Last summer, things looked grim for fans of net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission was considering new rules that would allow internet service providers like Comcast and Cox to charge websites like Netflix and Hulu higher fees to keep their content flowing freely.
Then, a funny thing happened -- or rather, a funny man happened: John Oliver. Early in the run of his new show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the comedian spent 13 minutes talking about the importance of net neutrality and the ridiculous arguments being made by service providers to create slow and fast lanes on the web.
Before finishing, Oliver encouraged viewers to make their voices heard, and heard they were. Last week, the FCC approved regulations to protect the principle of net neutrality for the foreseeable future.
HOW'D THAT HAPPEN?
You might not believe that a show on HBO could have such widespread impact, assuming that, as a premium cable channel, HBO isn't watched by too many people. But that kind of thinking overlooks:
1. The massive popularity that shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones have enjoyed and the effect they've had on global culture. (To this day, you can't swing a cat on Facebook without hitting a "Which Sex and the City character are you?" quiz.)
2. The internet.
Item #2 is important because unlike other TV outfits -- looking at you, Fox -- HBO isn't shy about posting content online. Last Week Tonight in particular has a huge following on YouTube, with nearly 1.4 million subscribers.
And the show has more going for it than just a bunch of YouTube fans. It also has:
- John Oliver, a very smart, very charismatic host.
- A format that allows Oliver and his team to spend far more time dissecting subjects than most news shows allow.
- Younger viewers than news programs like, say, 60 Minutes, which means that Oliver's audience tends to be somewhat more web savvy and, potentially, more effective at quickly stirring up trouble. The FCC learned that first-hand when Oliver channeled the Wicked Witch of the West and urged viewers to "fly, my pretties" in the direction of the FCC's comment page on its proposed net neutrality rules.
In other words, when John Oliver turns his gimlet eye on your particular business or industry, you'd better pay attention. And last Sunday, he focused that gaze on America's crumbling infrastructure.
TAKE OUR ROADS, PLEASE
If you're a longtime reader, you know that the U.S. network of roads, bridges, and tunnels is in terrible shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded our roadways just slightly better than failing, and our bridges need more than $3.6 trillion to be repaired. Worse, many believe that all the potholes and missing barriers and worn paint is causing more traffic fatalities.
Why does our infrastructure suck? Frankly, it's because of us, the American people. We can see the problem every day as we take kids to school and commute to work. However, we refuse to acknowledge that we need to help provide much of the money needed to fix the problem.
You see, the money used to maintain U.S. roads and bridges comes largely from the Highway Trust Fund. The Highway Trust Fund, in turn, gets its revenue from the federal gas tax. And the federal gas tax hasn't risen since 1993. Could you survive in 2015 on what you were earning in 1993? Neither can U.S. roads and bridges.
Unfortunately, we the people seem adamantly opposed to any increase in taxes -- even a modest 12-cents-per-gallon tax proposed in a bipartisan Senate bill last year. As Oliver shows in a painful clip, an hour's worth of callers to CSPAN generated exactly zero support for higher gas taxes. Speaker of the House John Boehner says he's working on a plan to support the Highway Trust Fund, but he's been at it for two years and come up with nothing. (Unsurprisingly, he wouldn't return Oliver's calls.)
Alas, in this case, there's not much direct action that Oliver's fans can take. There's no bill up for a vote, no regulatory policy open for comment. But with more than 1.8 million views of the infrastructure clip in just two days, the issue seems to be resonating online. At 21 minutes, it's a tad long, but well worth a watch.