In the last few weeks political candidates have flocked to get on Comedy Central's so-called fake news show, as if it were "Meet the Press" or "Larry King Live." The show won two Emmys last week and has featured, among others, Sen. John Kerry, running mate Sen. John Edwards, former President Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain. The attraction-to marketers and politicos alike-is the show's prized 18-to-34 demographic, its rapidly rising viewer numbers and its growing influence in reaching young voters.
"Jon is a bona fide media star, a pundit," said Hank Close, Comedy Central exec VP-advertising sales. In promoting his new book, (No. 1 last week on Amazon.com) "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction," Mr. Stewart has appeared on everything from "The Tonight Show" to Howard Stern's radio show. During his recent appearance on Fox News Network's "The O'Reilly Factor," the host expressed his concern about Mr. Stewart's growing sway. "Eighty-seven percent are intoxicated when they watch it," Mr. O'Reilly claimed.
Intoxicated or not, the audience is increasingly coveted by advertisers. The median age of "The Daily Show" viewer for the third quarter of this year-the period covering the Democratic and Republican conventions-was 35.7, compared with a median age of 60-plus for news for the three major networks. Its viewership, at 1.1 million, is up 20% this year, attracting a 0.74 rating for the third quarter, just behind "The O'Reilly Factor," at 0.76, and more than double that of CNN's Lou Dobbs, with a 0.3 rating, both in the same time slot. Both Mr. Dobbs and Mr. O'Reilly brought in substantially older viewers, 58 and 57, respectively.
The influence of "The Daily Show" is growing along with its audience. A June study released in June by the Pew Research Center found some 20% of young voters got their news from Mr. Stewart's show, "Saturday Night Live" and other programs like them. "Certainly there is an evolution in the way people get their news and the youngest people are in the forefront of this change," said Carroll Doherty, editor of the report. "They have abandoned the networks" but are sticking with cable networks and the Internet, he said.
Marketers are taking notice. "It's in advertisers' sweet spot," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-corporate research director, Horizon Media. "Young people are the least likely to read a newspaper or watch TV news. "[`The Daily Show'] is one show that really has found a niche."
Mr. Close said Comedy Central has added 50 new advertisers this year, "and `The Daily Show' is a good piece of that." He said the show has broken category barriers for the network, bringing in financial-service and insurance advertisers, as well as increasing the network's share of budget in existing categories that include Hollywood Studios, video games, automotive, beverages, quick-service restaurants and technology companies. "It is a very, very strong driver of our revenue," said Mr. Close.
Cingular Wireless this year for the first time bought one of four sponsorships on Comedy Central's "Indecision 2004" package that includes 1,000 30-second spots running from February to November, as well as 15 million to 20 million Internet impressions, said Charlie Payne, media director-advertising.
"We are targeting youth with a holistic initiative and Comedy Central is a terrific buy against youth," she said, noting that about 20% of Cingular's 25 million voice and data subscribers are between 13 and 24. She said the company has no concerns about the show's tackling, albeit in a humorous way, touchy election issues such as the war in Iraq detailed in an occasional segment called "Mess O Potamia."
General Motors Corp.'s service-parts operation, the unit handling Mr. Goodwrench, is a sponsor of "The Daily Show" Web site. "We like the humor," said a spokeswoman. "It improves recall." She also said the show is strong with the target audience: GM owners 24 to 54 years old, with a 50/50 male-female split, what she calls "Starbucks suburbanites." Comedian Stephen Colbert, a "senior correspondent" on "The Daily Show," is a spokesman for Mr. Goodwrench.
Comedy Central senior VP-Marketing Cathy Tankosic, noting presidential elections roll around only every four years, is capitalizing on "The Daily Show." Initial marketing efforts centered in New York with billboards and ads in The New York Times that ran near the GOP convention. A push breaks later this month with ads in magazines such as Newsweek and Time, as well as on cable systems in 15 top markets leading up to Mr. Stewart's live election-night coverage.
The war in Iraq, the economy and other issues in this year's election have given Mr. Stewart much fodder and drawn draw important figures to his stage. But Mr. Stewart has, in numerous interviews, insisted he is simply a comedian, and the purpose of the show is solely entertainment.
But is Mr. Stewart's cocked-eyebrow delivery satire, or keen political commentary? The fact that it's not clear, according to one University of California Los Angeles assistant professor of political science and communication studies, makes Mr. Stewart all the more powerful.
"Saying it's fake lets him get away with a lot," said Matthew A. Baum, who has been surveying students' political viewing habits since the late 1990s, with "The Daily Show" coming up among the top influencers. "Really good propaganda isn't recognized as propaganda," he said.
Bob Gardner, president of Gardner Geary Coll, San Francisco, and a longtime GOP media strategist, doubted "The Daily Show" would influence the outcome of the election. "We go through this every [presidential election] cycle," he said. Political operatives eye MTV's "Rock the Vote" or "The Daily Show" as this year's phenomenon that's going to ignite the youth vote. "It never happens."