, blogs, and ezines continue to do well, but there is another sort of "news" source that has been drawing in more and more of the market share over the past 3 or 4 years: fake news.

I’m talking, of course, about the success of satirical publications like The Onion, and fake news programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, all of which have had more than enough to "report on" in the 2nd term of one of the most unpopular presidents in our nations history — and all of which became increasingly popular as a result.

You may remember around the end of 2003, when Jon Stewart turned up on the cover of Newsweek for their annual "Who’s Next" issue. Or the November 2006 cover of Rolling Stone with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both, and the title "America’s Anchors" in the feature story therein respected journalist Maureen Dowd said "they may truly be the most trusted names in news." Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report also run episodes on internet TV sites like Hulu and offer downloads from iTunes, not to mention the success of www.TheDailyShow.com, which offers more than 1600 episodes available for free streaming—with some commercial advertisement and sponsorship of course.

The Daily Show got its start in 1996, with host Craig Kilborn, who after taking an offer from CBS in 1998 to host the new “Late Late Show,” was replaced by stand-up comedian Jon Stewart. Since then the show’s ratings have been on the rise, now averaging roughly 1.5 million viewers per night, high for cable TV, and their interview last week with Barack Obama earned them their highest night of ratings ever, with more than 3.5 million viewers.

Such a high-profile political appearance is not uncommon of course, as candidates (Democrats and Republicans alike) consider both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report necessary stops on the campaign trail to win support from 18-34 year olds. John Edwards in fact announced his 2004 Presidential bid on the Daily Show and John McCain has made no less than ten appearances in the past six years. Both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report have won multiple Emmy and Peabody awards, and rank in the top five Comedy Central shows.

The Onion has been around since 1988; founded by Tim Keck and Christopher, then two juniors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and originally supported by ad revenue from local restaurants and small businesses. The Onion is now distributed free in 11 cities across America (with a print circulation of nearly 700,000), has published 9 collected volumes, and produced its own feature film, The Onion Movie. Since starting the online edition in 1996, they’ve expanded to include the A/V Club, which regularly features film/music reviews and interviews, and the Onion News Network, daily online video parodies, for which the site has invested more than $1 million and hired 15 new staffers.

According to the 2008 MediaKit, online readership runs at an average of more than 5 million unique monthly visitors (the AV Club recently passed 1 million). According to a 2003 CNN article, The Onion, which started with only an $8000 loan from Keck’s mother, was by 1994 "generating $1 million a year in ad revenue and a few hundred thousand dollars in profit." Annual revenues really took off after The Onion started up the website. One article in particular, "Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia: Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients," was a viral Internet hit, and was read in its entirety on NPR’s hit radio show "Car Talk." The Onion now averages more than $10 million in annual profit. Not bad for just making it all up.

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