Given the amount of time it takes to develop a slate of new shows, network executives generally need a year or two to prove themselves and put their stamp on a network. But Bill Hilary, the new Comedy Central general manager and executive vice president, has a chance to prove himself a hero after just two months on the job. His mission: save South Park.
BBC refugee Hilary and Comedy Central President Larry Divney are dueling against other networks and production companies for the attention of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The pair's commitment to Comedy Central is up later this year, and they have been widely wooed by networks and production companies that want Parker and Stone to produce new series for them instead.
Industry executives said the hottest contenders for Parker and Stone's services are NBC's in-house unit and fallen superagent Michael Ovitz's start-up ATG group. Both have far more money to play with than Comedy Central. But the boys' home network is offering a fattened pay package that is more than they got for producing South Park (for which the network initially put them on salary plus a piece of the merchandising) and also gives them more creative freedom than any broadcast outlet is likely to offer.
"There's obviously a lot of interest in them," said one Hollywood executive involved in discussions with the pair. Another executive said, "As far as we know, Matt and Trey are still deciding whether or not they want to work in traditional' network television.'' Parker and Stone are expected to cut a deal as early as this week.
The executives said that Comedy Central is proposing that Parker and Stone keep Cartman and friends alive at a lessened pace, just 10 or so episodes a year. But if the pair gets a bigger development deal elsewhere, they are likely to just halt the show. Even though it is the network that owns the show and the characters, it's unlikely that Comedy Central would try to continue it without Parker and Stone.
Hilary wouldn't discuss the negotiations. South Park is no longer quite the monster hit it was two years ago, when the cartoon regularly scored a 6.0 Nielsen cable rating for a network where a 1 was a great night. The most recent new episodes that began airing two weeks ago are scoring around 2.4. After the current flight of new episodes, Parker and Stone owe the network another half-dozen shows by year-end.
"South Park is very important to the network," Hilary said. "The ratings are still good-not as good as they were but still good. I do not want to lose South Park."
It's a tough way to start out a job. Hilary joined Comedy Central in January, crossing the ocean from his post as head of the BBC's original programming and marketing for entertainment and comedy.
As Comedy Central's first general manager, he's charged with injecting more life into the network, which can count on four strong shows: South Park, news spoof The Daily Show, game show Win Ben Stein's Money and The Man Show. Otherwise, the schedule is loaded with endless repeats of Saturday Night Live and a slate of tread-worn theatrical releases, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
"We do too much repeating of everything," Hilary said, adding that, "in some ways, the sad thing is that Comedy Central needs to grow up slightly. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's got no choice."
Divney's not offended by Hilary's attitude; it's why Hilary was hired. Divney was elevated to the top slot last year after Doug Herzog left to try his hand programming at FOX Broadcasting. (Herzog lasted 14 months in that job.) But Divney's career has been in advertising sales for networks, and he openly acknowledged that he needed a strong programming executive under him.
A headhunter found Hilary overseas. A lawyer by training, he had spent years developing and buying programming for the BBC and producer Granada Television, including snagging South Park for the BBC's Channel 4. Most recently, Hilary was head of the BBC's Independent Commissioning Group.
Hilary has three major items on his agenda. First is to broaden the kinds of shows Comedy Central does. "I don't care if it's a music program, a sports program or a reality program, though I would like to see a sports show that did something completely different."
Second is to develop a major annual event "akin to VH1's Divas or MTV's Video Music Awards," which would let the network make a periodic major splash.
Finally, he wants to create a late-night block of edgy or experimental shows, possibly including short films. He wouldn't detail what he's considering, saying only that, "if you can see it in prime time, you should never see it in late night."
One question is whether a Belfast native who has spent his whole career in England can find the groove of an American audience. The quintessential American sitcom Seinfeld stalled on British TV because, as one UK TV executive put it, "Jewish-American comedy doesn't have any roots here." Does Hilary have that problem in reverse?
"It's challenging," said Andy Harries, contoller of comedy for Granada, who worked with Hilary. "The culture of the country is absolutely key to what's funny." But, Harries said, Hilary has for years aspired to move to New York for an American television gig, has bought U.S. shows and is well-versed in American humor. "Bill has been fascinated with the States as long as I've known him."
On American TV, Hilary loves Home Box Office's The Sopranos, Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, and of course, South Park, but doesn't like Ally McBeal.
Divney sees Hilary's expatriate status as an asset. "That's one of the things I really like, the different perspective."
Hilary's not concerned. "At the end of the day, there is not much difference," he said. "A sense of humor is most important."