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Summary:

Just in case it wasn’t abundantly obvious to any of the 200,000-plus in attendance how serious he was about his message, Jon Stewart closed…

Jon Stewart at Rally to Restore Sanity
photo: Corbis / Julie Dermansky

Just in case it wasn’t abundantly obvious to any of the 200,000-plus in attendance how serious he was about his message, Jon Stewart closed his Rally to Restore Sanity (RRS) with a “moment of sincerity.”

By breaking from his jokes to deliver a straightfaced sermon, his concern about the ways cable news was poisoning our national dialogue came through loud and clear.

Which makes it all the more mystifying is that Stewart and the parent company, Viacom (NYSE: VIA), of his home network, Comedy Central, failed to use the internet to take his message to a whole new level. It’s a missed opportunity not just in a political sense, but a financial one as well: The rally felt like the launch party for a powerful new brand that didn’t seem to have a plan for its existence beyond Saturday.

Impressive as it was, RRS felt like the product of old-media thinking. Why confine such a potent idea to one televised event when it could live on so much longer online? It’s a shame that Stewart ignited so many minds that day but gave such little thought to how to keep those fires burning.

Comedy Central should have seeded the event with signage pointing to a dedicated digital destination where the assembled political moderates interested in not having their voices drowned out by more extreme voices could continue their discussion, band together at local levels, or create their own content to counteract the noise Stewart was speaking out against. (Malcolm Gladwell may not think much of internet-driven activism, but plenty of people disagree with him.)

Instead, the internet only seemed to serve a promotional purpose for Comedy Central. Between the social-media feeds, iPhone app and RallyToRestoreSanity.com, far more content came to digital platforms before and during the rally than after it.

Sure, #Rally4Sanity continues to be an active hashtag on Twitter, but providing a forum for like-minded moderates is the least of what could be accomplished. If cable news is as bad as Stewart makes it out to be, such a scourge deserves a continuous counterbalance far beyond a one-off rally. Perhaps RRS was the place to launch a daily content experience that could go toe to toe with Glenn Beck and his ilk day in and day out.

Obviously, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do that to some extent every episode. But late-night basic cable only reaches a few million at best each night, far less than its most frequent satirical target, Fox News Channel.

RRS presented an opportunity for Viacom to take that “sincerity” Stewart so carefully cordons off from his comedic persona and spin it off into a non-comedic (or maybe lightly comedic) news outlet that could exist as a mid-point on the spectrum between Fox News and MSNBC (NYSE: GE). And the web could be the perfect place to pilot the kind of venture that could be its own TV channel in time.

Maybe Viacom already has something up its sleeve as a follow-up, but the fact that it wasn’t teed up at the event itself is inexcusable. It’s a mistake that ignores one of the first rules of TV: You do not amass an audience to programming without cross-promoting it to something else.

What’s most surprising about this mishap is that Viacom is a master craftsman of media brand management, and Comedy Central is one of its finest examples. Just look at how brilliantly Daily has spun off not only The Colbert Report but a lesser known asset that the rally should have emulated: Indecision Forever, a sub-brand Comedy Central keeps simmering on a backburner as a robust website before trotting it out for more high-profile treatment every election cycle.

And so Stewart’s rally leaves behind tremendous untapped potential, regardless of whether you’re looking at it from a social-responsibility perspective or a purely capitalistic one. As a result, what could have been a movement may have lasted only for a moment.

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  1. I think you missed the point. The movement already exists. It’s everywhere. It’s the non-movement. Just everyday Americans who are tired of the shouting but have better and more important things to worry about. If we stopped everything and attempted to be more cohesive we’d eventually become another mass of shouting morons who would forget to go to work.

  2. Boy you really did miss the point didn’t you. if there is untapped opportunity here and I THINK THERE IS. It;’s for those of us who attended to make that happen not Jon Stewart. That is so much part of his message. We are responsible for what we create and how we chose to harness what we know exist, reasonable people in very large numbers. News and even fake news are here to report on that NOT TO CREATE IT. You are the one living int he past not Jon Stewart. Thanks Jon thanks for letting us see good people are still out ther and hey guess what they care.

  3. Wow. You had to dig really hard to talk bad about this event. Good writing and reporting. NOT.

  4. What no profit motive!!! how un , hmm, uncapitalistic.

  5. Kudo’s go out to Mr Stewart. Having attended the rally myself I came away with a ‘clean’ feeling. I found no extortion of any kind i.e. no self promoting by any corperate advertising. No one asked my view point or requested that I join in their sentiments at all. … clean…

    Being over 50, I was surprised by how many people 40 and over attended, very cool.

  6. Andrew Wallenstein Monday, November 1, 2010

    Love the counterarguments I’m getting here, good points all. But understand that even when you put the capitalist element of this aside and examine the rally strictly from a social-consciousness perspective, much more could have been done to give those at the event who are, shall we say, passionately moderate, a digital environment for continuing to make their voices heard after the rally ended, and in a day-to-day way that could make a more continuous impact on the political dialogue too often hijacked by extremist views.

  7. Overall I think they did pretty good but there were some areas of caution with all of this too and the non participants we have as leaders with general consumer illiteracy are another side of the coin that kills use too with the news being insane as those living in the 70s are tough and just flat out strange and dangerous and in my opinion threaten to put everyone back in the dark ages here while the rest of the world moves forward.

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2010/10/rally-to-restore-sanitya-big-success.html

  8. @Nettie you are so right — that is exactly the point I took away from the Rally (and here’s the blog post I wrote about it: http://toniaries.posterous.com/we-the-media). I will remember this day as a major milestone in the transformation from traditional bullhorn media to grassroots participatory media.

  9. You gotta be kidding. Just what Jon Stewart needs: to trade in the most successful and influential job in the comedy universe to become the Glenn Beck of liberal America. In his first show following the rally, Stewart made little mention of the event – literally mumbling his way through it with feigned modesty in his opening remarks – then he was back in character doing what he does better than anyone else does anything else. That last phrase was once applied to Michael Jordan, and I’m sure you’ll recall Jordan’s failed attempt at playing baseball. What you’re suggesting is even dumber.

  10. RRS’s entire appeal lay in that was non-ideological and non-political. It was not, as commonly perceived, a gathering for liberal-minded youth, or some kind of anti-Glenn Beck movement; the participants had as much differences among themselves as with the supposed other party.
    The only direction Stewart gave it, in his closing speech, was for rational discourse and a rejection of fearmongering. So there was precious little to seize on for further engagement.

    Even if there was, however, it is neither not Mr. Stewart’s nor his employer’s job to organize that movement. He is in the business of entertainment, even if with a political edge. His popularity is maintained largely due to his position as a cynical observer, wholly outside the political process. The minute he joins that process he will lose a great many of his followers to suspicion.

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