How John Oliver Transformed the Net Neutrality Debate Once and for All
It started with a case of coyote urine.
Before June 1, 2014, just four episodes of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver had aired. The weekly, half-hour HBO show took on current affairs from comedic angle. Conceptually in debt to Oliver's alma mater, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight nonetheless aimed for deeper dives on abstruse subjects, hardly a tried-and-true recipe for TV success. But as the fifth show began at 11 pm that Sunday, the British comedian introduced his latest explainer, joking that the Internet had vastly increased access to everything from cat pictures to "a case of coyote urine."
What followed was an acclaimed segment on net neutrality, that not only created significant buzz for his show but gave a bump to a political movement that will score its biggest victory to date on Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission is expected to buck cable companies, the GOP, and its own previous stance, to ensure protections for Oliver's beloved open-access Internet for millions of Americans.
During his 13-minute segment, Oliver name-checked Netflix, Google, Usain Bolt, Superman, the game Monopoly, and Mein Kampf, and compared the FCC hiring former cable company lobbyists to "needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo."
"Our government looks set to end net neutrality," Oliver warned, but there was a way to save it: The FCC was taking comments on rules. "Seize your moment, my lovely trolls," Oliver implored at the segment's climax as music swelled. "Turn on caps lock, and fly, my pretties!"
And it worked. "By Monday, the FCC’s commenting system had stopped working, thanks to more than 45,000 new comments on net neutrality likely sparked by Oliver," the Washington Post's Soraya Nadia McDonald reported on June 4. Oliver "may be just the firebrand activist we’re looking for."
Net neutrality can be a mind-numbing concept. Oliver called it "even boring by C-SPAN standards." At heart, it's the policy that Internet providers (like a cable company) can't charge content providers (like Netflix) to speed up delivery of their goods. Net neutrality advocates, like President Obama and now FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, say it's what makes the Internet the relatively democratic place it is. Opponents like Senators Ted Cruz and John Thune say it will eliminate rewards for successful innovation.
Oliver wrangled a whole lot of advocates on June 1.
The Verge printed emails supposedly from actual FCC officials calling the segment "classic" and "Priceless!!!!!!" and saying, "We had a good laugh about it. The cable companies... not so much."
In November, just days after Obama endorsed net neutrality, the late New York Times media critic David Carr quoted a Twitter policy spokesman as saying that "a meeting of lobbyists and policy types... thought Mr. Oliver’s piece trumped many other efforts."
“We all agreed that John Oliver’s brilliant net neutrality segment explained a very complex policy issue in a simple, compelling way that had a wider reach than many expensive advocacy campaigns,” the spokesman, Nu Wexler, said.
Today, a video of the segment that was posted to the show's YouTube account has received more than 8 million views.
"Oliver gave us a great moment to rally around, and a hilarious video to share," Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, an advocacy group that has been fighting for net neutrality for more than a decade, wrote in an email to Bloomberg on Wednesday.
To be sure, the fight was far bigger than Oliver's segment. Karr pointed to "dozens of advocacy organizations with email lists that numbered in the tens of millions." Politico called the fight "a lobbying bonanza" on par with health care reform. Nor are the gains sure to hold, as Republicans have vowed to come up with an alternative to the rules.
John Oliver hasn't said much about the segment's impact, but the FCC's Wheeler did.
"I think that it represents the high level of interest that exists in the topic in the country, and that's good," he said, choosing his words carefully at a hearing on June 13 when asked what he thought of the segment. "You know… I would like to state for the record that I'm not a dingo."
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