With Jon Stewart Signing, HBO Continues Its Cultural Revolution

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2015

There’s something magical happening over at HBO, at least in this writer’s humble opinion. And it’s not just about Game of Thrones. Sure, we love the Thrones. But there’s also a kind of high-concept cultural revolution happening with HBO. It’s not just about quality television anymore. For the first time since it began using the slogan, it’s safe to say that it really isn’t TV anymore.

Today HBO announced that Jon Stewart, who left The Daily Show earlier this year after an unprecedented 16-year run, has signed a 4-year production pact. This will include, as HBO PR explained in its announcement, “short-form digital content, which will be showcased on HBO NOW, HBO GO and other platforms, and includes a first-look option for other film and TV ventures.”

Beyond the sheer joy that Jon Stewart, a voice that spoke to the Millennial generation throughout the prime of their lives, will continue to fight his war on bullshit, there’s something else we can take away from this announcement.

1. For HBO, it’s about platforms

The writing it on the wall for cable companies. Streaming services are ramping up, cords are being cut and devices like Apple’s new Apple TV are making it easier than ever to get the streaming content you want in an easy and inexpensive way. HBO is leading the way, launching its standalone HBO Now app last year just prior to Game of Thrones’ fifth season.

HBO is now more concerned than ever about how you watch HBO. A report in July said that HBO Now already has over 850,000 standalone subscribers, which is well on its way to targeting the 10 million or so people in the United States who have broadband internet, but do not subscribe to cable. It’s a strategy that HBO CEO Richard Plepler called “a millennial missile,” targeting millennials who have grown into the streaming ecosystems and demand that content be available all the time, on every device. HBO Now is the very important bedrock of this strategy. But there’s more to it.

2. The real “millennial missile” is the assortment of voices

Even in a week when a large corporation like ESPN shut down a website with cultural value like Grantland, we’re seeing progress with the idea that content really matters. HBO’s strategy of collecting and amplifying voices that speak to millennials is something that’s very interesting. It began with the emergence of Last Week Tonight following John Oliver’s migration from Daily Show correspondent to HBO host. Oliver’s show is a viral sensation.

The same is true of VICE, which has producing its own documentary series for the network since 2013. Earlier this year, HBO doubled down on VICE, signing a deal that would bring the daily VICE News shows to HBO Now. “I think that HBO is exactly doing the right thing,” explained VICE CEO Shane Smith in May following the announcement. “I think they’re moving into digital and OTT [stand-alone over-the-top service] as we’re moving into terrestrial and features at the same time. I think they are going to learn a lot from us about our demo, and we’re learning a lot from them about what to do on the terrestrial side.”

HBO continued its collecting of voices when it landed former ESPN star and Grantland founder Bill Simmons in June. The deal for Simmons includes a weekly talk show that will begin airing on HBO Go and HBO Now in Spring 2016, but it also includes caveats for the production of digital content including video, podcasts and a rumored website. As Simmons explained at the time, “It’s no secret that HBO is the single best place for creative people in the entire media landscape. From the moment I started talking to Michael and Richard, it was hard to imagine being anywhere else.”

Now they have added Jon Stewart.

A number of things have become clear about HBO’s strategy over the last two years. Above all else, they are pushing the streaming platform forward. HBO Now isn’t just an olive branch meant to get a little bit of money back from a generation that feels no shame in making Game of Thrones the most pirated television show in history. HBO Now is the future of HBO. And with that understanding, the decision makers at HBO are throwing money at the voices that matter to their target audience, millennials. They are then creating a place in which those voices can thrive. From a creative standpoint, there’s no better place for people like Oliver, Simmons and now Stewart to speak openly and honestly through their work. Whether it’s John Oliver taking on online harassment, VICE investigating the lasting effects of the BP Oil Spill or Bill Simmons punching back at ESPN and its cozy relationship with the NFL, HBO has created an environment in which its voices have become essential.

Other companies are dumping important cultural institutions. Netflix is betting on fictional content from deals with Marvel and Adam Sandler alongside its own original programming. Amazon and Hulu have made interesting, but small steps into their own original programming.

But for HBO, the cultural revolution is on. And this revolution will be streaming.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)