‘Last Week Tonight’ & YouTube: When pay cable content turns free online

Senior Television Writer
06.10.14 9 Comments


HBO's “Last Week Tonight” has come into its own in a very short period of time. It helps, of course, that John Oliver isn't doing anything significantly different from when he filled in as “The Daily Show” host last summer, but he and his creative team have taken advantage of the extra lead time that comes with doing only one show a week to really craft each segment and find every single bit of humor and indignation on that week's subject.

Case in point, this thorough explanation of the importance of net neutrality, which proved so effective that Oliver's fans temporarily crashed the FCC.gov servers when he sent them there to complain:

Or take this segment from this week's show, which is about as effective and funny a takedown of the despicable entity that is FIFA as one can imagine:

Now, what's most interesting to me isn't so much how quickly Oliver and company have figured out the show, but that HBO has been so willing to make so much of it – including lengthy 13-plus minute segments like the ones embedded above – available for free to non-subscribers.

HBO's whole business model is predicated on getting you to subscribe to the channel, which in turn requires you to get a  subscription to one of the many cable or satellite providers that pays HBO a tidy sum for that exclusivity. That's why there's been no movement on untethering the HBO Go service from having an HBO subscription, why the channel's recent Amazon Prime deal keeps current episodes of their shows off of Amazon until three years after they originally aired, etc. If it's easy to watch new HBO shows without paying an arm and a leg to Comcast and then another leg to HBO itself, then fewer people will want to subscribe, and the business falls apart.

HBO will from time to time make the first episode of a new show available on YouTube to entice potential subscribers, and they will sometimes post clips from their ongoing series, but they tend to be both brief and erratic in their posting. (Hunting down the best scenes from my favorite HBO shows when I want to embed clips into my annual best-of lists is always a pain.)

But if HBO hasn't put an entire “Last Week Tonight” onto YouTube since the series premiere, they've been more than willing to post large chunks of each episode.

I asked HBO's Chief Marketing Officer Pam Levine for the thinking behind this, and she wrote back, “There is no cookie-cutter approach to promoting a new show; every program demands its own strategy.  We are always looking for interesting ways for viewers to sample our programming and  with the topicality and timeliness of 'Last Week Tonight' we feel putting select clips on YouTube is an effective and simple way to allow audiences to see John”s unique take on the news events of the week.”

And in a way, “Last Week Tonight” isn't quite like anything else on HBO, with the possible exception of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” It's competing for buzz with the likes of “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and the various broadcast network late night shows, all of which at a minimum make the best segments from their shows readily available online in the hopes that they'll viral. If Oliver were to disappear behind HBO's paywall, it wouldn't make his show less funny, but he would disappear from a lot of cultural conversation. The net neutrality piece has been watched more than 3 million times already; the FIFA one nearly half that in just a few days.

Also, as a topical show, there's not going to be a very lucrative backend for “Last Week Tonight” the way there will for the Sunday night dramas and comedies that precede it. Amazon customers won't be interested in hearing his take on this year's Indian election in the year 2017, and there likely won't be expensive Blu-ray sets down the line. The show's primary value to HBO right now is in the channel being able to say that they have John Oliver doing brilliant political satire, and it helps if as many people as possible can see that.

Now, there's also a chance that this is all being done in hopes of getting viewers in the habit of watching “Last Week Tonight” live-ish on Sundays. I'm told HBO hasn't decided yet whether the YouTube gravy train will continue once the show has been around long enough to establish itself

But for the time being, “Last Week Tonight” has become a rare thing: a current HBO show that anyone can see and enjoy not long after the pay cable subscribers get to watch it.

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