Comedian John Oliver blasted HBO’s parent company Warner Bros Discovery during a segment on his news satire program “Last Week Tonight.”
The criticism came during a video essay on the public health response to the ongoing monkeypox outbreak in the United States, during which Oliver revealed that the United States government had allowed millions of doses of a monkeypox vaccine to expire instead of sending it to countries in Africa that have battled the virus for decades.
“We let the vaccine sit unused on a shelf in our reserves like an expired Chobani or a $90 million movie on HBO Max,” Oliver said during the segment that aired Sunday evening.
The remarks were a slight to Waner Bros Discovery’s recent decision to shelve the upcoming film “Batgirl,” which was slated for theatrical release along with a debut on streaming service HBO Max. Last Week Tonight is available to stream on the same service in tandem with its regular broadcasts on the premium multiplex HBO network.
“Seems like you’re doing a really great job,” Oliver said, addressing his remarks to HBO’s “business daddy.”
“I do get the vague sense that you’re burning down my network for the insurance money, but I’m sure that will all pass,” he quipped.
Batgirl went into production when the WarnerMedia side of the Warner Bros Discovery portfolio was still owned outright by AT&T. WarnerMedia split from the telecom earlier this year and was spun off into a separate company that immediately merged with Discovery. While AT&T’s shareholders still own a majority stake in the new venture, executives from the Discovery side are operating it.
Since the merger, executives at Warner Bros Discovery have moved to undo many initiatives that it deems unfavorable to its long-term business interests. That includes laying off a number of people working in redundant positions since the merger, with most of the impacted workers falling on the Warner Bros side of its operation.
Executives also killed off streaming news service CNN Plus less than one month after it launched; canceled HBO Max productions in Europe; reduced original scripted series at TBS, TNT and other legacy Turner cable networks; and moved to consolidate HBO Max’s operations with the legacy HBO team.
Officials at Warner Bros Discovery say the moves are part of a broader cost-cutting initiative intended to reduce expenses while offering television enthusiasts the best possible viewing experiences. Recently, Discovery executives said it would discontinue its two flagship streaming services, HBO Max and Discovery Plus, by the middle of next year and would launch an entirely new streaming product that combines the libraries of both Warner Bros and Discovery into one offering.
Oliver, who is known for his no-holds-barred style of news satire, has criticized HBO’s corporate owners in the past: In the several years that HBO fell under AT&T’s ownership, the comedian called out the telecom for its silence on reproductive rights, apparent bankrolling of the far-right news network One America News, and its lack of action in protecting customers against spam robocalls.
Earlier this year, Oliver told the entertainment trade publication The Wrap that his criticism of AT&T would be slightly eased if the company moved forward with its plans to spin off WarnerMedia.
“I’m sure that, if and when they finally get rid of this problem child, that we will probably end up talking about them slightly less,” Oliver reportedly said. “However, I gather they’re still planning on existing in the world, so it seems likely that we are going to run into them in stories.”
In the interview, Oliver said AT&T did not provide him any feedback or other notes on his criticism — though he couldn’t resist one more dig at them.
“The one thing that I will say for AT&T is that I really appreciate their lack of communication — given their company, that is something they’re good at,” he said.
Less clear is whether executives at Warner Bros Discovery are as willing to ignore his criticism. There is already some precedent that the company does not view comedic satire in a great light: Last month, the company canceled comedian Samantha Bee’s weekly news satire program “Full Frontal” after the program went on hiatus for the summer.
The program was considerably less expensive to produce than Oliver’s show — after all, Oliver spends an exorbitant amount of HBO’s money on things like rat erotica, ceramic frogs, creepy baby dolls and $15 million in medical debt (which actually cost around $60,000 to acquire, but that’s still a big sum) — but arguably received fewer eyeballs than Oliver’s program: Along with being one of the top non-scripted weekly programs on HBO, Last Week Tonight commands a sizable audience on YouTube and Facebook.
Still, it’s tough to know early on where the line with Warner Bros Discovery is. If the company is willing to shelve a $90 million movie because they think it’s not good enough to see a debut even on its co-owned broadcast network CW, it’s possible they won’t think twice before pulling Oliver’s show, too.