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The Popularity of Parody TV News Programming

When a person thinks of television news, what probably comes to mind is the local nightly news or 24-hour cable news stations such as CNN, MSNBC or FOX News. Increasingly, however, audiences are tuning into satirical news programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” for current events information as well as entertainment. It seems that this is especially true for younger generations of TV watchers.

According to the PEW Research Center, 43 percent of viewers of The Colbert Report and 39 percent of viewers of The Daily show are ages 18 to 29. This is a big difference from 19 percent that watch FOX News or the 13 percent that watch NPR. So, what does this mean, and is parody news seen as a legitimate news source for younger audiences?

While, Jon Stewart would argue, and has, that “The Daily Show” isn’t meant to be taken seriously, the show continues to grow in popularity while cable news networks viewership is in decline. Another PEW Research Center study from 2007 found that viewers of parody news programs, such as those previously mentioned, reported the highest knowledge of national and international affairs.

A study by Indiana University found that “The Daily Show” is just about as substantive as network news programming. Indiana University’s assistant professor of telecommunications Julia R. Fox, said this about “The Daily Show,” “You have real newsmakers coming on, and yes, sometimes the banter and questions get a little silly, but there is also substantive dialogue going on … It’s a legitimate source of news.” As an example, recent guests on “The Daily Show” have included Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “The Colbert Report” has also featured prominent figures, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Bill Gates.

So, what is it that makes news programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” so popular? Perhaps it’s the fact that these programs air on Comedy Central, a television station well known for inducing laughter among the 18-35 age bracket. These two programs in particular are short 30-minute segments of what’s been going on in the country and the world that day. While they do present news and factual information, they do so in an entertaining way. Short clips are shown, typically followed by comedic commentary. Fake news anchors parody real-life events, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It’s very different than the much more serious 24-hour news circuit.

One thing that people love about these types of parody news programs like Jon Stewarts’ is that they call out hypocrisy and make a point to show how real reporters and new agencies just aren’t doing their jobs properly sometimes. Stewart sure does like to make an example of FOX News, though every journalist and every news agency (regardless of policial affiliation) is fair game.

In 2004, Jon Stewart was a guest on FOX News’ program “Crossfire.” During his interview, Stewart criticized television journalism and called for “Crossfire”‘s Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America.” He has also been a guest on other news programs, such as the “The O’Reilly Factor.”

This isn’t to say that viewers should get their information solely from comedic news sources, but it is interesting to see the differences in how younger generations are getting their news compared to older generations.

Though, to be fair, “The Daily Show” isn’t all fun and games. It may be a comedy, first and foremost, but Stewart does a good job at pointing out some important issues regarding the United States’ journalism industry. When he’s not making jokes, he’s serious about issues such as journalistic integrity and politics. This summer, Stewart is taking a break from ‘The Daily Show” to direct “Rosewater,” an adaptation of a book written by a BBC journalist who was captured and held for 118 days during the Iranian presidential elections in 2009.

A professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State University, Sophia McClennen, did research on how satire is shaping the younger generations of America. She notes that more and more young people are turning to parody news programs because they are seeking more engaging sources of news and information. On a more important note, she also points out that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, while entertaining these younger audiences, are also raising awareness about important issues. McClennen surmises that after young people watch these parody news programs, they are then seeking out more information on the issues that were presented in the program.

Leading up to the most recent election, Super PACs–committees that can raise unlimited funds to advocate for or against a political candidate–played a large role. Stephen Colbert created his own Super PAC, which was approved by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). While Colbert’s PAC didn’t actual do very much, it was a good vehicle for informing the public about what a Super PAC actually is and can do. On the Colbert Nation website, viewers can see clips from the show’s episodes that focused on Super PACs, a definition of what a Super PAC is and even a copy of the FEC Advisory Opinion granting Colbert permission to create a Super PAC.

The FEC Advisory Opinion on Colbert’s Super PAC also points out how “The Colbert Report” provides “commentary on political discourse in the United States.” In 2008, Colbert ran in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary election, which was covered on his show.

Later on in 2010, Colbert and Stewart hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear.” While it was meant to be satire, Colbert and Stewart did mean for the event to bring awareness to issues with the media and propaganda involved with politics. In a moment of sincerity, Stewart said at the rally, “his was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.” Stewart and Colbert also used the event to raise money for two different charities: Donorschoose.org and Trust for the National Mall.

Satirical or parody TV news keeps young audiences entertained, but there’s also a more serious aspect. These shows highlight some important issues within journalism and politics in the United States. Though audiences are laughing, they are also still becoming informed and thinking critically about what they’ve seen on the show.

Let us know what you think of parody news television programs. If you watch these kinds of television news programs, is it for the entertainment or do you rely on it to get the facts? What do you think of the PEW research data?

Younger generations prefer news programs that are much different than that which traditional nightly news or 24-hour cable news present. It will be interesting to see how these types of programs and presentations of the news continue to change and evolve as time goes on.

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