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USA prez Herzog back to Comedy gig

Laffer net's Divney expected to announce retirement shortly

In the biggest exec aftershock yet of the pending NBC-Universal merger, USA Network prexy Doug Herzog is expected to ankle his post to return to his roots at Comedy Central.

Current Comedy Central prexy/CEO Larry Divney is expected to announce his retirement shortly, industry insiders said, paving the way for Herzog to rejoin the Viacom-owned MTV Networks family. Herzog ran Comedy Central from 1995 until late 1998, leaving to head Fox Broadcasting Co.’s entertainment division.

Divney told several key staff members of his decision earlier this week, according to two knowledgeable industry insiders. It’s possible the well-respected exec, who’s helped expand Comedy Central’s slate of original programming beyond staples such as “South Park” and “The Daily Show,” will work on other projects at MTV Networks.

Reps for MTV Networks and Comedy Central could not be reached or did not return calls late Tuesday. A spokesman for Universal TV Group had no comment.

Since NBC and Universal announced plans to merge, there’s been much speculation about how the exec structure of the new congloms’ various cable properties would change. NBC has already put Jeff Zucker in control of the Peacock’s news, entertainment and cable outlets; he’s expected to take oversight of the whole shebang once the merger wraps.

Jeff Gaspin, who now runs Bravo and NBC’s alternative/longform division, has long been expected to take an even greater role managing the day-to-day operations of the new NBC Universal cable empire. It wouldn’t have made sense for Herzog to report to Gaspin (or vice versa), so Herzog’s decision to return to the Viacom fold clears up any potential conflicts.

Still, NBC insiders have been saying in recent months that they were hopeful some sort of solution could be found to keep Herzog inside the new Peacock Universal fold. Herzog, however, has always expressed a desire to keep an active role in the management of cable properties, and his long history with Viacom and MTV Networks no doubt played a role in his decision to go home again.

Herzog is basking in stellar reviews for USA’s three-part mini “Traffic,” which has gotten the best critical notices of any longform project in the net’s history.

Exec joined USA in March 2001, pumping up the cabler’s originals and giving rise to “The Dead Zone” and “Monk,” two of basic cable’s most-watched series. “Monk” has also become a critical darling, with star Tony Shalhoub winning both an Emmy and Golden Globe.

At Comedy Central, Herzog doubled the cabler’s original programming budget and introduced “The Daily Show,” “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and the edgy breakout hit “South Park,” the highest-rated series on the channel. Herzog also enlarged the cabler’s viewer base, widening it from 35 million homes to 55 million.

During his 11-year tenure at MTV, Herzog helped transform the musicvideo-dependent channel into an original programming powerhouse. Series developed under Herzog’s watch include “Beavis & Butt-head,” “The Real World,” and the concert series “Unplugged.” He also helped develop “The MTV Video Music Awards,” “The Real World,” and MTV News.

Herzog’s brief run at Fox amplified the differences between the cable and broadcast worlds, but during his stint, he developed one of the net’s enduring hits: “Malcolm in the Middle” (which came from Regency TV, then overseen by current Fox topper Gail Berman.)

As for Divney, before taking the helm of Comedy Central, he served as the cabler’s exec VP of advertising sales. He has been with the laffer net since its launch in 1991. Prior to that, he headed ad sales at HBO-owned Comedy Channel, the cabler that merged with Viacom-owned HA! to form Comedy Central.

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