Doug Herzog Talks Viacom, Comedy Central and Next Steps After Departure (EXCLUSIVE)

Doug Herzog
Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP

Doug Herzog was one of the original producers and programming executives at MTV in the 1980s, developing the shows that would become the cable channel’s first successful steps away from an all music videos, all the time lineup. In two stints atop Comedy Central, he then built that channel into one of cable’s most recognized brands, launching nearly every key program in its lineup.

Now, with new CEO Bob Bakish indicating that he favors new directions for MTV and Comedy Central, Herzog is departing Viacom, the company where he spent nearly 27 years.

“I’m really proud of everything I’ve been able to accomplish at Viacom,” Herzog told Variety Wednesday in an exclusive interview, shortly after he announced his exit in a memo to staff. “I’ve had a front seat for everything. Now watching the industry and the company and the world at large go through a pretty dramatic change, I’m looking forward to seeing what that means for me in terms of what’s next. It’s been a tremendous run at a tremendous place surrounded by tremendous people.”

Herzog first joined MTV as a producer in 1984, then went on to launch “The Real World,” the Video Music Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, and “Remote Control.” In 1995, on the back of his MTV success, he was named president of then-fledgling Comedy Central, at the time a joint venture between Viacom and Time Warner.

It was Herzog who, in a white-board meeting with executives and producers in 1996, said, “We need a daily show,” something that would become appointment viewing to help the network grow its audience. “The Daily Show” premiered under Herzog’s first watch at Comedy Central, as did “South Park” — two very different franchises that have defined the channel for nearly two decades. One of the last things Herzog did before leaving Viacom for the first time was hire Jon Stewart to take over for departing “Daily Show” host Craig Kilborn. Stewart, whom Herzog had worked with at MTV, would go on to become arguably one of the definitive broadcasters of the decade that followed.

Herzog served relatively brief stints at the helm of Fox and then USA, before returning to Comedy Central in 2004. It’s a point of pride for Herzog that in just one development season at Fox, he shepherded one of the biggest hits in the network’s history, “Malcolm in the Middle.” At USA, he launched “Monk” and “The Dead Zone.”

During his second tenure at Comedy Central, the network debuted “The Colbert Report,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” and “Key & Peele,” and relaunched “The Daily Show” with new host Trevor Noah. He also saw his purview widen over time, eventually gaining oversight of Spike, MTV, VH1, and Logo — as well as TV Land. VH1, under Herzog appointee Chris McCarthy, has been a rare bright spot of ratings growth for Viacom. But Herzog remains most proud of his work at Comedy Central, which has been the focus of much of his career.

“Comedy Central is a great brand and has been a great brand for a long time,” Herzog said. “We created a category. There’s certainly more comedy competition than ever before in the linear and digital sense, and everywhere. But comedy is a great category, and Comedy Central stands as a great brand with a lot of runway ahead of them.”

Noah, he said, is well positioned to carry “The Daily Show” going forward.

“I think he’ll be leading the way,” Herzog said. “Comedy Central’s great superpower has always been developing new voices, new talent. I know they’ll continue that.” He called Kent Alterman, promoted to president of the channel in May, “one of the great comedy executives I have ever worked with.”

But amid tectonic shifts at Viacom, Comedy Central and MTV have come under increased scrutiny. Bakish, former head of international channels for Viacom, was named full CEO last week after serving as interim CEO since October. Bakish landed the company’s top job after Viacom parent National Amusements, led by Sumner and Shari Redstone, killed talks of re-merging the company with CBS, which the Redstones also control.

Even before sewing up the CEO role, Bakish was calling for change at Comedy Central and MTV. Speaking at a financial conference two weeks ago, he called the recent move of MTV toward scripted programing “a mistake that we’re going to address” and said that it would be a priority to “turn” Comedy Central in the next year. However, he also expressed confidence in McCarthy, who was named president of MTV two months ago, and in Noah, whose “Daily Show” has failed to live up to ratings standards set by Stewart — but has garnered buzz post-presidential election for segments such as a recent interview with far-right commentator Tomi Lahren.

McCarthy, Alterman, and Spike president Kevin Kay will now report directly to Bakish — undoing a structure put in place last year by ousted Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman that saw heads of most of the company’s U.S. channels report to Herzog. The three network presidents are believed to hold relatively secure positions as Bakish sets about restructuring Viacom. Season-to-date, Comedy Central is down 8% in primetime viewers 18-49 from one year ago, according to Nielsen live-plus-same day numbers. Spike is down 10%. MTV is up 3%.

Herzog, meanwhile, has no set plan yet in terms of next steps. “Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been wrapping my head around stepping away,” he said. “I’m going to take some time to myself and do some traveling. I have a laundry list of things I want to do.”

He likened the current media landscape to his entry into the television business in the early 80s, when cable was still an emerging platform.

“There was a whole new thing going on in terms of cable, and now it’s digital and streaming and social media,” he said. “There’s a whole new world out there, and I’m just looking forward to being a part of that going forward.”

The cable business “certainly has its challenges” ahead of it, Herzog added. “Everybody’s got work to do — every brand across all platforms. But I do believe strong brands will survive. If they listen to their audience, stay focused on their audience, and keep a keen eye on what they’re creating for their audience in terms of content. But brands are still important. There are a lot of platforms out there that are very good at aggregating. But what makes it easier for the consumer to digest is great brands. The challenge for everybody is to be where the audience is and to be there in a way that makes a difference.”