Network sets new franchises

Even for someone who presides over a network populated by neurotic comedians, Doug Herzog seems overanxious.

“We always see the edge of the cliff,” MTVN’s Entertainment Group topper says when asked how he views the state of his network. “We’re always looking at things and saying ‘Maybe the ratings have peaked’ or ‘That guy’s contract is up; what are we going to do?’ ”

One can only imagine what Herzog would say if the network was doing poorly.

As it happens, Comedy Central is coming off the best 12 months in its 16-year history.

At a time when the broadcast nets are struggling to find a hit comedy, Comedy Central increased ratings by 6% last year, drawing more average weekly viewers (1.03 million) than MTV or CNN.

“South Park” has recently averaged an impressive 3.2 million total viewers per week in its Wednesday slot.

And the poker-faced wackiness of Stephen Colbert — who in the current issue of GQ notes that the two biggest threats to America are bears and Clive Owen — has made an improbable success with his Bill O’Reilly-style spoof “The Colbert Report.”

It’s rare for a talkshow to launch a successful spinoff; it’s even more rare for that spinoff to hold its own against formidable competition from Leno and Letterman.

Comedy Central’s fortunes are so shiny that Viacom is now taking it global, launching networks across Europe.

After years of keeping Comedy at home, Viacom has created local versions in Holland, Germany, Italy and Poland in what MTVN international topper Bill Roedy calls a bid to build an “international brand that’s right behind MTV and Nickelodeon.”

One of the most popular shows is Germany’s “Para Comedy,” a hidden-camera show featuring disabled people. (And they say Americans have questionable taste.)

At home, Herzog is keeping things fresh.

Some examples:

  • Comedy has signed up a rare live scripted show, “The Sarah Silverman Show.” In a typical push-the-envelope episode, she freaks out over an impending HIV test, then starts a nonprofit movement, mocking do-gooder culture.

  • For the first time, the net is airing an off-network show, the NBC laffer “Scrubs.” It also could make a play for a show like “The Office,” according to G.M. Michele Ganeless, in a move that would bring “Daily Show” vet Steve Carell back to where he got his start.

  • In a first for any net, CC will transfer a made-for-mobile series to cable when it bows a gussied-up version of “Lil’ Bush” (from “The Simpsons” vet Donick Carey) in primetime in June. (Only time will tell if people want to see a political version of the Lil’ Rascals that was originally created for Amp’d Mobile.)

  • CC has begun to put the pieces in place for a film label, a move execs hope would induce new talent to flow toward the net and allow it to better mine its brands in the theatrical market.

While sister nets like MTV Films and Nick Films spent years trying to gain traction at Paramount, CC is forging ahead. Programming topper Lauren Corrao has been reading scripts to find the right project. “Right now, we’re trying to find the perfect piece of material that would serve the Comedy Central brand in features,” she says.

And the basic cabler is finding that success can be a double-edged sword. A significant amount of Viacom’s digital income comes from CC, whose brief clips have been redigested for the ‘Net and are a top-seller everywhere from iTunes to Xbox to Amazon.

The net’s content is perfect for the pass-along age of viral video. Clips of latenight series like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” regularly top video searches, and an embedded media player has made the show more ubiquitous than, well, Stewart himself during election season.

But popularity has also made the net more vulnerable. Frequent postings of Comedy Central shows on YouTube were in part the reason for Viacom’s decision to sue Google for $1 billion.

Blockbuster success can be a mixed blessing; it gives a network or studio leverage and capital, but it could also inhibit the risk-taking that made a net like Comedy a hit in the first place.

“It always changes when a place that lets you be free and do a lot starts to get successful,” Silverman says. “There are some entities where good fortune makes them better and some where it’s poison.”

When asked if he really has that much reason to worry, Herzog says, “We’ve been through this before with Chappelle. We know how quickly it can all disappear.”

Two years ago, Dave Chappelle abandoned — er, took an extended leave for exhaustion from — Comedy Central.

It happened at the exact moment when the network began to peak as a result of the brilliant “Chappelle’s Show” (and just after the net made a $50 million commitment to the comedian), and the memory of that time seems to have scarred Herzog.

Herzog is the quiet architect behind much that dots the modern cable landscape. At congloms like Viacom and News Corp., he has left behind a trail of zeitgeist-defining hits: “The Real World,” “The Colbert Report,” “Monk” and “Beavis and Butthead.”

Now he has the reins at Comedy Central (as well as several other Viacom television and digital properties), where he has been spotted in a suit at appearances with the likes of Lieutenant Dangle and the “Reno 911″ crew. But he has an appropriately serious job: build Comedy into as much of a brand as the two jewels in Viacom’s crown, MTV and Nickelodeon.

With the aid of two well-known vets on each coast — programming topper Corrao, in her office high above Century City, and Ganeless, at Comedy’s 57th Street headquarters in Gotham — Herzog thus has the tricky job of maintaining the net’s big franchises while nurturing the shows and talent that are its future.

It’s in some ways a pleasant surprise that “South Park” — which began life as a Christmas card Trey Parker and Matt Stone sent to friends in the mid-’90s — still thrives, continuing to unrepentantly take on both taboos and other media companies.

But the net is also unusually dependent on a scripted show that’s more than a decade old. Just how reliant? Five of the top six-rated timeslots on the net are airings of “South Park.”

Comedy Central is also facing challenges with “The Daily Show.”

Exec producer Ben Karlin abruptly left the show at the end of 2006, while mainstays like Colbert, Carell, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry have departed. That leaves the show trying to break out less proven performers like Dan Bakkedahl and John Oliver.

The basic cabler is trying to build up its stable of talent, signing development deals with Michael Ian Black and Lewis Black (“Apparently Comedy Central likes Black people,” net personality Silverman deadpanned to Variety).

In its third season is “Mind of Mencia,” in which Carlos Mencia looks at Latino and other stereotypes. Mencia isn’t just an experiment in a new brand of humor; he’s a model for the multiplatform business the net wants to build. The comedian has been the beneficiary of the cable net’s comedy label and promotions biz. “Comedy Central is the best one-stop shopping for comedians,” he says.

Comedy Central has some unlikely roots. Viacom began it as Ha!, merged that net with a competing net from Time Warner and eventually bought out Time Warner’s stake for $1.23 billion. (Jeff Bewkes still ribs Philippe Dauman that his conglom underpaid.)

The net is now at yet another crossroads, one in which it embodies both the promise and risk of the digital age, when linear cable networks will be threatened.

Perhaps given this, it’s not surprising that other execs are also feeling anxiety.

“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Ganeless, then, after pausing, adds, “I guess I’m a member of the Doug Herzog school.”

Somehow, sometime, the students in that school might relax.

Just not now.

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