With HBO scaling back, nets step up sponsorships

Even before the term “credit default swap” went lexicon, the U.S. comedy festival business was never uproariously profitable in and of itself.

HBO, which launched the Comedy Festival in Las Vegas back in 2005 as a complement to its more exclusive, industry-focused Aspen event, used to be the biggest yukfest backer this side of the Canadian border. But the pay cabler bailed on the biz almost immediately after then-topper Chris Albrecht ankled the network last year.

Without Albrecht around to champion these glitzy events, they were pretty much left to the virtues of their P&L sheets, which were limited for a subscriber-based network not used to coveting advertiser support.

Thus, Aspen’s U.S. Comedy Arts Fest went bye-bye after 13 pricey years. Meanwhile, Vegas’ Comedy Festival, co-produced with AEG Live and regularly featuring such top headliners as Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock, would hang on for 2007, thanks to HBO’s contractual obligations. But this year’s event would need a benefactor to step in if the show were to go on.

Enter Turner Networks. Under the direction of entertainment topper Steve Koonin, the Time Warner-owned cabler had aggressively built its TBS “Very Funny” brand on-air in recent years, matching high-profile off-net acquisitions like “Seinfeld” and “The Office” with broad-skewing family-themed original sitcoms including “The Bill Engvall Show” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”

Having played a supporting role in the Comedy Festival’s first three Caesars Palace-based November events, Turner is now cast in the lead for 2008. (AEG Live and HBO are now mere sponsors, along with Microsoft and Twix.)

And if that weren’t commitment enough for Turner during a year in which Vegas tourism is way down, the Atlanta-based cable company has also signed on with Canada’s Just for Laughs to produce a fest in Chicago in June.

“The festival businesses is important for TBS for lots of reasons,” says Koonin, whose network will shoot several live comedy specials at this year’s Comedy Festival, including “Ellen’s Even Bigger Really Big Show” starring DeGeneres. “One is that it’s a multiplatform property that advertisers can buy into. They can be part of the programming, part of the experience.”

Tying the TBS brand to comedy in the consumer (and industry) consciousness is another aspect. “Hopefully, we can start something the industry can really embrace,” adds Koonin, whose network has re-christened the event, to tie into Turner’s “Very Funny” theme, as the “Very Funny” Festival: The Comedy Festival. “We want to create a destination where all of comedy can exist.”

Unlike HBO, which largely confined the business-to-business dealings to Aspen, Turner wants to bring industry infrastructure to Vegas.

“Our development people will be there, and we welcome others to come, too,” Koonin says. “We want to give comedians a place where they want to go.”

East Coast comedy

While its target audience is more narrowly focused on young males, cable’s more venerable funny brand, Comedy Central, is making inroads into the fest biz of late, too, recently announcing a multiyear partnership with the New York Comedy Festival — a collaboration that kicked off earlier this month in Gotham.

Comedy Central exec VP and general manager Michele Ganeless dismisses the notion that the move is a competitive reaction to TBS’ bold infiltration into all things very funny.

“There’s a whole generation of consumers out there who don’t watch a lot of TV,” says Ganeless, whose network launched a live-events division to better tie its on-air promo power to its talent’s tours, DVD releases, online activity and merchandise sales. “Young guys spend a lot of time online or playing games. You have to be everywhere at once to get that audience.”

Of course, committing millions of dollars to a consumer-supported event during such a horrible economic period would seem to quell the laughter. But Koonin says, “We’re prepared,” noting advertiser support is “locked in.”

Selling out all events might be a tall order amid tough times, he concedes. But a roster of well-known headliners — Seinfeld, Dane Cook, Katt Williams, Tracy Morgan, Jeff Dunham, Russell Peters and David Alan Grier, to name a few — could help.

“We’re hoping this will be an escape this year,” Koonin says.

TIP SHEET

What: A “Very Funny” Festival: The Comedy Festival

Where: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

When: Thursday through Saturday

HIGHLIGHTS

TBS may have rechristened the three-day event A “Very Funny” Festival: The Comedy Festival, but they won’t mess with the formula. Caesars Palace will feature its usual allotment of high-profile comics, with Cheech & Chong, Joan Rivers, Jeff Dunham and Dave Attell among those booked.

Ellen DeGeneres returns to tape a two-hour special, which will run on TBS Nov. 29. Other network tapings will include “The Funniest Movies of the Year: 2008,” hosted by impressionist Frank Caliendo.

Amid a more sour-than-usual Vegas economy, however, TBS and production partner AEG Live have introduced a few twists. Notable is the LOL Lounge, a no-ticket-

required stage show boasting more than 25 performers in its lineup. Those booked for this free show — which will run all three days of the fest in Caesars’ Emperors Ballroom — include Pete Correale, Jeff Garcia, Ian Bagg and Tammy Pescatelli.

In addition, visitors to TheComedyFestival.com can view live streams of the LOL Lounge online.

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