Nighly Show with Larry Wilmore-2
Peter Yang

The upside-down map of the world and backwards-running clocks on the set on Larry Wilmore’s new “Nightly Show” aren’t the only things askew at Comedy Central. But on Wilmore’s program, that’s intentional.

“Nightly Show” is the noisiest in a series of recent launches on the Viacom-owned network — programs that send ripples across the popular culture. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and even Jon Stewart probably could not make the sorts of pointed asides about racial inequity, sexual politics and cultural oddities that Wilmore, a fiftysomething African-American man, can. During a recent taping, an opening line about the sexual-assault controversy raging around Bill Cosby — “The question will be, ‘Did he do it?’ The answer will be, ‘Yes’ ” — treads dangerous ground, but the crowd reacts so well that Wilmore cracks up and has to reshoot the segment’s start.

“This show is a little dangerous sometimes,” Wilmore confides to the audience during a break in shooting. “Even I don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Making noise, and making headlines, may be just what Comedy Central needs. It’s a critical time for the net, as it grapples with a string of talent defections, a decline in its key demo and, perhaps most importantly, its need to keep from losing young-adult viewers to digital platforms — viewers that are its stock in trade.

Adding “Nightly Show” to the ranks of other recent critical successes like “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Key & Peele” and “Broad City” ought to keep tune-in high. Indeed, in his first week, Wilmore — whose show debuted to solid reviews — retained about 75% of the “Daily Show’s” lead-in, peaking at 974,000 viewers his third night (618,000 adults 18-49).

Phil Roberts for Variety

That might help offset the decline in the net’s average primetime audience between the ages of 18 and 34 — its core crowd — which slid 16.7% in the fourth quarter of 2014 compared with a year earlier, according to Nielsen estimates compiled by Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at ad-buying firm Carat. Stephen Colbert’s departure was inevitable. But his exit means Comedy Central’s lineup needs to be monitored, says Gold. “They face a new future of younger audiences moving away from TV to digital,” she says. “It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.”

Of any network, Comedy Central should have the tightest grasp on the generation that considers digital-video streaming part of the normal couch-potato routine. Comedy sketches, after all, are easily broken up into short segments suited for video viewing on the go. Executives have worked furiously to pair the schedule with the network’s smartphone and tablet app, and Michele Ganeless, Comedy Central’s president, wants to dominate not only TV ratings but what she calls “five-minute moments” — content that’s easily digestible on a mobile device while, say, riding the bus. In coming weeks, Comedy Central will debut an ambitious series from Ben Stiller’s production company Red Hour: “Big Time in Hollywood, FL,” a serialized, scripted series about a pair of delusional wannabe movie directors. Their cinema misfires will provide plenty of fodder for digital programming.

Back in the mid-’90s, Comedy Central’s biggest problem was getting recognition. The product of two comedy networks backed by Time Warner and Viacom that merged in 1991, it was once known for featuring “Saturday Night Live” reruns and hours of comics delivering standup routines against the backdrop of a brick wall. Doug Herzog, who was president of the network between 1995 and 1998 and now oversees Comedy Central, Spike TV and TV Land for parent Viacom, had to work through being dropped by one-time cable giant TCI (remedied by the launch of “South Park”) and the move of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” to ABC (the network devised “The Daily Show” as a replacement).

Now, Comedy Central is trying to move forward as others seize its raison d’etre. AMC Networks’ IFC is making strides in comedy, as are a host of digital players including Funny or Die, IAC’s College Humor and independent the Onion. Even Lorne Michaels, creator of “Saturday Night Live,” is joining the fray with the quiet launch of Above Average, a unit of his Broadway Video production house that creates comic videos for digital distribution.

Herzog’s hope is that Comedy’s upstart roots will help it prevail. “Our ‘kid at the back of the class with spitballs’ attitude
is intact,” he says. Its audience considers live tweeting by the stars of its shows to be as important as the sketches in which they perform.

If youth-skewing Comedy Central can’t find new ways to use programming to corral digital natives, then who can? The network’s efforts are critical for Viacom, where cable networks like MTV and Nickelodeon saw viewership among their target audiences decline significantly in recent quarters. Viacom is pushing to create more opportunities that do not depend on traditional TV-watching. For instance, Comedy Central mounts tours for its talent, and even releases audio of shows in hopes of generating revenue while marketing its programs in new ways.

Philippe Dauman, Viacom’s CEO, suggests that Comedy Central’s youth appeal could help drive new ad revenue via video-on-demand. He points to a recent deal that makes “South Park” available on Hulu. “This is a show that no matter where you put it up and how often you put it out, it does well everywhere,” he says. He is also counting on Comedy Central to help establish the network in new places overseas and incubate talent that could eventually produce new content for Viacom’s library — Wilmore’s “Nightly,” which enlists guests ranging from up-and-coming comedians to a Bollywood star, could be a place for breakouts, he adds.

That’s just what the network needs right now. When Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming, rejoined Comedy Central in 2010 after a stint in movie development, he perceived a heavy dependence on acquired programming and reruns, and too much emphasis on trying to find the next Dave Chappelle, whose breakout 2003 series “Chappelle’s Show” was truncated in its third season when the comedian suddenly abandoned it. “Dave Chappelle was lightning in a bottle, and you never know what’s going to hit,” he says. “All you can do is just take your chances and develop what you believe in.”

The exec has done just that, seeking new voices, and then helping those people find a format that works for them. Some of Comedy Central’s new programs — “Broad City” and the upcoming “Idiotsitter” — have been developed from the work of comics and actors who started out doing digital shorts. A bet on an oddball gameshow concept built around mining topics from social media, “@midnight,” has paid off, extending the net’s latenight success.

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the duo at the center of “Broad City,” have done concerts and even devised online “bridge content” to keep fans interested during the break between their show’s two seasons. “We can sort of curate and create,” Jacobson says. “It keeps people excited about the show.” Such activity is now routine on Comedy Central, Ganeless explains. “Everybody wants more money all of the time for different things,” she notes, but “in 2014, you don’t just write it, perform it and put it to bed. For most of our stars, part and parcel of that is ‘How am I going to talk to my fans? How will I make my content connect to them?’”

As its hosts, writers and actors break out, Comedy Central must continue its long-running battle to keep emerging talent under its own roof — though the network can now claim credit for “discovering” two of broadcast TV’s latenight hosts, Colbert and Kimmel, along with Steve Carell and Ed Helms, among others. Alterman acknowledges that people depart for other ventures, but cites a roster of actors and comics — Cuba Gooding Jr., Christina Hendricks, Jason Ritter, Jack Black — who turn up on series like “Drunk History” and “Workaholics” or soon-to-debut programs like “Another Period,” set at the turn of the 20th century. “We really feel like we have this vitality in the comedy community,” Alterman says. “They see it as a home to do really creative kinds of things.”

And then there’s the question of Stewart, who has dropped hints that he may be ready to leave “The Daily Show” after his deal ends this year. Executives hope he will renew, but recognize he eventually will want to get out from behind the desk. “I don’t like to think about the day that Jon leaves, but there will be a day,” says Ganeless. “The show will live on. It’s a franchise, like the ‘Tonight Show.’ ”

Should Comedy Central have tried harder to keep John Oliver, who rocketed to prominence while filling in for Stewart on “The Daily Show”? His “Last Week Tonight” on HBO has gained acclaim. Comedy Central felt that launching another program with a “Daily Show” premise would be too much of the same thing. “In the moment that was, we couldn’t have three starting quarterbacks,” Ganeless said, likening Oliver to Stewart and Colbert.

No matter who the network keeps under contract, it must continue to grapple with questions about how best to retain viewers. If Comedy Central can navigate the topsy-turviness of the media landscape as well as its new host seems to be doing, then maybe — just maybe — it can keep everyone laughing.

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