Ask a basic-cable programmer to define his or her greatest challenge, and they're likely to say it's delivering a breakout show — like South Park, the animated hit that gave Comedy Central a major franchise and a ticket out of the bush leagues.
Comedy's programming chief Bill Hilary's answer is a bit different. He wants to find a breakout show like MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes.
"We're constantly changing here," said Hilary, the network's vice president and general manager. "We're always looking to move on and stay fresh."
Hilary's quest is shared by network president and CEO Larry Divney. Both men describe Comedy Central as a network in transition.
"Our biggest challenge for the coming year is to become a more branded network," said Divney. "We don't want to be about a particular show. We don't want to be about South Park
or The Daily Show. We want to be more contemporary, and we want to bring more people into the tent."
Some of the network's recent changes have drawn fire from industry observers. Critics contend that Comedy should have ponied up the dough to keep Saturday Night Live,
instead of letting E! Entertainment Television obtain the rights to those repeats.
Some have also characterized the recent departure of top programming executive Deborah Liebling — one of the driving forces between such network hits as South Park, The Man Show
and BattleBots — as a major misstep.
Others view Comedy Central as a bit of a ratings underachiever, given its virtual exclusivity in the category. They question whether its dual-ownership structure — it's controlled by Viacom Inc. and AOL Time Warner Inc. — has impeded its progress.
Comedy Central was the result of a bitter corporate battle for basic cable's comedy space. In 1989, Home Box Office Inc. (now a unit of AOL) launched The Comedy Channel; Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks bowed HA! The TV Comedy Network in 1990.
Both sought to corner the comedy niche, but neither found favor with cable operators. After months of public sniping — and with little distribution to show for their efforts — Time Warner and Viacom called a truce and merged the two services, creating Comedy Central.
In today's consolidated media landscape, Viacom and AOL Time Warner compete on almost every level. But insiders at both companies say that when it comes to Comedy Central, there's a détente.
AOL and Viacom each contribute four members to Comedy's eight-member board and split the profits down the middle. Once a week, Divney sends a report detailing ad sales, ratings, wins and losses to his bosses — HBO's Jeff Bewkes and MTVN's Tom Freston. Largely, there is a hands-off attitude.
"They're the guys I go to when I have a problem or whatever," said Divney. "We have a couple of board meetings a year. We let them know what we're up to. But we're pretty buttoned down on our financials, and we're maintenance-free."
To broaden its programming horizons, Comedy Central needs financial dispensation from its parent companies.
"They don't just give us more money for the asking," said Divney. "We have to show them a return."
Comedy's 2002 programming budget stands at around $130 million, according to sources, but its owners don't cross-promote the network on their other TV holdings, preferring to give the channel its own promotional budget.
"We are very autonomous," said Divney. "But we're always sensitive to corporate politics."
The 11-year-old network is coming off a flat first quarter, relative to its household performance as gauged by Nielsen Media Research.
Comedy averaged a 0.7 primetime household rating for the period, even with the prior-year span, according to Nielsen data. Similarly, the network equaled its 0.4 total-day household average from first quarter 2001.
But it's the network's success in its prime demographic — men aged 18 to 34 — that keeps it golden with advertisers, said The Jack Myers Report
programming editor Ed Martin.
"The concentration of a demographic group like that is usually more important than actual ratings for a basic cable network," he said.
Media buyers consider Comedy Central, which currently reaches 78.5 million homes, an efficient purchase.
"Their demographic story is unique," said Universal McCann senior vice president, director of national broadcast Annette Cerbone. The network ranks sixth among men 18 to 34, behind Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, MTV, Turner Network Television and ESPN, in both primetime and total-day measurements, she said.
Comedy Central is also among the top 10 with 18-34-year-old women during primetime, and enjoys similar stature among viewers 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 in both total-day and primetime, according to Cerbone.
"That's pretty respectable," Cerbone said. "What this targeted audience means for advertisers is that for every dollar spent, they've wasted less of their money."
Network sources said Comedy Central's 2001 ad revenues will reach the $230 million range.
While Comedy Central reaches a choice demographic, it is a hard one to hold onto, analysts said. "They're a moving target," said The Yankee Group senior analyst Mike Goodman "Humor tends to change and so does an audience's taste for humor, therefore the programming needs to evolve with it."
Martin agreed, and noted that young male viewers are always on the prowl for something new. "For that demographic, it is important to continually freshen the programming," he said. "In that sense, they [Comedy Central] could probably stand to pick up the pace a bit."
MORE DIVERSE VIEWS
To that end, the network is on the lookout for topical fare that can keep its audience thinking and can broaden Comedy's horizons to attract a more diverse viewership — specifically young African-Americans and Hispanics.
"We don't want to be the white frat-boy network," said Hilary. "This network is about diversity. In the coming year, you're going to see us move more in that direction."
That can be construed as an ambitious plan. Comedy's programming schedule, in part, is now built around the trash-talking tykes of South Park
and the misogynistic musings of The Man Show, which features the chirpy theme: "Quit your job and light a fart/Yank your favorite private part."
Analysts and media buyers said the trick is to broaden the demographic without disenfranchising core viewers.
"Their challenge is to maintain their niche and stay clear about who they are and what they're there for," said Cerbone. "Too many cable networks have lost their original demographic while in pursuit of a higher audience."
Comedy Central does perform well in urban markets and could be in a position to steal eyeballs from Black Entertainment Television, she added.
Along those lines, Hilary said, the network is readying an urban stand-up series aimed at African-American and Hispanic audiences. The show evolved from the network's success with a five-part series, The Heroes of Black Comedy,
which aired during Black History Month in February.
The series won kudos for episodes featuring Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, the "Original Kings of Comedy" and hip-hop comedians.
Although many critics feel stand-up has been overplayed on basic cable, network executives say the new show will be decidedly different.
Last year Comedy launched a three-hour block of stand-up comedy on Friday nights. Since then, ratings for the time slot have more than doubled, Hilary said.
That lineup is repeated on Saturday afternoons. Later this year, the network plans to launch a separate stand-up block on Sundays.
Event programming will also become more plentiful. First to launch will be quarterly Friar's Roasts, which will air more frequently, if successful.
Slated for a June debut is the new series Crank Yankers, in which comedians make prank telephone calls which are then acted out by puppets. It's produced by Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, hosts of The Man Show.
STEWART AND STALWARTS
Nielsen results for the long-running The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
are strong. In March, the show's viewership grew 45 percent in the 18-to-49 demographic — a 45 percent gain over March 2001, making it the show's second highest-rated month ever.
Part of that increase may be attributed to Stewart's added media exposure earlier this year, He hosted the 2001 Grammy Awards
in February and Saturday Night Live
It also was in March — amid the battle between ABC and CBS for David Letterman's services — that Stewart began making noise about his desire for a broadcast slot.
With two years left on his Daily Show
contract, Stewart isn't likely to go anywhere soon, but the network is bracing for a defection.
"The truth is we don't want to lose Jon," said Hilary. "We love him. But we know we'll lose him eventually. He's a star and Comedy Central should be given credit for having had him when we did."
Another network stalwart is South Park. Launched in 1997, the series, according to insiders, almost single-handedly propelled Comedy Central's gross ad revenues from $89 million to $153 million in a year's time. A 1999 movie version earned $70 million at the box office.
The show has two years left in its Comedy Central deal.
"I don't know what South Park's
legs are at this point," said analyst Goodman. "It's certainly not the phenomenon it was a few years ago."
Still, the show's sixth-season debut on March 6 drew 1.9 million adults 18 to 34, according to Comedy, and 3 million viewers tune in for the show each Wednesday.
Other returning series include Primetime Glick, Win Ben Stein's Money, Insomniac with David Attell, Battlebots, The Man Show, Beat the Geeks
and Let's Bowl.
NOT ALL GIGGLES
Returning shows aside, the network has sustained some notable misses, such as That's My Bush
and Strangers with Candy,
which didn't generate enough ratings to warrant their hefty price tags. Poor ratings also capsized The Chris Wylde Show.
In another blow, E! recently won the bidding for Saturday Night Live
repeats, which Comedy has aired for 11 years. The first five seasons of SNL
moved to E! in April; the remaining seasons will trickle in until E! gains access to the series' entire library in January 2004.
Comedy did try to retain the show but NBC's asking price — and terms that restrict the number of plays — influenced its decision to drop out of the bidding, executives said. A workhorse, SNL
often ran several times a day on Comedy, sometimes earning ratings in the 0.5 to 0.6 range. "It's sad to see Saturday Night Live
go," said Hilary.
Still to be determined is the effect of a loss in the executive suite. The network has yet to replace former senior vice president of original programming Liebling, who left last year. Liebling was the force behind several Comedy hits and her departure was unexpected both inside and outside the company.
Comedy plans to increase its programming spending to about $150 million in 2003. Network executives declined to talk about budgets in more detail.
"We need to keep the cost of each program down," Hilary says. "We focus on low-cost, high-volume programming. But our overall budget is comparable to most other networks."
The network recently captured headlines by acquiring rights to reruns of NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien,
starting Sept. 3.
is about looking to the future," Hillary said "We want shows that are topical, relevant and exciting."
The network reportedly is exploring a similar deal for CBS's Late Show with David Letterman.
Comedy Central executives will only say they have expressed interest in the show, but at press time had not engaged in negotiations with Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants.
Comedy first tested the repurposing waters in March, when it aired the six-episode first season of ABC's The Job
— a quirky Denis Leary vehicle. The show earned a cumulative 0.3 rating.
"We still haven't decided whether to do anything more with The Job, but I would love to do more with Denis," Hilary said.
Hilary believes repeat plays work — but only to a certain degree. "Too much repurposing and acquisition and you come off like a second-rate network," he said.
After getting nudged out of the running for several choice theatrical film deals — or obtaining only brief licensing windows — the network has launched its own original movie division, Comedy Central Films.
"We're not the first to do it, but we want to get it right for our audience and do something different," said Hilary.
To start, the network will produce three movies a year at an average budget of roughly $3 million per film, said Hilary. Veteran TV director Lawrence Trilling — who has worked on such broadcast hits as Scrubs, Felicity
— has signed on to direct the first entry, Porn N' Chicken, which is being co-produced by Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions.
Slated for an October air date, the movie centers on Yale students who produce the first pornographic movie in the school's 300-year history. In the works for next year: Meet Joe Simon, about a man who makes a living as a human test dummy; and The Last Resort, about three young men from Detroit who turn Palm Beach on its ear.
"I think our viewers want our programs to make them think," said Hilary. "Our audience likes us to question the normal perceptions of American society. I think young people today are much more cynical than people think."