Can cable czar be Viacom’s star?

Featured Player: Doug Herzog

Let’s get it out of the way — Dave Chappelle is history. The comic flamed out last year, leaving Comedy Central holding the bag on its marquee show. Next month, the cabler will fondly bid him adieu by airing the remnants of the unfinished third season.

“If throwing a lot of money at Dave and giving him total creative freedom drove him away, then we really drove him away,” says net topper Doug Herzog, with a smile.

The $50 million getaway is old news, Comedy Central is thriving and Herzog has already moved on to more pressing matters at his other wards: growing men’s cabler Spike and goosing new addition TV Land.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Herzog is rapidly scaling the Viacom ladder. It was just two years ago that he returned to run Comedy Central after heading up USA and a blink-and-you-missed-it run at Fox. But now the easygoing, quick-with-the-quips 46-year-old runs high-priority channels in Judy McGrath’s cable kingdom — Spike and the laffer net target the ever-lucrative but elusive male demo, while TV Land, which has a loyal older aud, is now trying to draw in those hard-to-categorize baby boomers.

Technically, his job is on par with that of Cyma Zarghami, head of the Kids and Family Group, and Van Toffler, head of MTV Music Group and Logo. Still, Herzog prefers not to dwell on his role in the hierarchy, but rather to focus on his task as a brand manager.

“I’ve got the emerging networks,” he says. And in several ways, he does run the high schoolers of Viacom’s cable groups.

Comedy Central, the senior classman, is highly profitable and popular with “South Park” going strong and latenight double whammy “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” continuing to generate buzz.

All eyes are on Spike and TV Land to become the same sort of destinations that Herzog has previously been able to create: At USA, he introduced quality drama, and before that he brought edge to MTV with non-music originals. His resume is littered with network-making breakthroughs like “Monk,” the most-watched original on USA, and “Daily Show” and “South Park,” both still tops on Comedy Central. At Fox, he developed one of that web’s most enduring comedies, “Malcolm in the Middle.”

But Herzog says his main strength these days is in aligning himself with the best.

“I choose the right people to work with, and I’ve got excellent teams at all three networks,” he says.

When he reunited with Comedy Central, he wasted no time luring USA colleagues exec VP Michelle Ganeless, talent head Elizabeth Porter and ad sales maven Jeff Lucas.

Even before his rise to Viacom superstardom, his former lieutenants say Herzog was always more a team-builder than a micro-manager. Jeff Wachtel, Herzog’s head of programming at USA, says his former boss once told him that he learned everything he needed to know about leadership at summer camp.

“He was a counselor and he told me it was a job where you’re a mentor but also a friend. That’s a pretty good way to describe his balance,” Wachtel says.

Not to say he’s a push-over. “He’s deceptively easygoing, but he’s got a strong point of view. It makes him good at delegating.”

For the time being, Spike is at the top of Herzog’s agenda. Channel is about to launch its first scripted drama, “Blade: The Series,” a spinoff of New Line’s vampire trilogy.

These efforts are arguably the biggest gamble Herzog has faced, though so far he’s handling the challenges with aplomb. Wachtel says Herzog functions best under pressure.

“He’s kind of like a conductor, which is more of a classical reference than he’d be comfortable with because he’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Wachtel says. “He’s in his comfort zone when he’s juggling lots of things.”

The pressure may be one reason Herzog is so noticeably confident that “Blade” will turn a good rating. After all, it’s sporting a hefty pricetag and falls into a very narrow action-horror niche. What’s more, summer is already swarming with powerhouse cable shows like TNT’s “The Closer,” which drew a big 8.3 mil on night one, FX’s “Rescue Me,” and USA’s “The 4400” on USA (a hit Herzog brought in before he left the network).

“It’s as crowded as ever and it’s harder to get your share of attention,” he says about the competition. “We do need ‘Blade’ to do a significant rating, but I think we’re going to get it.”

Herzog is leaving TV Land to net prexy Larry Jones and recently hired programmer Keith Cox, former head of alternative programming for the WB, to craft signature skeins for the channel.

“It’s hard to make noise with classic TV reruns, but to their credit, they’ve done a great job packaging things so they feel new,” he says. “The next step is to figure out how to make new shows appeal to (boomers).”

“Having a strong brand is key for both TV Land and Spike,” he continues. “If you look at Comedy Central, having that brand above the title helps sell what you’re doing.”

According to most TV bizzers, Herzog is something of a brand unto himself: New Line TV topper Jim Rosenthal says working with the exec was extra incentive to get “Blade” set up at Spike.

“He doesn’t kill you on his deals or make you feel like he’s got every last piece,” Rosenthal says. “He’s straightforward and very honest. He’s a man who knows what he wants — and that’s always a good thing in this town.”

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