Plans for an orderly transition at the top of Comedy Central were shaken Monday night when news leaked that president Michele Ganeless would depart the network and be succeeded by her top deputy, programming chief Kent Alterman. Viacom music and entertainment group president Doug Herzog — whose charges include Comedy Central, MTV, and several other networks — and Ganeless had hoped to announce the change to staff Tuesday morning. It didn’t work out that way.
Regardless, the change at the top takes place at a critical time for the network. Like MTV, Comedy Central targets a young audience and has experienced ratings declines sharper than those being endured at other cable networks. The worst of those have come in the 11 p.m. hour, where new late-night hosts Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore are drawing numbers significantly below those of their predecessors, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Herzog, Ganeless and Alterman spoke with Variety Tuesday to talk about those challenges, the transition and the network’s future.
Michele, was this your choice to leave now?
Ganeless: Yes it was. It was a very hard choice, but it was my choice.
So how long had this been in the works and how did the plan to transition to from you to Kent come about?
Ganeless: Doug and I started talking last fall. My contract is up this fall. So about a year out we started talking about the future. It was a really, as I said before, hard decision for me, the choice of staying here and signing on for a longer term or doing something different. I’m so proud of everything we’ve done here. The better part of my adult life has been spent here building this brand with this incredible group of people. Doug has given me so many opportunities and been an incredible mentor and friend, but I felt like it was time for me to try something new, to go create something new.
What specifically are you going to do next? Will you be producing?
Ganeless: Everything is on the table. I honestly want to take a minute to help everybody here with the transition, and then talk to anybody who is going to talk to me about any and all interesting opportunities.
Doug, what does it mean for the network for this transition to be happening now and how did Kent come to be the right person to step into the role?
Herzog: Kent has been leading Comedy Central creatively for quite some time now and has led a real creative renaissance here over the last several years. We are a content company at the end of the day. This brand is about great comedic content. So in that regard, given Kent’s experience here, his seniority here and his great talent as a leader, and a guy who knows how to manage creative people and develop content and attract talent, Kent seemed like the obvious choice.
With the network’s ratings declines, did you consider turning to someone from outside the organization, as you did last year with MTV?
Herzog: Look, that’s a fair question, but no, we did not. Not even for a second. The truth is while Comedy’s got ratings issues, we need more original content, we need better original content in addition to what we have, but what Comedy does have is incredible brand vitality. We’re talking about a brand in a post-Jon Stewart, post-Stephen Colbert era, that has tremendous assets and tremendous vitality and is in the cultural conversation on an ongoing basis.
We’ve got some headwinds in terms of how our audience is engaging with us. Not unlike MTV, we’re at the tip of the spear there, because we’ve got young audiences who are changing their behavior rapidly. But I’m very, very comfortable with the health of the brand, the vitality of the brand, the relevance of the brand and the quality of what we’re doing.
We were always going to take the Jon and Stephen ratings hit when they left, and we’re taking that now. But we’ve got a road map for the future. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’re in it for the long run. Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” did not reach the elevated heights that he ended at in September of 2015 overnight. I don’t suspect Trevor Noah will either, but we believe he will get there.
So are you committed to Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore for the long haul?
Herzog: We’re committed to both shows. We see this as a long run for us. These are new shows, these are developing shows. These are new talents, developing talents. We are patient. We’re trying take the long view and develop these talents to get them where we would like them to be.
Are we going to see a broad overhaul of the programming strategy the way that we’re seeing at MTV?
Herzog: Comedy Central and MTV both have ratings issues. It think it would be fair to say, I’ll leave this to you, but MTV’s got a brand issue that they’re working on. Comedy to a lesser degree. Now, they both have ratings issues and I think both networks will do better, need to do better. There’s a great sense of urgency at both networks. I don’t want in this orderly internal transition at Comedy for them not to feel the sense of urgency they’ve always felt. But two different networks both with young audiences that are becoming increasingly challenging to find in a traditional way, but two brands that I would say have different levels of brand vitality right now. I would argue that Comedy is pretty strong.
Kent, we’ve seen some high-profile people leave Comedy Central and find success elsewhere — John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Key and Peele. Are you worried about the network’s ability to retain top talent?
Alterman: We’re pretty disappointed that Jon Stewart only gave us 16 years. We feel that was pretty unfair. But we’re getting over it.
No, look, I think there’s a natural order to things and each one of those was situational. When John Oliver was ready to make a move, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were both here and had not indicated if and when they wanted to leave. It’s a great story for people to write how we should have put John Oliver in “The Daily Show,” but guess what? Jon Stewart was there. I don’t remember anyone saying we should push Jon Stewart out and put John Oliver there. And Samantha Bee wasn’t really interested in doing a strip show every night. If you look at TBS, she’s doing a weekly show, and that suits her.
Then if you look at sketch, apart from an institutional sketch show like “SNL” where there’s talent that goes in and out through the years, the sketch shows that are really created, produced written and starring creative performers like Key and Peele, there is a natural course to how much they have in them and we got five seasons from them and we’re really happy about that, and we’re continuing to work with people like that. We’re continuing to develop projects with them as talent. They’re branching individually into producing. Amy Schumer is branching into producing. We’re happy that we continue maintaining those relationships.
You renewed “Inside Amy Schumer” in January for a fifth season. Have you talked with her about going beyond five?
Herzog: I think Amy’s immediately viable movie career is something that she’s going to be pretty focused on going forward. That’s one of the things in developing stars — they create other opportunities for themselves and we have to figure out how to work around it. But she’s got a lot on her plate right now.
So no “Schumer” beyond season five?
Herzog: To be determined.
Doug, you talked about the headwinds that you face. You’re a younger skewing network, a comedy network. Are you more vulnerable than others to the changes in viewer habits?
Herzog: Less because of comedy and more because of the demo, a little bit. The younger viewers are the ones that are going to adopt new technologies and new platforms faster. Comedy feels so much bigger to me today than it did when Michele and I, Kent and I, the three of us were here the first time around. Back in those days, the knock on Comedy was that it didn’t work internationally, it didn’t travel. The truth is it now travels internationally a lot better than it used to. I don’t think anything travels in the digital universe better than our brand of comedy. So I think there’s plenty of runway and opportunity ahead.