Programming a network with content that has a shelf life
Deborah D. McAdams -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/26/2000 7:00:00 PM
Comedy Central was the golden child of cable back in 1997, when a gaggle of rude-and-screechy animated Colorado third-graders catapulted the network to national fame. South Park fueled the network's growth-net revenues rose 66% between 1997 and 1998. Then the inevitable happened. South Park's ratings went south, albeit not entirely, and so did the rate of revenue growth-28.5% from 1998 to '99, when Larry Divney, a life-long ad-sales guy, was tapped to run the network. Here, Deborah D. McAdams of BROADCASTING CABLE talks to Divney about his tenure in the top spot.
You took over Comedy Central in February of 1999, right after South Park's ratings peaked. Expectations were high.
Yeah, it was fun to watch that go down, but I knew that was going to happen. That was no surprise. Do you want it to stay at sixes and sevens? Absolutely-but it's doing threes. When we put it on the air, we thought it would do twos and threes, and you know what? Now it's doing twos and threes.
Comedy hasn't exactly rocked in the ratings. What's up? Is it the South Park phenomenon?
Well, yes. South Park plays a big part, but it's not just South Park. We have a lot of competition in the marketplace. Look at cable ratings across the board, and you've got a couple of networks like MTV doing very well. I think A&E is up, and Lifetime is back and forth. Overall, we're on the road. We're up about 2% from last year and 4% from last month. That's not as I'd like, but we're not worried about it, because our 18-to-49s are holding. Sunday nights are doing extremely well.
South Park has leveled off to what we think are good, strong numbers. The Man Show is doing well. The problems we have are the movie titles, and The League of Gentlemen didn't do as well as we hoped. Win Ben Stein's Money is not as strong as it was, although it still does very well. We've had it on too much, and we need to give it a rest. Strangers fell off a little bit, Upright Citizens Brigade fell off a little bit. So we've done the surgery, and we'll rebuild.
What was your strategy coming in, and how has it changed?
One was to ramp up development. I unquestionably want to do that. And the other thing is something that Bill Hilary [whom Divney hired as Comedy Central's first general manager and executive vice president last November] brought to me, and that's building out our late-night on the weekends. We think it's a missed opportunity. The other thing that Bill brought to us is extending originals to five nights a week. Our Sunday-night ratings have almost doubled from where they were in the past. Now we still have some problems elsewhere, like with some of the movies, some of the more tired titles, not doing as well as we would have liked. We've picked up some new titles [for 2001 and 2002]: Rushmore, Man on the Moon, Dogma, Being John Malkovich. So that's going to change as well.
Are movies essential for Comedy Central?
Movies are key-essential-to the degree that we used them in the past. No, we don't want to become movie-dependent. We like them. We want to be able to have the ones that we can showcase. We used to go four nights a week. We now go three nights a week. You can't just run movies because you say you're going to run movies.
Doug Herzog [Divney's predecessor] once told me that Comedy was one of the hardest jobs he's had. Not everything is funny to everyone. What do you find funny?
I find life very funny. I find spontaneous action funny. I find interaction with people funny and lightheartedness funny. I find reality sometimes very funny.
From television, one of my favorite things of all time is Monty Python. I always found that extremely funny. I find South Park extremely funny, and The Man Show.I watch it often. Outside of our own shows, to me it's reality. It's like George Carlin when he first came on the scene, many, many years ago. He was talking about life.
I don't like manufactured funny as much as I just like spontaneous funny. It's funny that you take from existence, not a funny factory. Now we do shows where we create funny. [With] The Man Show, Jimmy [Kimmel] and Adam [Carolla] and the writers all sit down, and they create a funny show. But if you look at comedy closely, this is my opinion, it comes from the soul of life.
And that's what I think differentiates us from a lot of network fare, is that our stuff does come from life. Even our stand-up comes from life situations. It's not just mother-in-law jokes anymore, either. It's also about what our viewers and what our audience relates to. Of course, we have to keep our eye on that as well.
Are there shows on Comedy Central that you don't find funny?
Yeah, sometimes. Usually it's an episode of a show that I like, that maybe isn't as funny as something else. Certainly, it's a very subjective thing, comedy. When I got the job, one of the things that we did was a branding study with Sterling to find out what our audience wanted, outside of the funny. The summary of this extensive study that we did was that they liked us for our variety, for our choice, for our differentiated type of programming. So what they find funny is what I actually want.
What's worked for you but not for the network?
League of Gentleman, which came from the UK. I personally found it very funny, but our audience didn't find it as funny as I did. I didn't have high expectations for the show, but we can take those kinds of risks.
How about Strangers With Candy?
We're not producing it anymore. That's another show that I just think is hysterical. Unfortunately, after three seasons, it just wasn't performing. A show has to deliver a certain amount of 18-to-49 viewers in order to sustain itself for the long haul.
Saturday Night Live is all over Comedy Central. Ever consider giving it a rest?
SNL I find extremely funny. It's a workhorse for us. Our audience likes it. It's very available. If you watch the channel all the time, which very few people do, then it's on a lot. For the people who watch the channel as part of their behavior, there has never been a complaint that SNL is on too much.
This comes up in about every focus group we do. People are very aware of SNL on the channel, and it's become part of our brand. But I don't think it's on too much. We do look forward to the new season, however, no doubt about that.
What would you like to have for Comedy Central that you don't have?
Always I'd like to have big titles. I'd love to have Scary Movie on the network, maybe King of the Hill. There's Mad TV, but that's an exclusive syndication deal. They won't open it up to cable. If they did, I'd love to share it. We bid for Everybody Loves Raymond, but we knew we wouldn't get. By the time we got it, I think it would be wrong for the network. If it were available to us right now, it would be great to run it.
So comedy has a shelf life?
Yes, it does. There are certain things that go for a long time, but others are very disposable. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is still a funny movie, and I must have seen that six times. I'd watch it again. But topical stuff is perishable. Stand-up is often very topical. The Daily Show is certainly very topical.
It's not like you can strip Walker, Texas Ranger and relax for two years.
Exactly, that's what Bill Hilary's two-year plan is all about. We need to have backup. We need to have inventory that we can rest. The mandate for him is developing a two-year rollout plan instead of just producing a show and putting it on the air and then seeing how it does. We have a more strategic approach to it now. In the past, because of our resources, we used to launch all our shows in July or late June, because the networks were in reruns during the summer. Now they're fighting back. There isn't an off-season, so now we launch the shows when they're ready. That way, each one gets a little more on-air promotion, individual marketing support and affiliate support, when we have arrangements for that. So I think it is better for the shows. In the past, it was all about the network and premiere week. Now it's about Battlebots. It's about South Park. It's about The Man Show.
Why so much reliance on the Brits for material? Aren't Americans funny enough?
I'm not so sure we are relying on them. League of Gentleman was British. Mirror Ball [from the creators of Absolutely Fabulous] is only going to be six episodes, so that's not a big deal. We are talking to those guys over there about co-productions as everybody in America is now. Battlebots originated in the UK as Robot Wars. If it's worth the money and it works, we'll take a risk, and we'll try it, absolutely.
Is reality TV in Comedy Central's future?
Not in the sense that the networks are doing it, at least we don't have anything on the drawing board just now. I think The Daily Show deals with reality. Look at The Man Show. They do a lot of on-the-street stuff that's very, very clever. But reality in the vein of locking people in a room, like in Big Brother- probably not. I wouldn't be against it if we could find something and it was funny. We have talked about what is funny in the Big Brother [model], and until we find it, I'm not going to try to put a square peg in a round hole.
What new things are you looking at for the network?
We're looking for specials-stand-up specials-events like the [ Friar's] Roast[an annual live special featuring a parade of comedians skewering a colleague]. If we could get a major talent to do an hour of rocking stand-up, we'd look at that. It's kind of been done. But if it was the right thing, the right type of person for us, we'd look at it. Advertisers like events. So do our affiliates. Our affiliates are great marketing partners. Every time we do an event or a special, they always get behind it. We get as much support from our affiliates as we actually spend on a national basis for our events. The Roast is particularly successful, because we've done it three years in a row-Rob Reiner this year, Jerry Stiller last year and Drew Carey the year before.
There were some pretty blue jokes in the Drew Carey Roast, about beastiality and what not. Do you have Standards and Practices?
Oh, absolutely. Standards and Practices is run by a woman named Renee Presser, and she literally gets involved with all the shows from scripting right down to final edit. We don't want to be censors. We want to be careful. We need to make sure that viewers get served properly with the kind of humor that we do, but that the affiliates and the advertisers have programming that they can advertise on and also distribute.
Is there a list of things you can't do on Comedy Central?
I don't have the list, but the "Seven Dirty Words" don't get on. And we bleep or drop them if they are actually in the body of a show. Other things are just subject material depending on the time of day of the show. Each show has its own dynamic. The Daily Show pretty much has a system in place, but we look at the script every day before they do it. The Man Show and South Park are probably the two shows that require the most review, because they are late-night and adult-oriented shows. There are debates and sometimes strong words. I could always mandate at the end, but I don't like to do that.
What's an example of something you've pulled?
Adam Carolla [of The Man Show]was in a fantasy situation, talking about taking his mother out on a date. So he goes to the house, and he picks up his mother, and they go out to dinner. The next thing you know, they're lying in bed together, and then the next thing you know, he is giving her a big kiss.
I said, 'Hey, guys, that kiss can't happen. It's funny at first, but no physical contact. 'So they said all right, how about if we just do a quick kiss? I said that's fine. That's the only time I ever stepped in. I don't want to be the one setting down the mandates, although I will arbitrate.
Do you get many complaints about going too far? (Episodes of South Park have depicted Satan and Saddam Heussein as lovers, and God as a basso profundo-voiced donkey.)
We will get letters occasionally. I think we get a lot less mail than people might think. Every now and then, we get letters from organizations-the Catholic League and things like that. Our audience is pretty sophisticated for the most part, and they expect this from us, so they're not offended by it. They actually have a thirst for more and more of that stuff. But I don't want to get to the point where we're gratuitous. That just doesn't serve anything.
Stand-up is fairly strong for the channel. Comedy Central Presents does well. You're in the mecca of stand-up. Why not do more?
We relied quite a bit on stand-up in the early days of the channel. We got away from it for a while. Now we're back into it. Comedy Central Presents is for more-established comedians, and Premium Blend is an opportunity for the younger unknowns. We want to make sure that we create a fertile ground for these people to keep coming up, because it's good television. People like it. It is very easy. It is very accessible. We still beat around ideas about how to even improve upon it. But I think how you improve it is by making sure you get it well-rehearsed and edited, because you shoot an hour, then you've got to get it down to 22 minutes.
Do you send scouts to the clubs here in New York?
Oh, our people go out all the time. We have three people who are out just going to the clubs, the shows, the one-man shows. Festivals we all go to.
Who are your favorite stand-up comedians?
George Carlin, George Wallace-he's an African-American who's been around for a long time. He is still doing the circuit. I thought Seinfeld did fabulous stand-up. I'm a bigger fan of his stand-up than I was of his show, strangely enough. As great as his show was, I think his stand-up was creative. It was funny. It was wry. I like a wry sense of humor. Richard Pryor was certainly one of my favorites. As a kid, I watched Sid Caesar and all those guys. One of my favorites is John Leguizamo. I think he's one of the funniest people out there, actually. He did Spic-o-Rama on HBO.
Paul Kagan Associates estimates Comedy Central's 2000 programming budget at around $130 million. Are they warm?
I can't answer that question, but we're going up another 20% next year. [Laughs] We have to maintain our original programming, and we're getting more in the pipeline. The reality is we've also got to pay a little more per episode for some of these shows. So our goal is to also produce more shows at a more reasonable rate. The key is to own them so we start building our library. The board is very supportive. They know what it's all about. [Viacom and Time Warner Entertainment are 50-50 partners in Comedy Central.]
Is the programming budget a percentage of ad revenues?
No, it's not that at all. We look at the landscape. We look at our objectives and we look at how much money we had, what we want to do, what the creative mandates are, what the creative plan is, and then we go to the board and ask the board for more. [Laughs] In two to three years, we'll be up over $200 million.
We're not going to have the money to find big acquisitions. We just don't have that kind of money. But if you look at FX, with NYPD Blue and a lot of shows like that, they do very well. But I don't know if it brands them. We have a very special kind of a place here. It's a good healthy business, and the board likes it. For us to start bringing in and paying big money for off-net series, I think it would eventually water down the brand and lose what we have with our viewers.
What's happening with Matt and Trey's (Stone and Parker, creators of South Park) new series, Family First? It was supposed to be based on whoever won the election.
We had to pull the promos last night [Nov. 8]. We had one for Bush and one for Gore, but we pulled them because we don't know.
The presidential election hasn't been too bad for Comedy Central.
We were looking at the Meyers Report this morning. It was talking about the ratings and coverage of the elections, and we're in the list! It was hysterical. I couldn't believe they'd list us!
The Daily Show host Jon Stewart got a lot of attention from the networks during the election. Any thoughts of expanding his presence on Comedy Central?
He's everywhere. Everybody loves him. You have no idea of the demands we get for him to speak at places, which we can't accommodate because he's doing four shows a week. There's not a lot of time to do anything else.
Would you consider extending The Daily Show to one hour?
Well, we're not sure yet. He did do Carnegie Hall and loved it. He killed, you know? So I think he's now open to do something else, maybe on television in a special or a stand-up or a retrospective. It's up to Jon. It's up to his comfort level.
Is there anything else coming from Parker and Stone?
Nothing right now. They're going to be pretty busy for the next nine months [making South Park and Family First], and we want them to focus on those two shows. Since we re-did the deal with these guys, they have been very focused and very aligned, and we have a great relationship with them. They're wonderful to work with and extremely creative.
Is there another South Park movie coming down the pike?
Probably not. That was a long arduous plan. I don't know how they'd do another one at this point. They might do another movie of a different kind.
Do you have a window for the South Park movie?
No, the movie is actually running on Showtime, which is part of the Paramount output deal. The broadcast window is open pretty soon, but I don't know who could air it. I don't even know if we can air it, frankly. Not unless it was late-night and we had a limited number of advertisers and all kinds of warnings. I'd love to run it unedited with all kinds of warnings and the caveats about not letting kids watch this. But you know they will.
You spent your career in advertising sales before taking over Comedy Central. Did you see the ad-market slowdown coming, and was Comedy prepared for it?
Yeah, we knew what the numbers were going to be, because we happened to have more dotcom business on our network last year than anybody. I think we had 83 dotcoms on our network. So my senior vice president of sales said, 'Hey, man, we're going to have problems. 'Then you had the Olympics. You had an election, and corporate earnings were off a little bit. I think a lot of companies pulled their money back. They took a wait-and-see approach. We knew, but we planned for it. So far, it looks like we're making our numbers, but we are not there yet. So call me in a month.
Are you going to sign another contract? (Divney's contract is up next year.)
I think, from a posturing standpoint, for Jeff and Tom [Bewkes and Freston, respective chairmen of Time Warner's HBO and Viacom's MTV Networks], I would have to say, 'No, I'm not.' That way, they'll have to offer me more money. The thing about this is, this is so much fun. I've got Bill in place, and I got a new Web guy in place [John Sanborn, vice president and chief creative officer for the Web]. I need to get myself out from under administrative work so I can oversee the network and get the resources to make sure that the plan is being executed properly and the creative thrust is happening. We have great relationships with talent. People want to come on this network. They know that being on Comedy Central is a good thing for their careers, and we want to build on that. So that's my goal.
Your goal is to schmooze?
And so I can start drinking at the staff meetings in the morning. [Laughs] Actually, I have bosses, too. But in some ways, I think I've got the best job in the business. I was talking about this the other day with Jeff and Tom. I was complaining about something, and they said, 'What are you complaining about? You're like a latchkey kid! You can do whatever you want.' I said, 'Yeah, but you got to put some food in the refrigerator.' They're wonderful to work for. Tom is a brilliant strategic thinker from the standpoint of basic cable, and Jeff Bewkes is as smart as they come.
Is Comedy Central an underdeveloped resource?
I don't think it's underdeveloped. But it's expensive because it's a joint venture and not part of one of their network group. We don't have the back-office consolidations that they do. They can have 12 networks with one finance department. We have one finance department. I think with the resources [the network] has going for it, we'll be able to develop as we should be. But it's costly to run. It would make more money if we were in-house somewhere else. Even at current levels, we could save millions of dollars by putting this under one of the other groups.
Will either Viacom or Time Warner sell its half of Comedy Central?
We ask them that question all the time. 'All right, listen, is Mel going to sell, or does he want to buy it?' Neither of them wants to sell it. I just don't think they want the other one having it. That's the reality of it.
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