John Oliver's Talk Show Ratings Edging Out HBO Colleague Bill Maher

Bill Maher John Oliver Staredown - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Bill Maher John Oliver Staredown - H 2014

A winning web strategy — the show is essentially gratis on YouTube — has the host's watercooler cachet on the rise

This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Timing is everything.

John Oliver's April move to HBO might have kept him from being the natural choice to replace Stephen Colbert at his old Comedy Central home, but his weekly show has proved a runaway success. Sunday's half-hour Last Week Tonight has become a fixture at the online watercooler each Monday, and Oliver's ratings match those of HBO political veteran Bill Maher, 58.

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Five months in, Last Week is pulling an average of 4.1 million weekly viewers across TV airings and DVR, on-demand and HBO Go plays. That puts Oliver's show narrowly ahead of Real Time With Bill Maher's 4 million weekly viewers, according to HBO. Oliver, 37, benefits greatly from multiplatform views and time-shifting, but his show also performs well in its live airing in the unforgiving 11 p.m. Sunday slot, averaging nearly 1 million viewers (more than the first-run viewing of HBO's Girls and even outperforming The Colbert Report's recent nightly average).

Still, the war of perception is now fought online, and HBO has held little back in its pursuit to build Oliver's digital profile. Last Week's main story, which typically takes up 15 minutes of the show, is posted in full on YouTube after every episode. There, it is devoured and discussed — a rarity for pay cable content. For example, Oliver's Sept. 14 analysis of Scotland's unsuccessful independence campaign raked in more than 3 million YouTube views within a week of premiering on TV.