Satirical news program The Colbert Report did a better job of teaching viewers about the role of money in politics than actual news, a university study has found.
Researchers discovered that viewers who watched host Stephen Colbert set up a Super PAC (Political Action Committee) during the last election were better informed about campaign financing than viewers of dedicated news channels and programs.
The study - conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenburg Public Policy Centre - tested the audiences of Colbert's popular Comedy Central show against those of network news bulletins; cable news channels such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox; and talk radio and newspapers.
It found The Colbert Report served as "an extended civics lesson", according to The Hollywood Reporter.
In 2011, Colbert decided to explore the murky world of campaign finance regulation by setting up his own Super PAC called "Amercians for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow". He also created a shell corporation to accept anonymous donations.
Colbert made the segment a running feature, inviting former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter to explain the workings of his entities to viewers.
At one point, the pair discovered Colbert could receive funds anonymously from anyone via his shell corporation, transfer the money to his Super PAC - then legally claim the shell corporation had made the donation.
"What's the difference between that and money laundering?" Colbert asked Potter.
"It's hard to say," Potter replied.
The study's lead author, Bruce W Hardy said, there are two reasons why "Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching".
"First was the narrative structure," Hardy said in a statement. "He walked us through creating a Super PAC and every episode was a continuation of that story. And second was the use of humour and satire.”
Colbert Report audiences increased their knowledge of political funding at a quicker rate than audiences of other media. They were also more confident that they were well-informed.
The study notes that while it may be difficult for some news outlets to replicate Colbert's tactics, they can adopt his broader approach to better engage their audiences.
"If other shows can effectively present complex issues using a humorous narrative, viewers may become better informed about the issues and more engaged in the political process," the authors argue.
During the 2004 US presidential elections, The Colbert Report's Comedy Central counterpart The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart, attracted more viewers aged 18 to 34 than Nightline, Meet the Press and all the network news broadcasts. But Stewart rejects the notion that viewers rely on him for news, even if they find his program informative.
"Our show would not be valuable to people who didn't understand the news because it would not make sense," he has said. "If we were your only source of news, you would just watch our show and think, 'I don't know what's happening'."
Stewart said that his young viewers, living in an "age of osmosis", get their news from many different sources.
The Colbert Report will finish at the end of this year, with Colbert due to succeed David Letterman as the host of The Late Show on CBS.
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has predicted that conservatives won't watch Colbert on CBS because he has alienated them by satirising the right.
O'Reilly claimed that Stewart, in contrast, "mocks both sides, even though he is a communist sympathiser".
Colbert's on-air persona is inspired partly by O'Reilly himself.
Australia and its politicians have received occasional scrutiny from programs such as The Daily Show. A segment by Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, about the success of Australia's gun control laws, won an Emmy last year.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was roasted on Oliver's new program Last Week Tonight.
The Daily Show airs 6.30pm weeknights on Foxtel's Comedy Channel. The Colbert Report follows at 7pm.