Subway is pushing back after ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ segment criticizes restaurant chain

Photo of Luther Turmelle
Subway headquarters in Milford

Subway headquarters in Milford

Contributed photo /Subway

Subway was a target of the biting satire of HBO’s weekly program “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” on Sunday and now company officials of the Milford-based company are accusing the producers of the show of mischaracterizing their relationship with franchisees.

The program, which airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on HBO, devoted 27 of its 34 minutes to Subway. Oliver, a British comic whose work includes having worked as a “correspondent” for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” hosts multiple short takes that satirize items from the previous week’s news as well as one or two longer in-depth segments.

Oliver began the Subway segment by saying it seems like the company “is in the news pretty often and it is rarely for anything good.” What followed were a series of video clips from television news programs covering a variety of accusations against Subway and claims that portray the company in a negative light.

Oliver then turned his attention to Subway’s relationship with franchisees.

“Some franchisees ... are getting restless,” he told viewers and the program’s studio audience. “Here in the U.S., 100 of them got together and wrote and open letter last year stating that ‘for many of us, this dream has turned into a nightmare.’”

The segment goes on to look at the start-up costs of opening a Subway, but also looks average sales at the chain’s stores, what share of that franchisees have to have to pay the company and what is in the contract they have to sign in order to operate one of the restaurant’s locations.

A spokesman for the chain said in a statement sent to Hearst Connecticut Media on Tuesday that the show “inaccurately characterized Subway and the support we provide our franchisees.”

“We worked extensively to help the producers understand that we have a new leadership team and a different approach to our business than we had in the past,” the statement said in part. “Today, our leadership team is focused on providing ongoing support to our dedicated network of franchisees and delivering better food and a better experience in all Subway restaurants. More importantly, we are concerned that the misleading characterizations made on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver may have a negative impact on our franchisees - thousands of small business owners whose livelihood is serving guests, everyday in their communities.”

HBO officials were not immediately available Tuesday to comment on how Subway was chosen to be featured on the show. Many of the criticisms of Subway - like awarding franchises so close together that one location cannibalizes another’s sales - have been around for years.

David Cadden, professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University’s School of Business, said that if the show’s segment has any impact on sales at Subway locations, it will be limited at best.

“HBO has an audience that is more segmented than the late night shows on the networks, so he’s sort of preaching to the choir of people that probably don’t frequent Subway,” Cadden said. “The network late night shows get a broader, larger audience and being criticized on one of those show is more likely to have more of an impact on the bottom line.”

Oliver was the talk of Connecticut in late summer to early fall of 2020 when he aired a segment decrying the lack of minority representation in juries. For whatever reason, he targeted Danbury during the segment and it turned into a running back-and-forth between Oliver and then-Mayor Mark Boughton. They eventually reconciled their differences with the renaming of the city’s sewer plant after the talk show host.