New York -- Last year, South Park was the hottest
show on cable, generating big ratings and mushrooming into a pop-culture phenomenon.
This year, The Sopranos on Home Box Office has all
of the buzz. It's the TV critics' darling.
At the same time, filmmaker Michael Moore's new series
on Bravo, The Awful Truth,is being hyped in the media. At Bravo's
recent upfront presentation here, Moore appeared and proudly quoted a Variety review
that said The Awful Truth "sets the bar for the most daring show on
Comedy Central, which is rolling out four new series, is
still touting itself as "the network for cutting-edge programming." But it can
no longer claim a monopoly on that kind of fare.
A bevy of cable services are now doing their best to
titillate, and sometime assault, viewers' sensibilities. They want to offer an
obvious alternative to broadcast television and its formulaic sitcoms. In many cases, they
are targeting the same prized demographic: young men.
It's not just Bravo and HBO, but USA Network, FX and
MTV: Music Television -- the latter a corporate half-sibling to Comedy and the network
that pioneered jolting audiences with Beavis and Butt-head.
"We are trying to appeal to a young-male psychographic
that's incredibly cynical and incredibly savvy," FX president Peter Liguori
said, explaining his network's strategy. "They don't want to see a new Ted
Danson show: They want to see a new take."
So while Comedy is still reaping the fruits of South
Park'ssuccess -- with the network's distribution set to hit 62
million this year and ad revenue budgeted for $165 million -- it faces stiffer competition
today in terms of creating a new offbeat hit, or the next South Park.
That's the changed landscape that Comedy's new
president, Larry Divney, has to live with.
To add to Divney's workload, South Park, while
still a very strong show,appears to have reached its zenith. Its third-season
opener April 7 did a 4.0 rating, down 40 percent from its 6.7 premiere last season,
according to Nielsen Media Research. At its peak last year, South Park posted a
whopping 8.2 rating.
"South Park is a great example of how a show
can really turn a network around," said Steve Grubbs, BBDO Worldwide's director
of national TV. "Comedy Central moved from a second-tier network to the top tier. I
suppose the one reason why South Park was such a success is that it was so edgy.
But by definition, edgy doesn't stay edgy very long."
It won't be easy for Comedy to find its next
"The challenge for Comedy Central is to show that
it's not just a one-hit wonder," said Ellen Oppenheim, media director at Foote,
Cone & Belding.
This year, she said, her teen-age kids are buzzing about
MTV's The Tom Green Show, and not South Park.
At Comedy, there are signs of a slowdown, in terms of
ratings. In the first quarter, for the first time in more than one-dozen quarters, the
network's ratings didn't rise. For total households, Comedy posted a 0.4 in
total day, the same as a year ago, and a 0.7 in primetime, also flat, according to
But because Comedy's distribution has ballooned, the
network did increase its household delivery in the first quarter. In primetime, for
example, it averaged 398,000 homes, up by 54,000.
Divney said he expects ratings growth for Comedy -- which
is owned by Viacom Inc. and Time Warner Inc. -- to resume in the second quarter. By then,
Comedy's new shows and new episodes of veteran series like South Park and
Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist will all be on the air.
Comedy will aggressively promote its shows in June and
July, with a $4.1 million ad campaign that includes print, transit, outdoor, spot cable
and radio buys in 25 markets.
Comedy this month debuted Strangers with Candy,which
parodies preachy after-school specials.
Game show VS,which pits teams from
completely different backgrounds against each other, premieres May 31. It will be stripped
weekdays at 5 p.m.
The week of June 14, Comedy will debut two new primetime
shows, The Man Show and Frank Leaves for the Orient.
It remains to be seen if any show from Comedy's new
slate will pick up South Park's mantle in terms of popularity.
"I hope they'll all be as big as South Park,"executive vice president of programming Eileen Katz said of Comedy's new series.
"Clearly, we have a lot of value and faith in all of them. But all of our other shows
continue to do well. Jon Stewart will take The Daily Show [with Jon Stewart]to the next level. Our plan is all about creating a portfolio of programming."
Comedy this year not only got a new president -- with
longtime ad-sales chief Divney succeeding Doug Herzog -- but it saw Stewart replace Craig
Kilborn as The Daily Show'shost.Stewart has been a ratings
success so far, with The Daily Show -- which Comedy considers its signature show --
racking up its strongest numbers ever in March.
"South Park was a wonderful, fortuitous thing
that happened to us," Divney said. "But South Park overshadowed the
concept of what we're all about. The Daily Show more embodies what we
Katz expects South Park'snumbers to
bump up this summer, when the first South Park feature film opens. "That will
help to give us a bit of a renaissance," she said.
In general, Divney said, he expects South Park'sratings to settle at about 4.0 or 5.0.
In terms of irreverence, Comedy's The Man Show is
the most likely successor to South Park.Originally done as a pilot for ABC,
politically incorrect The Man Show is "an outrageous celebration of everything
manly," Katz said. It includes sketch comedy, male philosophy and lots of
big-breasted women in bikinis on camera.
Katz is the first to acknowledge that many other cable
networks, particularly FX, are trying to make "outside-the-box" programming
their bailiwick, like Comedy has.
"Believe me, I've been facing that in development
during the past 12 to 18 months," she said. "An advantage that we have is that
we're the first to do it, and we've gotten the core demographics."
Just last week, FX said it was premiering two new shows in
June: a daily talk-magazine show called The X Show and its first animated series, The
Dick and Paula Celebrity Special,which is being producedby Tom Snyder,
who also does Comedy's Dr. Katz.
While The X Show at first sounds like a combination
of The Daily Show and The Man Show, Liguori denied that there's any
comparison or similarity, taking a swipe at The Man Show in the process.
The X Show, which will have four male hosts, will offer
informational programming in a humorous manner, from financial advice to relationships.
"It will examine issues from a male point of
view," Liguori said. "It doesn't have to be men as pigs: It will be guys as
In turn, Divney described some of the edginess in FX's
programming as "gratuitous." In response, Liguori said every executive is
entitled to his opinion about FX's shows.
But FX isn't the only network doing offbeat series:
That's the path that USA is taking under the direction of new president of
programming Stephen Chao.
USA just debuted Happy Hour, a wacky Saturday-night
variety show hosted by Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa. A few years ago, Comedy resurrected the
variety-show genre with Viva Variety, and Happy Hour is a certainly a major
departure for USA.
Chao claimed that he isn't consciously trying to do
"edgy" shows -- he's just trying to make USA stand out.
"You have to be fundamentally different in a
more-than-three-network universe," he said. "You have to be ultimately different
and good I'm certainly hoping that our programming will be innovative and
provocative without being gratuitous. Edgy is not good, per se."
At MTV, one of comedian Tom Green's claims to fame on
his show is his stint sucking on a cow udder. However, Brian Graden, MTV's executive
vice president of programming, views that series not so much as edgy, but as
"weird" and different.
One of Graden's guidelines for programming is that
"rudeness is never a proxy for clever."
Cable operators -- which gave Comedy another 10 million
subscribers last year, bringing it to 57.8 million -- said they liked the network's
continuing expansion beyond South Park.
"Even if you don't get the big 6-rating success
of a South Park, at least if you're trying for that and pushing the envelope,
you end up with some small hits," said Gregg Graff, senior vice president and general
manager at Insight Communications Co. in Columbus, Ohio.
At Charter Communications, vice president of programming
Patty McCaskill said, "Comedy used South Park to drive viewers to sample the
network. Like all networks, they need to continue bringing in new programming. They
can't stay stagnant."