Doug Herzog’s favorite reggae album is Natty Dread by Bob Marley and the Wailers. It is the first reggae record he ever owned, and he bought it in 1975 at the airport in Kingston, Jamaica, on his way home at age 16 from seeing Marley in concert with Stevie Wonder. Herzog’s mother, while working at a travel agency, had arranged for the last minute transport of Wonder’s band members and equipment to the show, scoring tickets in the process.
The poster from that concert hangs in the Santa Monica, Calif., office Herzog now occupies as president of Viacom Entertainment Group, from which he oversees Comedy Central, Spike and TV Land. Its significance is not lost on those who know him. Van Toffler, president of Viacom Media Networks Music & Logo Group, likens him to a television Derek Jeter and praises him as a gifted finder of talent and manager of staff—but ultimately keys in on one fact.
“Doug, in his core, loves funk and reggae,” Toffler says.
Music geekdom led Herzog to MTV in 1984, after graduating from Emerson College and getting his start at CNN and Entertainment Tonight. “Being able to work at a place that basically combined music and television, I felt like the place had been invented for me,” Herzog says. He began as news director, but soon took over original productions, helping to create The Week in Rock, Club MTV and Remote Control.
The Real World followed later. Herzog calls the show the beginning of “phase two” of MTV. But he admits that he was skeptical about its longevity. “I’m the idiot who said at the time, ‘You know, we can only do this once.’” Herzog says. He worried that a second-season cast, knowing what they had signed up for, would play to the camera and repel the audience.
Herzog rose through the ranks at MTV, eventually being named president of MTV Productions. In 1995, having developed sketch series The State and late-night talker The Jon Stewart Show at MTV, he was named president of sister network Comedy Central. Michele Ganeless, Comedy Central’s current president, served as VP of programming for the network under Herzog.
“We were trying to plan out what was going to make this network a must-see network,” says Ganeless . “It was Doug Herzog who said, ‘We need a daily show. We need a reason for people to come to the network every day.’”
That daily show became The Daily Show, hosted by Craig Kilborn when it premiered in 1996. South Park followed, becoming the network’s first and arguably biggest hit. Herzog left in 1998 to become president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting— but not before making one of his most momentous moves as an executive, recruiting Jon Stewart to replace Kilborn.
One of Herzog’s seemingly least momentous moves was the cancellation of sketch show Exit 57. Cast member Stephen Colbert’s wife had recently given birth to the couple’s first child when the show was killed. When Colbert spotted Herzog at the CableACE Awards soon after, he shouted “I’ve got a baby!” and pretended to faint—repeating the performance throughout the night every time he saw his former boss. Two years later, Colbert was coming off The Dana Carvey Show, again unemployed, when Herzog signed him to a development deal.
“If only for that, I’ll forever be grateful to Doug,” says Colbert, who didn’t develop anything under the deal. “He saved my life. I got a dollar-twenty-five, but it was a job. I had a place to go. He just thought that I had something funny and he wanted to figure out what it could be.”
After Comedy Central, Herzog, as he put it, “set a land-speed record for network presidents” at Fox—though the brevity of his tenure wasn’t unique. Herzog was one of five executives to lead the network during a nine-year period. The one fall slate he developed and brought to air included the long-term hit Malcolm in the Middle.
Herzog left Fox on his feet rather than his shield. At USA Network, where he served as president from 2001 to 2004, he kickstarted an original programming push, adding The Dead Zone and Monk to the lineup. Herzog’s lead scriptedprogramming executive at the time was Jeff Wachtel, now president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment.
“When he hired me to be the head of scripted programming at USA 13 years ago, I was not in a great career place,” says Wachtel, who was working as an independent producer at the time. “He took a real risk in bringing me into the programming job and gave me a shot to re-invent myself as an executive.”
When USA parent company Universal was acquired by NBC, Herzog went looking rather than stay through the ownership change. Viacom chief Tom Freston offered him his old job at Comedy Central. Herzog worried it would be a step backward. Then he thought, “If I go there, even if it’s something I’ve done before, and I do what I’m supposed to do, good things will happen.”
Herzog rejoined Comedy Central as president in 2004, and good things did indeed happen. Stewart and Colbert pitched him The Colbert Report, and the show premiered in 2005. That same year, Herzog gained oversight of Spike. He would add TV Land to his portfolio a year later.
Where Herzog is today, he says, “I get to work with three networks, three evolving, changing entities, three strong brands, and every day there’s something to be proud of at one of them, if not all.” It’s a long way from the airport in Kingston. But from MTV to Comedy Central to Fox to USA and back to Viacom, one thing more than anything else has defined Herzog.
“He’s got a rockin’ bod,” says Colbert.