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Jon Stewart Helped TV Learn to Love the Internet (Because It Had No Choice)

Corollary: The Internet loves TV!

Comedy Central
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last night lots of people tuned into “The Daily Show” to see Jon Stewart announce that he’s leaving “The Daily Show.”

But that’s not the way “The Daily Show” normally works.

Usually what happens is that some people — about a million, give or take — watch it when it airs. The rest of us pick up on it the next day, on our laptops or phones. And we don’t “tune in.” It comes to us.

This is the way we watch lots of things now, and it doesn’t seem extraordinary: Of course TV shows cut themselves into pieces, hand themselves out for free and hope that other people share those bits with their friends. How else would you get people to watch?

But 17 years ago, when Stewart first started hosting “The Daily Show,” this wasn’t the case at all. Depending on your age, you may find this amazing, but it is indeed true: Late-night TV was something you only watched on TV — either when it aired or, if it was really something special, the next day if the nightly news ran a story about it.

I can’t tell you when this switched, precisely. But while it seems like a long time ago, that can’t be the case, since all of the apparatus that makes this possible is almost brand-new: YouTube, for instance, where all of this kicked off, wasn’t even founded until 10 years ago.

Hulu, which made the clips easy to find and easy to embed on other people’s websites, helped as well. Twitter and Facebook, which let you share this stuff with a single button, were crucial.

And all of this would have happened whether Stewart and “The Daily Show” were on the air or not. But I want to give them credit, too. It seems like they sped the process up by creating a show (and then, with “The Colbert Report,” two shows) that seemed so perfect for digitization and atomization. And they made so much of it, four nights a week.

If you wanted to, you could watch all of last night’s “Daily Show.” But you didn’t: You skipped the interviews, and you checked out the epic takedowns, or whatever it was your friends told you to watch.

And all of it worked on its own, without setup or backstory, and on whatever platform you wanted to watch it on. Comedy Central and its owner Viacom would prefer you watch the show on TV, and failing that, on their own site. But in the end they just wanted you to watch, and they would figure out how to make money on it one way or another.

Now we’re headed toward a world where lots of smart people think this is what’s going to happen to all of our media, and there are good reasons to worry about that scenario. But in the case of late-night TV, we’re all much better off for it. Can you imagine if you couldn’t watch Stewart’s goodbye speech on the Web today?

And, of course, you can. Comedy Central posted this to YouTube — the site Viacom once sued because it streamed “Daily Show” clips without permission — three hours after it aired last night:

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