HBO’s top brass reveals the secret to John Oliver’s success

It’s funny.
It’s funny.
Image: HBO
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John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was one of the great cultural success stories of 2014.

The comedian achieved at least one thing many others in the media did not: He explained the concept of net neutrality clearly and succinctly to the general public. His short take on the debate about the future of the internet resonated with Americans so strongly that the website of the country’s communications regulator crashed after being flooded with comments.

The success of British-born Oliver, previously a cast member and guest host of  Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, represents yet another shrewd piece of programming by HBO, already responsible for a lengthy list of zeitgeist-y hit shows in recent decades, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones.

In an interview (paywall) with Financial Times media editor Matthew Garrahan, HBO CEO Richard Plepler revealed what he thinks is the secret to the show’s success. ”The key was to let someone of his talent be unfettered in his ability to express himself,” he told the newspaper. “What we did was give him the canvas.”

In the interview, Plepler gave the impression that HBO does not overthink the strategy behind the shows it commissions. That’s a sharp contrast with competitor Netflix, which freely admits it analyzes reams of data gleaned from user behavior to develop its original programming.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Plepler said, citing a business adage almost as good as his previous declaration that “HBO stands for good shit.”

In any case, the decision to widely distribute clips from Oliver’s show on YouTube proved to be a prescient one. The show has amassed more than 1.2 million subscribers on the Google-owned video site, and every Monday morning during its season, clips seemed to be re-posted everywhere on the internet (including on this outlet).

The viral success is fitting because last year was arguably the year HBO itself finally embraced the internet. The Time Warner-owned network confirmed it will finally launch an internet-only service without requiring a full cable subscription in the coming months.

Plepler has previously said the key question HBO asks before greenlighting a new show is, “Does it elevate the brand?” Oliver’s show has certainly achieved that.