Herzog at center of Comedy

Top MTV programmer Doug Herzog will take over as ‘president and CEO of Comedy Central next month, replacing Bob Kreek ( Daily Variety, June 15).

During his 11-year tenure, Herzog transformed MTV from a channel almost totally reliant on musicvideos to a service with plenty of regularly scheduled series. Engineering Herzog’s appointment at Comedy Central were Jeff Bewkes, president and CEO of HBO, and Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks. HBO’s parent, Time Warner, and MTV’s parent, Viacom Inc., each own 50% of Comedy Central.

Slew of debuts

Series that started on MTV under Herzog’s supervision include “Beavis & Butt-head,” “The Real World,” “The State” (a satirical troupe modeled on Chicago’s Second City), the concert series “Unplugged,” “MTV Sports” and offbeat animation anthologies “Liquid TV” and “Oddities.”

When MTV’s ratings reached a five-year high last fall, the network elevated Herzog from senior VP to executive VP of programming, and he continued in his post as president of MTV Prods., which just wrapped production with David Geffen and Warner Bros, on the feature “Joe’s Apartment.” There still are no definitive plans for a “Beavis & Butt-head” movie.

Stagnant music vids

But so far this year, MTV’s ratings have stagnated, and even showed some dropoff. For example, MTV managed only a 0.5 Nielsen primetime rating in the May sweeps, a 17% decline from its 0.6 rating average in May 1994. Only three other cable networks suffered a similar plunge in the May sweeps, according to Nielsen figures: ESPN, the Family Channel and superstation WGN. The network also has faced criticism from some fans and pundits who say it now does not air enough videos.

Herzog, who has a solid relationship with Freston, was on vacation and unavailable for interviews. Bewkes and Freston declined interview requests.

Kreek, who became president and CEO when Time Warner and Viacom merged their separate comedy-oriented channels into Comedy Central in April 1991, said, “Bewkes and Freston called me in and told me that I did a great job of getting the network to where it is today but that they wanted livelier programming. They said it was time to make a change, and it’s their call.”

“The progress was good,” said one source familiar with the situation. “But the position of president needed to be different.”

Other sources said Kreek was in a no-win situation. He inherited a huge, expensive library of low-rated programming that the network had to schedule throughout its first two years. Federal re-regulation in 1992 made cable systems reluctant to take on Comedy Central, bringing its circulation drive to a near-standstill until the government granted some relief a year ago and its base grew to about 36 million.

Commissioning new comedy series and specials is a costly proposition – the ink in the network’s ledgers still runs red because its subscriber fees are moderate at best, averaging about 8&cents; a month per sub. And its advertising rates have a long way to go, despite a high proportion of upscale, urban viewers, according to sources.

Programming priorities

One of Herzog’s first priorities likely will be to appoint a programming chief. Last year, Mitch Semel exited his post as programmer at the cable web and wasn’t replaced; that put more responsibilities on Kreek. Meanwhile, there was no word at MTV as to who will replace Herzog.

Kreek said he’s taking the summer off to hang out with his wife and children and “do some middle-age soul-searching. I’m also planning to spend a lot of time at the beach with Peter Tortorici and Connie Chung.”

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