When Michele Ganeless dropped by New York University recently to discuss her work at Comedy Central, one of the most repeated questions from students was how to get a foot in the door at the network.
Calling her own start in cable the “luck of the draw,” the 16-year industry veteran was hard-pressed to explain that there is no obvious path to employment.
“I’m going to disappoint everybody,” said 41-year-old Ganeless. “I had no overwhelming urge to work in entertainment — other than a fleeting musical theater dream in high school. … Literally, I could be managing consumer packaged goods today.”
Luckily for more than one network, she is not.
After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago and spending a year as an account manager for consumer ad agency Young & Rubicam, Ganeless began sending out résumés. The New York native was keen on returning to the East Coast and finally took a job as a research manager at an upstart Viacom comedy channel called Ha!
Three months later — April Fool’s Day, 1991 — Ha! merged with Time Warner’s Comedy TV to form Comedy Central (Viacom would later buy out AOL Time Warner’s half for $1.23 billion in 2003). Ganeless stayed on for two years as research manager at the fledgling network, which at the time was still largely unknown beyond the cult classic, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In 1992, Ganeless returned to MTV as vice president of research and planning, where she stayed for the next three years running focus groups, researching markets and tracking Nielsen ratings, among other things. That was also where she met Doug Herzog, now president of Comedy Central and Ganeless’ current boss. Their intersection at MTV would lay groundwork for a working relationship that has now spanned 15 years and multiple networks.
“We were both working at MTV back in the day, as they say, and she was in program research,” recalled Herzog. “That was the era when we were really beginning to spend a lot of time developing and producing original programming for MTV. … My first impression was that she was great to work with. Obviously, great research skills and great people skills, but I also felt early on that she really understood the programming side of the business.”
In 1995, Herzog became president of Comedy Central. Ganeless soon followed, beginning her second stint at the network with a lateral move to vice president of programming. The next few years would see the rise of such pillars as South Park and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
When Herzog went to USA Network in 2001, he once again looked to Ganeless. Based in New York, she became executive vice president and general manager at USA. For three years, Ganeless was in charge of acquisitions, program scheduling, marketing, press, on-air promotion and research. She also oversaw the launches of, among others, Monk and The Dead Zone, two series that significantly boosted the network’s ratings.
“Michele is one of the best partners I’ve ever had — one of the best executives I’ve ever met. She is bright, commanding, caring and compassionate.” said Jeff Wachtel, who was Ganeless’ Los Angeles counterpart at USA. “She was so great at communicating what might have been difficult given that we had a whole country between us.”
The autumn of 2004 brought Ganeless back to Comedy Central, this time as executive vice president and general manager, her current role. Once again, she is running things in New York and reporting to L.A.-based Herzog.
“We complement each other well,” said Herzog. “We could probably finish each other’s sentences. But forget about the together thing. Through her USA job and Comedy job in the general manager role, Michele has really blossomed into a first-rate executive and leader in her own right. I trust her implicitly.”
Ganeless is now responsible for the leadership, strategy and management of the network. Since her return, she has launched Comedy Central’s broadband network and continued to build the brand in the traditional television landscape and the expanding digital universe.
“Three tours of duty,” marveled Ganeless. “I can’t believe South Park and The Daily Show are in their tenth seasons.” She said one of the most dramatic changes has been the shift from traditional television to multimedia.
“Five years ago, we were most concerned with, 'What movie are we going to put on Sunday night?’ or, 'What strategic scheduling moves are going to be most important?’ Not that that’s not important but it’s one piece of the pie. … We’re still a TV network first and foremost, but we have to be available in places where our viewers are using content, and that includes a myriad of platforms.
“Our job is to also create content extensions for each of our shows online. We want to create a place where people can see not just our content, but create an experience around the show.”
The comedy news show Colbert Report, for example, has green-screen challenges, message boards and games around the content. Likewise, the South Park site recently launched 10 new interactive games. “This is content that lives and breathes in the everyday world.”
With so many digital options these days, Ganeless said the need to be tech-savvy is pivotal. Yet she admits she’s no natural-born techie.
“I’m not the first one out on the street buying the new gadgets. I constantly feel like I’m playing catch-up — which is tough since our viewers are young men, the ones who are out there buying the new gadgets.”
But she’s obviously doing something right. For the past three years, Comedy Central has held its position as the number one network among men 18 to 24. “We reach more young men than ESPN does — that feels like a huge accomplishment,” she said.
Looking back on the year, Ganeless pegged her biggest accomplishments as the launch of Colbert Report — a personal favorite — to complement The Daily Show, as well as the launch of their broadband player.
As for the future, her goal is to continue making programming relevant in the digital world, and to find new ways to keep people invested in the network’s programming, on the television screen and off.
It’s a far cry from managing consumer packaged goods. Among others, Ganeless credits the influence of MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, and many of the women within MTV Networks, including MTV President Christina Norman, Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami and Lauren Correo, Comedy Central executive vice president of original programming and development.
And, of course, there’s Herzog: “It’s great working with him,” said Ganeless. “He has given me the opportunity to step up many times in my career. It’s rare to work with someone who allows you to learn to be a leader on the job.”
When not at work, Ganeless remains active. An avid runner, she has competed in four marathons, including the New York City marathon.