The Comedy Central John Oliver Snafu: Why Retaining Top Talent Matters

April 2, 2015

What’s more important than hiring the right person?

Nothing, right? Well, not quite. The only thing more important than hiring the right person is making sure you keep them once they come on.

After all, losing even one great person unnecessarily can drastically change the fortune of a sports team, a school district, even a billion-dollar television network. Don’t believe me?

Ask Comedy Central.

What happened

In the summer of 2013, Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and the network’s most important on-air talent, took an eight-week hiatus to direct a film he wrote, Rosewater. While that sounds like bad news for Comedy Central, it actually had the potential to be a great opportunity for them - if handled correctly.

Why? Those eight weeks served as the perfect dress rehearsal for Stewart’s heir apparent, John Oliver, who had worked as a correspondent on The Daily Show for the past seven years. Oliver was a smash hit while filling in, wowing critics and maintaining Stewart’s strong ratings.

There was only one incredibly big, impossible-to-miss problem with the whole situation – Comedy Central didn’t lock up Oliver with a contract before he guest-hosted for those eight weeks. Sure, they might have had to overpay for someone who was just a correspondent at the time, but that contract would have turned into a huge bargain if he succeeded.

Comedy Central paid the consequences for that decision. HBO saw Oliver thrive and offered him a job running his own show on their network (a job he was able to take because he wasn’t locked into a contract). The show, Last Week Tonight , had a very successful first season and was just renewed for two more.

Only making things worse, in December the popular Stephen Colbert left his post headlining The Colbert Report for a job at CBS. That was followed by Stewart’s February announcement that he would be leaving his gig hosting The Daily Show, meaning Comedy Central would lose its two biggest stars within a year.

The perfect replacement for either of those guys is Oliver; except he can’t, because he’s on HBO. Instead, the network is forced to go with two relative unknowns – Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah – and hope everything works out.

Takeaway

Comedy Central found the rare purple squirrel in Oliver, did an amazing job of developing him over seven years and gave him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to showcase his talent. Naturally, being smart, their competitors noticed and now HBO is reaping the benefits of Comedy Central’s hard work.

Recruiting great people is both critically important and exceptionally difficult. When you get those great people, you have to do what you can to keep them, especially if you are going to showcase their talents on the biggest platform possible.

Otherwise, you risk losing the great people you worked so hard to get.

Bottom line: it is essential to lock up top talent early. If you don't, they might make you pay for it later.

* Image by Last Week Tonight by John Oliver

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