John Oliver Is the Year’s Most Important Person in Television

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by HBO and Getty Images
Announcing...The Most Important Person in Television
Photo-illustrations by Maya Robinson

All this week, the Vulture TV Awards honor the best television from the past year.

The nominees are:

John Oliver
Greg Berlanti
Shonda Rhimes
Reed Hastings
Michele Ganeless


And the Most Important Person in TV is ...

John Oliver

When Charlie Rose presented John Oliver with a Peabody Award last month, he insisted that, no matter how often the HBO host protests, “He really is a journalist.” Rose’s characterization was accurate, of course — but also too narrow. Oliver isn’t just a comic who commits journalism from time to time. He’s not a purveyor of “fake news,” as Jon Stewart has mockingly called himself for years. Instead, perhaps without even realizing it, Oliver has emerged as a sort of modern mash-up of two of the 20th century’s biggest TV news icons: Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.

Like Cronkite, he’s our trusted, truth-telling anchor. He uses his platform to educate and inform, something almost everyone in TV news has given up trying to do. Uncle Walter told us “the way it is”; Oliver does exactly that every Sunday. Working with his staff of writers and researchers, Oliver also regularly channels the spirit of 60 Minutes bulldog Wallace. He is a fearless investigator, confronting wrongdoers not by showing up with a camera crew, but by methodically laying out the charges against various villains with cold, hard data. At a time when network newscasts have become irrelevant to anyone under 60, and cable news has abandoned any pretense of being interested in actual reporting, the team behind the year-old Last Week Tonight have created TV’s most essential half-hour. And that makes Oliver the most important person in TV right now.

In the past, the fact that Oliver hosts a single, weekly 30-minute show — one that has never reached more than 2 million viewers in its initial telecast — would have almost automatically disqualified him from topping any sort of power list. But Oliver’s sway can’t be fully captured by Nielsen numbers, though his ratings are good and getting better (the halo effect from Game of Thrones has helped). Instead, his show’s importance stems from the fact that it often has had “an actual, demonstrable impact on public consciousness,” as our Matt Zoller Seitz wrote last November. That clearly was the case with Oliver’s crusade for net neutrality: The massive online response it inspired helped push the Obama administration to move to a more consumer-friendly position on the matter. Last Week Tonight has also moved the needle numerous other times, prompting online buzz and follow-up reporting from other outlets on a range of issues: civil forfeiture, tobacco marketing, patent trolls, and the Miss America pageant. And Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden generated headlines around the world and did more to humanize the whistleblower than a sit-down with Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer.

 Beyond his ability to come up with stories that resonate among media elites, politicians, and what often seems the entirety of Twitter, Oliver is also doing something incredibly valuable for the medium of television by reconnecting it to its roots as a tool for instruction and change. TV has seen an explosion of channels and content during the past two decades, but there’s actually been a radical reduction in shows and personalities devoted to using it for good. Until the early 1980s, the broadcast networks all felt a need to produce investigative documentaries to expose and educate societal ills, from Harvest of Shame to The Selling of the Pentagon. Even when that era faded, remnants of responsibility remained for a while: Network newsmagazines (including 60 Minutes) still found time for serious stories amid the fluff, Ted Turner–era CNN offered plenty of in-depth reporting, and even daytime talk shows such as Donahue and The Oprah Winfrey Show sometimes served as platforms for discussion of serious issues.

Now, the Big Three nightly newscasts are just slightly more serious versions of their morning news counterparts. Similarly, there’s virtually no actual news or reporting left in cable news, where anchors only get noticed when they do something stupid (Don Lemon) or say something inflammatory (pick a Fox News staffer, any Fox News staffer). Fox News as an organization clearly has plenty of power and does shape the agenda of an entire political party. But its power stems not from any single individual on-air personality — not even Bill O’Reilly — but from the fact that virtually everyone on the channel is charged with the singular goal of advancing the network’s ideology.  

Like his mentor, Jon Stewart, Oliver has said many times he sees himself as nothing more than a comedian, someone trying to give people a laugh at the end of the week. He half-jokingly responded to Rose’s Peabody introduction by calling it “bullshit.” And when he appeared on Rose’s CBS This Morning back in April, he said his British heritage prevented him from paying attention to all the plaudits coming his way these days. “I’m not a big fan of myself, so I don’t understand why anyone else is,” he said. (Oliver also declined a request to be interviewed for this story, most likely because he didn’t want to give any credence to the notion that he may be the most important person in TV right now.) It’s understandable why he’s uncomfortable with the acclaim: His show’s mission statement is not to be an important source of news or analysis. In a better TV universe, the idea of a former supporting cast member of Community and The Daily Show such as Oliver being named the most important person in television might be ridiculous — not because he wouldn’t still be great, or his show any less good,  but because there’d be so many more serious options. In the world we do live in, Oliver is an oasis. Hopefully, he’ll also prove to be something else: an inspiration to those so-called “real” TV journalists to start doing better.