For Jon Stewart, the idea seemed like a natural fit: An animated daily show parodying cable news that could comment on current events in real time.
But after a lengthy development, Stewart and HBO officially pulled the plug this Tuesday. And it was probably for the best.
As part of its 4-year deal with Stewart, HBO built him an animation studio in New Jersey. He started working with 3D graphics company OTOY on the creation of short-form video projects.
The idea: Stewart would come up with a way to produce animated shorts online throughout the day that would post almost immediately after news arises. A web destination (think “The Onion”) would be created, and the shorts would be collected into a half-hour version that would also air on the linear HBO channel.
“It allows him to comment in real time what’s happening during the day’s news events,” HBO programming president Casey Bloys told reporters at the summer 2016 Television Critics Association press tour. “He wants to get material out multiple times each day,” Bloys added. “It’s very much Jon’s voice, both his actual voice and tone.”
At the time, Bloys said he hoped Stewart would have the animated studio up and running in time for the final months of the presidential campaign. That didn’t happen.
In November, Bloys told IndieWire that he expected the new project to launch in “February or March.” But that didn’t happen either.
“He’s building an entire animation studio,” Bloys said at the time. “It’s a giant undertaking. Once it’s up and running it’s going to be a great platform for him.”
Ultimately, HBO spent millions of dollars on the project. Stewart spent months at the studio, located in the downtown of a small New Jersey town.
It’s unclear how far Stewart got with the idea. Perhaps it wound up being not feasible from a technical standpoint. But there’s also the real possibility that a Donald Trump presidency made the idea of making fun of cable news so pre-2017.
As host of “The Daily Show,” one of Stewart’s favorite targets was cable TV news – Fox News Channel in particular, but CNN (and, somewhat, MSNBC) as well. Most of that critique was justified – right up through the recent presidential election, when those networks were duped by Trump, who rode their non-stop free coverage all the way to the White House.
But once there, Trump has made it his mission to delegitimize the media, and in particular, news outlets like CNN and MSNBC that dare to cover the truth behind his many, many missteps. Trump calls them “fake news,” and threatens the very nature of a free press.
More recently, CNN and MSNBC have seen their ratings rise dramatically as they cover the early scandals of the Trump administration. Fox News, with its head in the sand, has slipped to third place.
Cable news isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. And it’s under attack as “fake.” Now isn’t the time to pile on with an actual “fake” outlet – which might accidentally help further delegitimize them. The networks did enough of that to themselves – and need to take a long, hard look in the mirror to understand the predicament they’re in. A show discussing real issues with a fake news team might prolong the problem.
Whatever the reason behind HBO and Stewart scrapping their animated cable news project, it was the right thing to do in this current environment. Now, perhaps this will free him up for what people really want to see: Stewart, in the flesh, on their TV, offering a little sanity to the insanity of the real world.