Life beyond South Park

Comedy Central says the hit show was just a warm-up act

It's just about 7:30 at Manhattan's Dive 75 bar, and bartender Felicia Dyer is calling for quiet as she adjusts the volume on the television set. A hush falls over the dark room as anticipation builds, but it's not for a CNBC stock-market wrap-up or ESPN's SportsCenter. Instead, the goofy, bespectacled face of a game-show host appears on the screen: Another episode of Win Ben Stein's Money is under way on Comedy Central. The Emmy Award-winning show features Stein, a nasal-voiced comedic actor who once wrote speeches for Richard Nixon, competing with contestants to protect his loot. "I love it because he's just so funny," says aspiring actress Dyer. "And you can get everybody in the bar to participate."

Winning against TV mainstays like sports and stocks is one reason executives at Comedy Central are in a very good humor this year as the channel celebrates its 10th anniversary. Other reasons for the smiles might be that Comedy Central has more than quadrupled its revenues, to $300 million, in five years and reaches more than 70 million households, about 85% of all cable and satellite homes (chart). But there was no greater sign that the channel had arrived than the appearances of comedian Jon Stewart, host of the channel's The Daily Show, on NBC's Today Show nearly every week last fall to offer his offbeat insights on the protracted Presidential election.

"OLIVE BRANCH." That it's irreverent and often silly, boasts a hip young audience that advertisers love, and is a welcome alternative to pundit-filled talk shows are only a few of Comedy Central's unique ingredients. It also has the distinction of being the only joint venture between rival media competing AOL Time Warner Inc. and Viacom Inc. "We're the olive branch," says Comedy Central Executive Vice-President Tony Fox. AOL and Viacom may have competing TV networks, cable channels, pay TV, and movie studios, but Comedy Central is their DMZ. They split profits down the middle, and honchos from Viacom's (VIA) MTV Networks and AOL's (AOL) Home Box Office sit four to a side on Comedy Central's board. The channel has its own executives and staff, and the owners don't seem to meddle much, though each is dying to take over outright. "As much as I love my colleagues at HBO, of course I'd like to own the other half," says MTV CEO Tom Freston. So far, neither side is willing to sell.

So wary is the truce between the two sides that neither AOL nor Viacom does any cross-promoting of Comedy Central on their own properties, loath as they are to give airtime to a competitor. "We're not a wholly owned subsidiary of either side, so they give us a promotions budget and let us do it ourselves," says Comedy Central CEO Larry Divney, formerly the top ad sales executive. "When you do well, they leave you alone." With operating income estimated to be $77 million this year, Comedy Central has clearly earned some autonomy.

TWIN DUDS. The channel's early days were anything but funny. In fact, Comedy Central was born out of growing acrimony between Viacom and what was then Time Warner. In late 1989, HBO launched Comedy Channel, a money-losing venture that sparked little interest from cable operators. Soon after, Viacom's MTV started HA! The TV Comedy Network, which also had trouble winning over cable operators. Executives at the two channels began trashing each other in the trade press. Recalls Michael Fuchs, who ran HBO at the time: "I never thought it would take a comedy channel to make me lose my sense of humor." The two sides eventually realized that cable might not yet be big enough for both of them and merged. "We figured we'd take a half a programming loaf and turn it into a whole loaf," says HBO Chief Jeffrey Bewkes.

Early original programming included Politically Incorrect, which later made it to the big time (it's now a late-night staple on ABC) and the first incarnation of The Daily Show, hosted by Craig Kilborn, recruited from ESPN. It wasn't until 1997, though, that Comedy Central really took off, thanks to a cartoon show called South Park, created by unemployed film school graduates Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The adventures of potty-mouthed third-graders Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman in the Rockies town of South Park became an unexpected hit. Cable operator TCI had dropped Comedy Central from its systems in 1997, a loss of 2 million subscribers, only to re-sign the channel a year later to catch the wave. "That was based on the power of one show, South Park," says Divney. "The show accelerated our plans by a year and a half almost overnight."

South Park became a franchise unto itself, selling over half a billion dollars in merchandise and earning $70 million at the box office in its movie version. A year after South Park's launch, Comedy Central's gross ad revenues had rocketed to $153 million from $89 million. "Until then, we had been hitting mostly singles and doubles," says Freston. "This was the defining show for the network."

Still, execs keep pouring money into new shows lest Comedy Central become the South Park network. Some big hits: BattleBots, in which robots built by amateurs, some equipped with whirling saws, try to destroy each other; TV Funhouse, featuring comedy writer Robert Smigel with puppets and live animals, and The Man Show, about raunchy guys. Then there's That's My Bush!, a weekly satire depicting the President and his family. The show, created by South Park's Stone and Parker, premiered in April and already has a cult following. Some new programs on tap are Let's Bowl, based in Minnesota and described as a cross between The People's Court and Bowling for Dollars, and Primetime Glick, starring Martin Short as Jiminy Glick, a fat celebrity interviewer who harasses his guests. Whether it's with one of these programs or some surprise hit still in the making, the betting is that Comedy Central will come up with something to make sure those cartoon brats on South Park don't steal the show.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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