Comedy Central chief Bill Hilary staunchly refuses to become a "gray executive": someone, by his definition, who loses touch with pop culture and viewer tastes. "My biggest fear is becoming old and stale." To stay youthful, Hilary, who once played keyboard in a rock band, tries to "move quickly, be edgy and take risks."
Certainly, his outlook jibes with his Comedy Central audience: Next to MTV, Comedy boasts one of cable's youngest. According to media-buying firm Magna Global, its median prime time viewer in the 2001-02 TV season was 33 years old.
pushed Comedy Central into the limelight, but a collection of hip shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Crank Yankers
and The Man Show
fuel the channel. Under Hilary, Comedy Central is a mix of offbeat programs and traditional comedy, sketch shows and stand-up. "Sometimes, there is pressure on a cable channel to go broad," he explains. "That would be a disaster for us."
Of course, Hilary would welcome another South Park, a hit so big it graces magazine covers. He is inspired by MTV's recent success with The Osbournes
but notes, "MTV is not just about The Osbournes. They have a whole range of strong shows."
It was acquiring MTV shows, such as The Real World
and Beavis & Butt-head, in the early 1990s for Britain's Channel 4 network that gave Hilary his first window into the American cable market. "MTV was incredibly cool," he recalls.
He moved from buying youth-oriented shows to crafting mainstream programming for Granada Television. In 1994, he returned to the BBC. The BBC makes about 60% of its own programming; the rest comes from independent producers. By 1998, Hilary was charged with finding that 40%.
Buying programming for the BBC, he says, "was where I learned to be a creative executive with business sensibility."
He also became schooled in the differences in the American and British markets. Music and reality work well on both sides of the Atlantic. (Fox's summer hit American Idol, for example, is based on Britain's Pop Idol). But comedy, perhaps Hilary's favorite genre, is a different story. British audiences have welcomed American comedies like Roseanne, Friends
and The Golden Girls. Yet most British imports flop in this country.
A rare exception: raucous Absolutely Fabulous, which he brought successfully to Comedy Central.
So what kind of comedy does it take to please his viewers? Definitely not the run-of-the mill broadcast sitcom, Hilary says. "They want us to be the anti-network.
"Who would have thought you could do a reality show with puppets?" he adds, referring to one of Comedy's latest additions, Crank Yankers, on which puppets make real prank calls. It's not a show you're likely to see on, say, ABC or CBS. The only network series he pines for is Fox's The Simpsons.
Hilary believes Comedy Central should be a lab for both new and established talent. Hollywood stars like Bill Murray and Denis Leary have come to him with offbeat projects: Murray and his brothers in a show about golfing, Leary hosting reality series Contest Searchlight, a Project Greenlight-style search for a new comedian. The network will experiment this fall with its first original movie: Porn N Chicken
is the tale of a secret fried-chicken-eating and porn-watching club at Yale University.
Hilary hopes someday to bring a British vehicle to his American cable channel: long-form comedy. It would be a one-hour, scripted show he describes as a comedy version of cable hits The Shield
or Monk. "It's incredibly hard to get right," he admits. "The subtlety comes from the characters. It's my dream to do that here."