NEW YORK -If keeping 'em laughing is the goal of any good jokester, then Comedy Central is taking that mission to heart in hopes that happier fans will lead to cross-media advertising sales increases that can keep the network smiling all the way to the bank.
The network will look to give its fans something to laugh about from the time they get out of bed until they go to sleep at night when it unveils new on-air and online content tied to its revamped Web site (www.comedycentral.com), which debuts April 17.
Key to the plan is a new "TimeWasters" subsite that will aggregate all sorts of content designed to keep office workers distracted during business hours. It will include a joke of the day, screen savers populated with characters from the network's shows and interactive games.
"We really want you to waste your time," Comedy Central chief creative officer and vice president of new media John Sanborn said during a demonstration last week at Comedy's New York offices. The site plans to track daily usage within the TimeWasters section, posting the names of the biggest online time-wasters and even awarding prizes to the top offenders.
There is evidence that at least some Comedy fans are already finding ways to waste time online. According to senior vice president of enterprises and new media Kenneth Locker, 87 percent of Comedy's online visitors use the Internet every day.
Last December, Comedy Central began redesigning some of its sub-sites for individual shows, like South Park
and BattleBots. Since then, Locker said, "We've been growing about 15 percent in unique users each month."
The site counts about 750,000 unique users each month; the network expects to double that figure that over the next 18 months.
"Even as the dot-com world collapses, the Internet [usage] continues to grow," Locker said.
Comedy was able to hire some dot-com wannabes on the cheap, on a freelance basis. The network has only 20 full-time Web staffers.
"It's a buyer's market right now, and we're taking wicked advantage of it," Sanborn said.
Some of the site's content is likely to come even cheaper, as Comedy plans to step up efforts to encourage fans to submit their own jokes.
The Web site's redesign will beef up the programmer's online Internet chat feature, with talks planned among fans and with network celebrities such as South Park
creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who are also bringing the new sitcom That's My Bush!
to Comedy Central on April 4.
Through chats, the network hopes to collect jokes and cartoons for a possible on-air, late-night show highlighting the best of its Web offerings.
"We know there's a lot of funny people out there" with a lot of funny material, Sanborn said. "We'll solicit it; we'll celebrate it."
In its attempt to grow the community of Comedy Central fans, the network hopes to add a wireless component in which fans can complain to each other about their day-to-day lives in the context of a new online feature called "Rick's Sh*t List."
Soliciting jokes is one way to keep fans connected to the Comedy brand, but the Web site redesign will also emphasize other means, including electronic commerce and on-site streaming radio. Both will be featured more prominently on the site's navigator bar.
The Web site recently sold 8,000 "Timmy" dolls, based on the wheelchair-bound South Park
character, even though the product was not available until after Christmas.
Comedy wants fans to play practical jokes on their friends with what Sanborn called "faux products" from its "Gallery of Awesome" shopping area. For example, the shopping site will sell coffee mugs and other memorabilia from a made-up 1970s cop show called Menetta.
Instead of looking at the Web site as a revenue generator, however, the company sees the medium mainly as a way to help reinforce the Comedy Central brand.
But Sanborn joked that the network may be able to coax Fortune 500 companies to pay Comedy Central to withhold the funniest jokes from its Web site, which would help improve corporate productivity around the country.