HBO is, and continues to be, the dominant force in television when it comes to quality programming. Year after year, HBO cleans up at the Emmys, inevitably taking home the most awards for its original programming. There is simply not much that HBO doesn't do to an exceptional degree, and it's one of the few entertainment providers that deserves the accolades it gets.
But while HBO's reputation for integrity of content has only increased, the reputation of news media has taken a particularly hard hit this year, not only network and cable, but in other forms of media, as well. Stalwart nightly news anchor Brian Williams fell victim to scandal when it was revealed he'd embellished facts about his involvement in the Iraq War. Rolling Stone was forced to retract a story when it became clear it had failed at fact-checking, the fundamental foundation of journalism. Gawker became the target of hate (again) and lost any last shred of public goodwill it held when it helped a gay sex worker extort a Condé Nast executive and publicly outed that executive in the process. And we lost Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report to the changing of the guard at The Late Show and Jon Stewart stepped down from his 16-year reign as the host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the last bastions of trusted news sources for the millennial generation.
Is it any wonder that Americans' confidence in news media is at an all-time low?
But with the announcement today that Stewart has partnered with HBO for a four-year exclusive production deal, there might be hope for the future of journalism in America yet. Stewart will start by producing short-form digital streaming content for HBO, but the deal also includes a first-look option for HBO for any film or series projects Stewart proposes. And while there is no information yet on the kind of material Stewart will produce, exactly, his previous résumé indicates that we can expect to see some documentary, journalism, or satirical political work. If that's the case, it's further evidence that HBO is quietly becoming the new destination for quality journalism in news media.
Fellow Daily Show alumnus John Oliver, whom many guessed would be Stewart's successor, is already at HBO with his own political talk show, Last Week Tonight. It is the crowning jewel in the current landscape of political satire talk shows and Oliver wears the crown as the new voice of common sense for the millennial generation after the dual abdication of Stewart and Colbert. As Stewart's Daily Show replacement, Trevor Noah is doing a fine job, but Oliver has carved out something uniquely his own with HBO and the way audiences have embraced him shows it.
In its first season, Last Week Tonight garnered four Primetime Emmy nominations, winning the award for Outstanding Interactive Program. It also won both the Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information and the Writers Guild of America award for Comedy/Variety Series. But the strongest indication that Oliver has filled the void left by Stewart in late night political discourse, Last Week Tonight picked up where The Daily Show had once left off, winning a prestigious Peabody Award in its first season on air.
Along with the political satire and punditry provided by Oliver, HBO and Vice magazine have created something really special in the realm of investigative journalism with documentary series Vice. Created and hosted by magazine co-founder Shane Smith, the series has an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree, with Bill Maher as executive producer and renowned journalist Fareed Zakaria as consulting producer.
Since the first season aired in 2013, Vice has received mostly positive critical response. While some have criticized the series' somewhat gonzo style of journalism, for a social media binging, internet savvy generation to which the Vice brand is already well-known, it's a hands-on, immersive style that is familiar. Nor does the series shy away from difficult topics and dangerous situations, having covered everything from political assassinations and child suicide bombers to climate change. Its second season in 2014 found it winning the Emmy award for Outstanding Informational Series or Special at the same time that the world of traditional news media was starting to come undone by ethical breaches and a lack of journalistic integrity.
HBO also gave the world perhaps best miniseries of the year with documentary The Jinx. The documentary miniseries revolved around American real estate heir Robert Durst, who gained notoriety in the 1980s when his wife disappeared with no leads and then again in the early 2000s when he was the center of a manhunt across multiple states and subsequent acquittal. Until sitting with writer-director Andrew Jarecki for more than 20 hours of interviews over multiple years, Durst had previously refused to cooperate with news media.
To put together The Jinx, Jarecki and crew were tireless in their investigation, diving into hours upon hours of testimony, footage, years of past interviews, and police evidence. The miniseries in itself was a cultural phenomenon, garnering widespread praise by critics and audiences alike. It was one of the buzziest, most talked-about series of the year.
But its greatest achievement was something that not even the original police investigation accomplished, and it came about due to the filmmakers' dogged investigative work: A new piece of key evidence came to light, and the evidence, along with Jarecki's confrontation of Durst with it, gave police enough grounds to rearrest Durst on first-degree murder charges the day before the miniseries finale aired. As a pop culture phenomenon, The Jinx was a success, but as a piece of high-level investigative journalism, it was remarkable, another feather in HBO's cap.
All of the content coming from HBO now is on a level that other cable channels and networks simply can't match, and its foray into journalism and news media has only raised the bar even higher. With the addition of Stewart's vision and integrity to the mix, HBO might be the one outlet to prove that journalism isn't dead. It's simply evolved, and right now, there is no one doing it better than HBO.