Stephen Colbert is not only funnier than any cable news show—although Fox News can be unintentionally hilarious—he’s also better at informing his audience about the issues than traditional news outlets. That’s not just my opinion; it’s the conclusion of a study released Monday by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The study, “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson,” tested viewers of The Colbert Report, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, broadcast nightly news, talk radio, and newspapers to see who knew more about campaign finance issues. The results were amazing.
Those who watched Colbert were objectively better informed on the topic. Plus, Colbert’s show informed viewers of the facts at a greater rate than traditional news sources.
I was not shocked a bit by these results. Political comedy TV shows, and political comedians, aren’t just making people laugh. They are enlightening people about the issues. And often they are providing more nuanced information than mainstream media outlets.
Here are a few jokes from Colbert that illustrate my point:
“This is America. I don’t want my tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”
“Join me in standing up against any actual knowledge about guns. Let the CDC know they can take away our ignorance when they pry it from our cold, dead minds.”
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
With each joke, viewers laugh and learn. That’s in stark contrast to Fox News, whose viewers get angry and dumber.
Colbert has proved that learning about the news of the day doesn’t have to be the equivalent of taking bad-tasting medicine. Think of that horrible syrup in brown bottles we were forced to drink as kids that made our faces contort in grotesque shapes as we gulped it down. Sure, we knew it was good for us, but we didn’t enjoy it.
Well, that’s how many of us feel when we watch cable news shows. By contrast, The Colbert Report is good for us, and it tastes like red velvet cake frozen yogurt. (And not the fat-free kind, either.)
Here’s one more bit of info not part of the Annenberg study that may be of interest to cable news big shots. Shows like Colbert, The Daily Show, and Real Time with Bill Maher not only entertain and inform people, they also attract viewers who would never watch a traditional newscast.
Why does that matter? Because the audience for cable news shows is shrinking—even CNN’s head honcho, Jeff Zucker, recently acknowledge as much.
Just take a look at the ratings for last month. True, May can be a slow month for cable news, but this one was a disaster. Fox News had its lowest ratings in prime time in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic in 12 years. CNN had its lowest-watched 9 p.m. hour in the history of the network. And MSNBC had its lowest prime-time ratings since 2006.
And the audience for cable news shows is far older than Colbert’s median viewer age of 42. How old are we talking? In May, the median age for MSNBC and CNN viewers was 62, while Fox News clocked in at 69.Keep in mind that the average life expectancy of an American is 78.
If I were a cable news executive I might have two takeaways after seeing the “Colbert” study and the ratings in May. The first is to try more alternative ways to give people the news. CNN is doing just that with its documentary series The Sixties, which won its time slot last week in the demographic advertisers covet.
The second takeaway is not to be afraid of comedy. Still, I’ve spoken to producers and executives at various cable news networks who believe it’s sacrilegious for people to laugh while learning about certain news stories.
Here’s some “breaking news” for those cable execs: The “Colbert” study tells us that they can indeed deliver the news with some humor—and that Colbert did a better job of informing his audience of the facts than they did.
Look, I’m not recommending doing a rip of Colbert or The Daily Show. But they shouldn’t view funny as the enemy of news. The two can be great friends.
And to those cable news execs who might want to take a chance on a political comedy show or segment, I just want to mention that I’m available and will work for cheap—I’m talking bus fare and one or two Snapple iced teas (preferably lemon-flavored).