The Onion makes big TV push

Comedy Central, IFC rolling out new satire shows

When talking to someone from the Onion, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between truth and deadpan hyperbole. So when Will Graham, an executive producer and director for both of the Onion’s new television ventures, boasts that the company would ultimately like to follow Oprah Winfrey’s lead and form its own network, it’s natural to chuckle and dismiss the statement outright.

Then again, with two new television series — “Onion SportsDome” on Comedy Central and “Onion News Network” on IFC — premiering this month, the news-satire organization is off to a pretty good start in cornering the misinformation market. Both programs’ skewed, satiric takes on the news presentations of ESPN and CNN, respectively, are perfectly in line with the Onion’s online news videos, which the company began creating in 2007 after a year of research and development.

“We had been reading how Web video was going to be big, so we hired smart young people and sat them around a Ping-Pong table in an office in New York’s SoHo neighborhood,” says Onion topper Steve Hannah. “The idea was, if we’re really good at this, eventually the TV studios would come knocking. It’s kind of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment.”

Hannah adds that staffers are working “at capacity” to finish the initial 10-episode orders on both shows. The Onion’s deals with IFC and Comedy Central are for four 10-episode cycles, each renewed at the networks’ discretion. Evan Shapiro, president of IFC and Sundance Channel, can’t make any commitments at this point, but notes that “artistically, ‘Onion News Network’ is a great show. Now it’s on us to find an audience for it.”

Graham and fellow executive producer Julie Smith believe that audience exists, pointing to the website’s popularity and the shows’ distinctive comic voice.”We never wink at the audience,” Smith says. “We never say we’re in on the joke. Jon Stewart is great, but the audience knows he and (Steven) Colbert are in on the joke. We don’t let on.”

Maintaining that distinction was important to Hannah, particularly after the disappointing experience of “The Onion Movie,” a comedy written by Onion staffers but made without any further collaboration after it sold. The film, shot in 2003, sat on the shelf before going straight to DVD in 2007.

“We learned you have to maintain control of anything with your name on it,” Hannah says. The Onion’s foray into Web videos was entirely self-financed to maintain creative autonomy and, once it built an online audience, networks came calling.

“They came in with 10 million unique visitors and three million streams,” Shapiro says. “If a producer can create something and come to the table with a built-in audience and a proven concept, the leverage really does remain with them.”

Whether The Onion expands that leverage remains to be seen. Hannah believes another film will be made sometime soon and sees sitcom possibilities for the news show, which he calls a kind of “?’West Wing’ version of ‘Onion News Network.’ ”

“And I think ESPN may well hire away our sports anchors,” he adds. “Those guys are good.”