How Comedy Central Fell Into Paramount’s Corporate Memory Hole

How Comedy Central Fell Into Paramount’s Corporate Memory Hole

How Comedy Central Fell Into Paramount’s Corporate Memory Hole

The entertainment behemoth deleted 25 years of the groundbreaking network’s content prior to its new merger with Skydance—and things are likely to get much worse.


On June 24, 2024, the financially struggling entertainment behemoth Paramount began a large-scale defenestration of its vast public and free web archives. LateNighter and other entertainment news sites began reporting that Paramount took down footage from its MTV News archives (back to 1996), Comedy Central, and CMT (Country Music Television). The company wiped out decades of comedy, pop-culture news, and left-leaning political satire. Episodes of The Daily Show (TDS) dating back to 1999, the entire run of The Colbert Report, the Key & Peele sketch comedy show, and South Park are, with no warning to the public, no longer available. It’s likely to get a lot worse, since Paramount has now merged with the production company Skydance, with a deal involving billions in Wall Street debt funding—and the new co-owners want $1.5B more in cuts than Paramount was talking about last week.

None of this is good news for our popular culture, or our politics. “Gotta bring back the bootleg DVD man,” former Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr.. said of his now-inaccessible work. “This shit ain’t right.” Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah wrote of Paramount’s hitting the delete key that “the mass elimination of digital content like this from the web is cultural heritage destruction.” “The best part of being a writer is the part where the suits destroy the evidence that you once had a job,” former TDS writer Kashana Cauley posted on Bluesky.

The deletion of the TDS archive isn’t just about fans not getting their free entertainment, writers and their careers, or cultural history—although that’s a lot. It’s also an assault on how The Daily Show itself gets written. TDS producer Daniel Radosh pointed out on Bluesky that the Comedy Central site was vital in the show’s production. “Hey for extra fun guess what was the only way for people who still work at the show to find old clips that are important to have in the course of producing said show!”

Paramount’s website now directs viewers to Paramount+, which only archives the last two years of The Daily Show. For anything older, viewers are just out of luck—apart from a haphazardly curated smattering of content on YouTube. By some estimates, Paramount currently sits under a reported $15 billion in debt. The media giant’s principal owner, Shari Redstone, had been trying to sell Paramount or pull off a merger for months prior to the Skydance deal. With the studio’s Skydance partners already announcing that they’re seeking $2 billion in cuts at Paramount, everything’s on the table, even the studio’s iconic LA studio lot, site of countless high-profile movie shoots, from Gary Cooper westerns to Mission: Impossible movies. On a recent company phone call, top executives had signaled that they were moving ahead with cost-cutting measures, which will most likely include layoffs and possibly selling off properties like Black Entertainment Television. In the ongoing free fall of the entertainment industry’s streaming and digital business models, a 24/7 free entertainment site is unsustainable, but this slash-and-burn move represents the loss of a huge left-leaning political legacy.

There’s no denying that the media giants are in an era of contraction. In 2023, the inability of most of the media conglomerates to turn a profit on streaming platforms forced a historic joint strike from the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Disney laid off more than 7000 employees in 2023. WBDiscovery’s efforts to cut $3 billion in debt have gutted the staff of Turner Classic Movies and resulted in the shelving completed movies like Batgirl and Acme v. Coyote. The company’s streaming platform, HBO Max, removed 87 titles from its site, from high-profile shows like Westworld and political comedy like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee to cult classics like Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. HBO Max is a subscriber service, not an open Web destination like Paramount’s Comedy Central site, but the issue remains the same: Much of this disappeared work remains unavailable.

For those of certain age who grew up watching TV before digital and streaming platforms, a canceled show with no reruns left viewers scrambling to track it down on homemade VHS or physical media like DVDs. For those of a certain certain age, pre–home video, the show disappeared forever. Today’s audience expects that this material will have an online presence in perpetuity. It shouldn’t. When Netflix’s streaming services arrived in 2007, streaming rapidly replaced the home-video secondary market of DVDs, Blu-Rays, and the extinct VHS tape. The endless storage space of digital and streaming offered endless entertainment, available 24/7, at a cheap monthly price. Film and television producers lost a lucrative secondary market in home video, because much of the public knew they would have anything they wanted to see always available, so why buy a DVD?

The Great Delete of Paramount’s online archives can be chalked up to the failure of this model of cheap, endless entertainment. Many streaming platforms currently allow subscribers to watch thousands of movies and shows for less than $20 a month—pennies and nickels per movie—an arrangement that, prior to last year’s strike, meant that these platforms hid their profits and/or massive losses, and refused to pay residuals. Paramount+ lost $268 million in the first quarter of 2024, roughly half of the $511 million it hemorrhaged over the same quarter last year.

Of course, disappearing all this content also unburdens Paramount from even the modest residual payments negotiated during last year’s strikes. For the comedians and writers who create these shows, the industry’s embrace of streaming and online platforms created the equivalent of an invisible layoff, by paying negligible residuals for their constantly available work, even as studio owners rely on that same work to attract viewership for all branded content. In the digital era, Comedy Central kept 25 years of The Daily Show online and paid the creatives little or nothing. Even if the network had released DVD collections of its best years or sketches, why would anyone bother buying it when it could be seen for free?

The deletion of decades’ worth of satirical culture raises some large ethical questions for the companies creating this product. First, there’s the crucial value of material aired on shows such as The Daily Show, South Park, and Key & Peele in a country turning more and more rightward day by day. Those shows focused on politics, social satire, and race in ways no other channel but Comedy Central, in its glory days, could have done. The Daily Show archives went back a quarter-century, to 1999, the year Jon Stewart began hosting it. From Bush v. Gore on, Stewart and his writers deconstructed the right-wing and deceptive messaging coming from the Bush White House and Fox News.

Long before Twitter’s 10 million monkeys with keyboards had already cracked 10 million political jokes hours before late-night hosts ran their shows, TDS had a level of clout that no talk show has had since. President Obama went on the show to make late-night comedy appearances part of his messaging to younger voters. Stewart was also one of the first comedian targets of the uncommonly thin-skinned President Trump, who has a particular loathing for comedians. Trump has always understood how legacy and tabloid media work. News organizations declared him an unconventional politician, and refused to call out his outright lying and racism for what they were. Comedians had no such trouble; hence his unyielding contempt for them.

What’s been lost with the TDS archives is the vital day-to-day historical record of satirists’ forcefully dissenting from the increasingly loony right-wing media and policy culture of the 21st century. When Stewart took over the show, it quickly found its voice as the main opposition to the dissembling and conservative gaslighting media of Fox. Five nights a week, The Daily Show countered the ceaseless barrage of counter-empirical Fox and GOP talking points. The show offered a daily rebuttal of it all, from Bush v. Gore to the Iraq War, to Trump’s election in 2016. What’s left is Fox and GOP talking points—and the mainstream press’s impotent and euphemistic coverage of a mendacious political messaging operation.

It’s tempting to view this as a calculated act of censorship on the part of a major corporation happy to have tax-cutting authoritarians in office. In reality, Paramount’s sudden removal of the Comedy Central archive falls squarely in line with what entertainment corporations have always done when the culture they produce moves from the black to the red columns of their ledgers. A media corporation creates culture for profit, not for storage. What do you do with all those old kinescopes, video tapes, nitrate film reels, vinyl records, and now, digital warehouses? Erase, delete, toss them out, and fire the archivists. The corporate owners of this work have the right to distribute, market, sell, stream, or shelve any and all of this work as they see fit. But do they have the right to destroy it?

Here the answer should be an unqualified no. Like other imperfectly preserved legacies of our culture, the value of the Comedy Central archive should be held to higher standard of stewardship than the profit margins of an ineptly managed entertainment sector. Despite Paramount’s callous move, one hopes the company keeps the Comedy Central archive intact. But even if the company manages that, there’s still no guarantee for the future. The first 10 years of Johnny Carson’s Tonight show are deemed permanently lost. An estimated 75 percent of silent film is lost, as well as 50 percent of sound movies. When company executives calculate that keeping their branded content accessible to the public as too costly, they’ll just toss it. We have public libraries to hold onto commercially published books, but there’s no public equivalent for digital and music archives.

A version of the MTV News archive has apparently been preserved on the Wayback Machine. Fans of South Park and Key and Peele can buy physical media DVDs of complete seasons of their weekly episodes. But The Daily Show and The Colbert Report ran daily, Mondays through Fridays. Even Roy Wood Jr.’s bootleg DVD man couldn’t handle a set of a single season of that many episodes. Online is the only place for them.

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