Just in case it wasn’t abundantly obvious to any of the 200,000-plus in attendance how serious he was about his message, Jon Stewart closed his Rally to Restore Sanity (RRS) with a “moment of sincerity.”
By breaking from his jokes to deliver a straightfaced sermon, his concern about the ways cable news was poisoning our national dialogue came through loud and clear.
Which makes it all the more mystifying is that Stewart and the parent company, Viacom (NYSE: VIA), of his home network, Comedy Central, failed to use the internet to take his message to a whole new level. It’s a missed opportunity not just in a political sense, but a financial one as well: The rally felt like the launch party for a powerful new brand that didn’t seem to have a plan for its existence beyond Saturday.
Impressive as it was, RRS felt like the product of old-media thinking. Why confine such a potent idea to one televised event when it could live on so much longer online? It’s a shame that Stewart ignited so many minds that day but gave such little thought to how to keep those fires burning.
Comedy Central should have seeded the event with signage pointing to a dedicated digital destination where the assembled political moderates interested in not having their voices drowned out by more extreme voices could continue their discussion, band together at local levels, or create their own content to counteract the noise Stewart was speaking out against. (Malcolm Gladwell may not think much of internet-driven activism, but plenty of people disagree with him.)
Instead, the internet only seemed to serve a promotional purpose for Comedy Central. Between the social-media feeds, iPhone app and RallyToRestoreSanity.com, far more content came to digital platforms before and during the rally than after it.
Sure, #Rally4Sanity continues to be an active hashtag on Twitter, but providing a forum for like-minded moderates is the least of what could be accomplished. If cable news is as bad as Stewart makes it out to be, such a scourge deserves a continuous counterbalance far beyond a one-off rally. Perhaps RRS was the place to launch a daily content experience that could go toe to toe with Glenn Beck and his ilk day in and day out.
Obviously, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do that to some extent every episode. But late-night basic cable only reaches a few million at best each night, far less than its most frequent satirical target, Fox News Channel.
RRS presented an opportunity for Viacom to take that “sincerity” Stewart so carefully cordons off from his comedic persona and spin it off into a non-comedic (or maybe lightly comedic) news outlet that could exist as a mid-point on the spectrum between Fox News and MSNBC (NYSE: GE). And the web could be the perfect place to pilot the kind of venture that could be its own TV channel in time.
Maybe Viacom already has something up its sleeve as a follow-up, but the fact that it wasn’t teed up at the event itself is inexcusable. It’s a mistake that ignores one of the first rules of TV: You do not amass an audience to programming without cross-promoting it to something else.
What’s most surprising about this mishap is that Viacom is a master craftsman of media brand management, and Comedy Central is one of its finest examples. Just look at how brilliantly Daily has spun off not only The Colbert Report but a lesser known asset that the rally should have emulated: Indecision Forever, a sub-brand Comedy Central keeps simmering on a backburner as a robust website before trotting it out for more high-profile treatment every election cycle.
And so Stewart’s rally leaves behind tremendous untapped potential, regardless of whether you’re looking at it from a social-responsibility perspective or a purely capitalistic one. As a result, what could have been a movement may have lasted only for a moment.