Only one is laughing now.

Photographer: Scott Gries/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Stewart Matters More Than Williams

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NBC News anchor Brian Williams enjoys the limelight. But last night, he must have been happy to share it. Williams, we found out, has been suspended without pay for six months. By the time we heard of his punishment, we'd learned that "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart will leave his post -- permanently -- later this year.

There's only so much space in the news media navel, so the two stories jockeyed for our gaze in the after hours. In an evening of bad news for the news industry, however, Stewart's announcement is the heavier blow.

The nightly news at NBC will go on, anchored by Lester Holt until Williams does or does not return. But since Stewart took over "The Daily Show" on Viacom's Comedy Central in 1999, satirical news has supplanted network news in importance. A television landscape without Williams is a less sunny place; without Stewart it's a troubling one. Along with his Comedy Central accomplice Stephen Colbert (a "Daily Show" veteran), he made the funny news matter more than the real thing. (John Oliver, another "Daily Show" graduate, is gamely making his HBO comedy show a venue for similarly useful satire.)

Network news may be a slowly diminishing breed, with the kind of older audience that makes advertisers yawn, but it still dominates the seat-of-the-pants production of "The Daily Show." The average "NBC Nightly News" audience in 2008 was 8.56 million; by 2013, it was down only slightly to 8.43 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In the last week of January, "The Daily Show" had an average of 1.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen; that same week an average of 9.9 million viewers watched "NBC Nightly News." A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that 39 percent of regular "The Daily Show" viewers were 18-29, compared with 9 percent of network evening viewers. When asked four questions "to measure knowledge of political news and current events," "The Daily Show" viewers were significantly more likely to ace the test.

Source: Pew Research Center

It's not surprising. Just as Tina Fey did far more to shape interpretations of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 than the evening news, Stewart built the context -- a liberal one, surely -- to house some of our most crucial facts. As CNN's Stephen Collinson wrote:

When the Iraq war turned into a quagmire, Stewart turned his searing wit on the Bush administration's missteps and failures of the occupation with his long-running "Mess O' Potamia" segment. His daily lambasting of top Bush aides reflected and helped to shape the fast souring public mood on the war, which eventually provided the conditions for the rise of anti-war candidate Barack Obama in 2008.

There is also anecdotal evidence that "The Daily Show" matters more to some of the people who matter more.

I don't watch a lot of TV news. I don't watch cable at all. I like The Daily Show, so sometimes if I'm home late at night, I'll catch snippets of that. I think Jon Stewart's brilliant. It's amazing to me the degree to which he's able to cut through a bunch of the nonsense – for young people in particular, where I think he ends up having more credibility than a lot of more conventional news programs do. 

That's not a quote from a focus-group of millennials in Kalamazoo. It's from a 2012 Rolling Stone interview with U.S. President Barack Obama. He seems like a pretty good source.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net