Inside the Secret Technology that Makes ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Last Week Tonight’ Work
When you’re watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, you often see these comedians contextualize their commentary with short, specific news clips, like John Oliver’s use of a 5-second clip from a Bloomberg TV news show — just long enough to catch a newscaster saying “March Madness now brings in over a billion dollars in TV ad revenue” — in his recent NCAA segment.
Have you ever wondered where these clips come from? Does one Last Week Tonight employee watch hours of TV in the hopes that someone will drop a reference to the annual March Madness ad revenue to fit in with what they’re writing? What about the recent Daily Show Vine featuring “50 Fox News Lies in 60 seconds:” did somebody watch Fox News for days to get all of these clips?
The way these shows compile montages and search through the vast wastelands of cable news every day has changed over the years, with a new technology making the process exponentially easier and more streamlined. It’s a tool that neither HBO nor Comedy Central were willing to talk about, not wanting to pull the curtain back on the magic behind what they do. It allows comedy shows to pull out the tastiest, most hilarious news and political clips for their nightly or weekly broadcasts like they never were able to before, and we’ve got an inside look at exactly how it works.
Historically, these types of video clips would have been pulled from stacks of videocassettes, or saved on a DVR or TiVo. But SnapStream, a Houston, Texas company that developed a system of recording television shows directly onto a server and searching them through a web browser, is changing the way these comedy shows report the news.
I got a quick SnapStream tour from founder and CEO Rakesh Agrawal to learn how SnapStream works, why it is an essential ingredient in so many comedy shows’ secret sauce, and whether he always envisioned it as a way for Jon Stewart to make jokes about politicians’ media missteps.
“This is what we normally go in and replace,” Agrawal says, showing me a image of stacks of videocassettes and boxy appliances. “VHS, TiVos, hard drive-based recording devices.”
SnapStream, like TiVo, is a boxy appliance; it is blue, rectangular, and a little over five inches high. Unlike TiVo, Snapstream does not connect to a television; instead, it becomes part of a company’s servers. (If a company doesn’t want to install its own SnapStream units, SnapStream also offers an option for users to connect to SnapStream through the cloud.)
“One of these can record up to 10 television shows at a time,” Agrawal explains. “The recordings you make can be watched on the network, from any desktop inside an organization, by multiple people at the same time.”
If SnapStream were just a device that lets you record and watch a bunch of TV shows, it wouldn’t be that much of a gamechanger — not even if, as Agrawal notes, 50 people can watch the same show on 50 desktop computers simultaneously. But SnapStream, as it turns out, isn’t designed to help you watch TV. It’s designed to help you translate TV into text and, as Agrawal puts it, “search inside TV shows.”
“If you search for ‘iPhone,’” Agrawal says, “it will go and scour recordings and come back with links to the spots where that keyword shows up in television. Click, and it will take you to that moment inside the show.”
The actual SnapStream search interface is designed to replicate the familiar Google search interface — a clean white background with blue linked text, the “show address” (e.g. “NBC”) printed in green the way Google uses green for its web addresses, and a paragraph of gray text describing where the search term appears within the show.
Describing, in this case, means transcribing. SnapStream’s search engine runs on transcriptions, which SnapStream gets from Closed Captioning systems. This is the real gamechanger here; the ability to search audiovisual media within a text-based search engine, including the usual Boolean operators to ensure your search results include “Morgan” and “Freeman” but not “Martin,” and spitting out a paragraph of transcribed text that lets you quickly determine which links to click.
Then Agrawal explains what happens next. “Click, and you’ll be taken to that moment inside the show. You can take the clip you’ve found and pull it out of the whole show, email it to somebody, download it, pull it into your video editor.”
This means that if Last Week Tonight wants to run 30 seconds of “politicians misusing the word ‘literally,’” they have the option to search SnapStream for the word “literally” to pull out the best clips:
You can program SnapStream to record individual shows, but you can also program SnapStream to continuously record an entire channel, no matter what it airs; this way, you get a searchable database of everything CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, or, ahem, Fox News puts out. This is where SnapStream becomes particularly useful to comedy news shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight; in the recent Daily Show clip “Mighty Morphin Position Changers,” you can see how a tool like SnapStream makes it easy to search Fox News to find out what it has — and hasn’t — reported about the Ferguson police department:
“Also,” Agrawal tells me, “we’ve got social capabilities.” You can screenshot or GIF your favorite moments and instantly share them online. You can even meme your screenshots with the usual all-caps white text, as Agrawal demonstrates.
Not only that, you can share media moments as they happen, as Agrawal demonstrates by instantly clipping, GIFfing, and tweeting a shot of Ellen DeGeneres dancing with Nicki Minaj, seconds after the image broadcasts on NBC. Social media success is often based on being the first person to the joke, the first person (or TV show, or company) who posts the thing everybody else retweets, and it’s easy to understand how this social media “livetweet” feature is one of the most important parts of SnapStream for the social media teams promoting these shows.
At this point, I ask Agrawal if SnapStream was founded with all of this in mind. “I know that people start these kinds of companies to solve problems,” I said, “and sometimes they end up solving a completely different kind of problem than they originally planned. Was this always the problem you wanted to solve?” Agrawal says yes, this was always the problem that SnapStream set out to streamline and fix. In that aspect, it appears to be a truly elegant solution.
It’s also a solution that HBO and Comedy Central appear to want to keep under wraps. I contacted multiple people who worked on either The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, and none of them were willing to discuss their shows’ video research methods with Splitsider. I did learn that SnapStream is not the only method these shows use to research content and media, so even though SnapStream can be considered part of a comedy news show’s secret sauce, there are other ingredients as well.
You can find a few clues about the recipe online; in 2014, for example, The Wrap reported that Daily Show senior producer Pat King estimated that SnapStream cuts their workload down by 60 to 70%. “It used to take 10 or 12 minutes to get a clip into an Avid editor. Now it’s much faster, which makes for a smoother process from writing to rewrites to rehearsal and air.”
Ars Technica quotes SnapStream president Aaron Thompson: “You look at these [media companies] and you’d see two racks full of TiVos, and it’s like ‘okay, on this day, this show is on this TiVo, and on the next day the next day’s show is on this other TiVo,’ and it was a very manual and intensive process….being able to sit down at a single interface and find everything instantly was a big change for them.”
What’s the future of SnapStream? Well, for starters, I want one. This would be an incredible tool for journalists and web writers, and although SnapStream is enterprise-only right now, they are considering making a version scaled for web publications. It’s not impossible to imagine a day when Splitsider could purchase a SnapStream subscription and I could search it for quotable television moments and GIFs to use in my articles.
Likewise, it’s not impossible to imagine a near future where streaming media companies like Netflix or Hulu incorporate text-based searchable media into their own interfaces, and let viewers clip, GIF and share images as they watch. (Just imagine how this would change Twitter and the way we live-tweet programs like the Oscars.)
It’s also completely possible to imagine Google picking up this Closed Caption-based searchable media functionality, and letting everyday users search within shows — which they can then, of course, buy on Google Play. It would open up a number of possibilities for students studying media and television, all the people running fan Tumblrs for their favorite shows, and the small comedy group currently putting together their own Last Week Tonight-esque show on YouTube.
But even now, as an enterprise-only product mainly available to large media companies, you can see how huge an impact this new technology is having on your favorite late night political comedy shows. What once was an incredibly labor-intensive task of sifting through hours of footage manually has become a simple search for writers and researchers, freeing them up to, you know, write jokes about all of that footage. And that’s great news for the writers and viewers alike.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, essayist, and occasional nerd musician. She writes the “How A Freelance Writer Makes A Living” column for The Billfold, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, Boing Boing, and The Freelancer. Nicole keeps a running weekly log of her freelance income at her Tumblr.