The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month. The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real. It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs. It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s. The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived. Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.
Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success. What has given the Onion its staying power?
The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution. It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email. When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.
There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content. The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth. The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows. None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend. Funny always came first – and the money followed. Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.