As the Hollywood writers' strike enters its second week, the cold facts are starting to sink in. Such as: no more new Daily Show s for God knows how long (after talks broke down last Sunday, a negotiator for the studios warned that the strike could last nine months). The Daily Show may be the canary in the coal mine of this strike, the first place the writers' absence will be keenly felt by viewers. Unlike scripted dramas and sitcoms, Comedy Central's flagship show went into reruns as soon as the strike began. It's also highly topical, dependent on each day's events for content. And unlike actual news broadcasts (or the dismal-sounding new game shows the networks are proposing to fill airtime during the strike), The Daily Show is also dependent on the voices of gifted writers. While a Grey's Anatomy rerun is a bummer only if you've already seen that episode, a Daily Show rerun is the television equivalent of a day-old newspaper. It's birdcage liner.
A five-year-old episode of The Daily Show, on the other hand, is pure gold—a fact made plain by the launch of the show's new Web site last month. Before, seekers of already-aired TDS material had to make do with the limited clips available on the cluttered Comedy Central home page, or try their luck among user posts on YouTube. At the new site, they can search the past nine years of episodes in their entirety—more than 13,000 clips, with tools that allow you to sort by air date, content, number of page views, or viewer rating. It's a library of the show, organized with an archivist's attention to detail and a fan's affection for signature moments.
The writers' strike provides the ideal excuse to waste large portions of your workday combing the Daily Show archive for fondly remembered bits, like the priceless Stewart/Corddry exchange that aired the day after Dick Cheney's hunting accident:
This browsing serves not just as a stand-in for the nightly Stewart fix you're no longer getting, but as a lesson in what the strike is all about and how much is at stake in the current media wars over intellectual property. When Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company, sued Google for copyright infringement earlier this year, The Daily Show was a large part of the reason. Clips of the show were consistently among the most-viewed on YouTube (at least as far as commercially produced content goes—it's part of YouTube's charm that nothing the entertainment industry has produced can top a minute and a half of a Swedish baby laughing). When Viacom realized that there was no beating YouTube, they decided to join them, building a site that would house the show's archive in such style that viewers would simply choose to search there instead, and hence, maybe sit through the post-roll ads that follow every clip.
Playing around on the Daily Show site, I saw for the first time how the Web might really change TV—not by streaming a promotional teaser here and there or allowing users to post random screen grabs on YouTube, but by providing searchable online databases of years' worth of content that are updated to include current episodes. When The Daily Show does come back (please Lord, let it be before Super Tuesday), I may well start watching even new episodes this way: at my desk in the morning, instead of on the couch at 11 o'clock at night. Multiply that defection by the size of the show's fan base and the subsequent migration of advertising dollars from screen to Web, and the writers' demand for a piece of the online action starts to make plenty of sense.
You might argue that The Daily Show is the ultimate Web-ready television show. It's divisible into discrete chunks (the headlines at the top of the show, followed by reported segments and interviews) that tie in to the political and cultural conversations of the day, and those chunks can easily be collected, shuffled, and exchanged among friends like trading cards. Since the site's launch, readers have begun compiling "favorites" lists of old clips, like this wonderful roundup of "Jon Stewart's Greatest Gay Moments." When the site leaves its beta version next year, readers will also be able to tag clips with their own keywords, thus expanding the site's searchable database for other users. My first keyword contribution? Mayonnaise, to mark the great 2006 moment when Dan Bakkedahl finally realized his dream and fit his entire fist in his mouth.