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With Dark Net, pay TV continues to break new ground in reporting

It didn’t happen overnight, but many TV viewers have finally opened their eyes to the limitations of network news. Over the last two decades, the Internet has made it increasingly apparent just how much information is being wilfully ignored by the mainstream press. With advertisers exerting enormous influence over most newscasts, proactive viewers have been forced to search elsewhere for viable alternatives. Always several steps ahead of the major networks, pay TV has attempted to improve TV journalism by partnering with online news entities committed to digging up overlooked stories. One of the most forward-looking examples is Showtime’s Dark Net, an eight-part docu-series.

As it turns out, pay TV’s growing interest in hard news has surprising roots in comedy. Launched in 2003, Real Time with Bill Maher has slowly emerged as HBO’s most enduring series. But before arriving at HBO, Maher spent several years in the network TV trenches, hosting lively political banter on ABC’s Politically Incorrect. Even during that show’s prime, concern about the influence of advertisers was never far from Maher’s mind. When he made some unpopular remarks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., a vocal segment of the population expressed outrage, scaring advertisers away and pressuring the network to cancel the show. When it came time to find a new home, Maher went looking for one free of meddling, settling on the obvious choice: HBO.

"It’s almost a confusing amount of freedom.”

At the same time, Maher found himself in competition with the like-minded political satire of The Daily Show. In 2014, John Oliver — a regular correspondent for that program — also made the leap to HBO, a decision he attributes to the network’s rare belief in free expression. “You can do anything,” Oliver says, before explaining how things would be different if he had advertisers to contend with: “If you’re going to go after GM, there are a number of GM cars that would be sponsors for your show, so it’s going to be difficult. There are going to be consequences for doing that. The exciting thing is that HBO lets you do whatever you want. They don’t say anything. They’re amazing. It’s almost a confusing amount of freedom.”

While comedy is the first place that news flourished on pay cable, the shortcomings of the mainstream media have opened the door to innovative new approaches of a more serious nature. Without the interference of advertisers, pay cable networks like Showtime can roll the dice on graphic material and technological innovations that are too risky for their basic cable peers. The latest example is Dark Net, a partnership between Showtime and Vocativ that brings both companies into uncharted territory.

A relatively recent arrival on the media landscape, Vocativ (launched in 2013) has a unique method of pursuing overlooked leads: a proprietary data-mining technology said to allow revealing access to the deep Web, the 80 per cent of the Internet that can’t be reached by conventional search engines. The major networks have no choice but to overlook what Vocativ turns into stories because they lack the tools necessary to find the material. “Originally used as a hidden space for the intelligence community to meet online outside of the general public’s eye, the Dark Web is now being exploited by a dangerous underworld of cyber predators and criminals,” Vocativ explains, adding that Dark Net’s eight half-hour episodes “shed light on themes such as bio-hacking, cyber-kidnapping, digital warfare, online cults, pornography addiction, the webcam sex trade, and more.”

Dark Net proves to be a breath of fresh (if somewhat dangerous) air.

Network news may occasionally reference these topics, but their reports seem to come from a more innocent time — before technology complicated our experience of the world. Bypassing this naive worldview, Dark Net proves to be a breath of fresh (if somewhat dangerous) air. “In contrast to much of mainstream media, Dark Net reveals a more ominous and disturbing perspective of a digitally connected world where our every action is collected and stored,” Vocativ says, alluding to the Internet’s oft-overlooked risks. Dark Net unveils the dangers of its unchecked shadow, raising cautionary, thought-provoking conversations about technology, privacy and how new, ever-expanding platforms are changing the way we live for the better and for worse.”

Dark Net is getting attention by boldly going where no news entity has gone before, but if you wait long enough, there’s a good chance that similar tools will be in widespread use. Just as the mainstream eventually started imitating pay TV’s gritty dramatic programming, the major networks eventually will find a way to imitate the unique methods of Vocativ. In the meantime, pay cable giants like HBO and Showtime will remain secure in their status as TV’s foremost innovators — for one very simple reason: They always get there first.

Jonathan Doyle writes for Comedy, The Loop, and Space.