A recent NYTimes article highlights the challenges Comedy Central is currently experiencing. The network that launched the careers of Dave Chappelle, Stephen Colbert and Amy Schumer is facing a tough crowd as viewership declines has led to corporate restructuring and an exploration on how to produce cheaper programming.
In the last six months, senior executives have been pushed out and in late April most of the network’s talent and development team were relieved of their duties.
What happened? Viacom and CBS merged again to form ViacomCBS with the intention to save $750 million through job cuts and develop a strategy to transform its cable TV brands for the emerging streaming video environment.
Robert M. Bakish, the former Viacom boss, became the chief executive of the new ViacomCBS entity when the merger closed in December. Bakish elevated MTV President, Chris McCarthy, to oversee a group of channels that include Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, TV Land and CMT.
Check out Bakish CNBC interview
Chris McCarthy replaced longtime Comedy Central president, Kent Alterman, who was a onetime film director (he made the Will Ferrell comedy “Semi-Pro”). NYTimes report that Alterman was a corporate suit who could make comedians laugh, endeared himself to the talent and guided the network’s most influential series in recent years, “Broad City,” and other unconventional shows. “Kent was kind of the mentor and really the tastemaker there,” said comedian Anthony Jeselnik, who had his own talk show, “Good Talk.”
In recent months the network started to shift away from scripted programs like “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City” and toward unscripted cheaper shows, according to three people with knowledge of the strategy.
In May 2020, ViacomCBS gutted Comedy Central’s talent and development team that was responsible for building programs around up and coming comics who were on the verge of breaking through. To be fair ViacomCBS executives needed to make changes because the old way of running a cable network no longer made sense. “Merging organizations is a difficult process, and doing so within a global pandemic makes it more complicated,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement. “That said, it’s necessary to move from a cable-centric structure to a fully integrated organization with creative, cultural and commercial hits at the center of everything we do.”
Comedy Central veterans that include executives, producers, managers and comedians said this new realignment could weaken the network’s ability to develop and showcase the next generation of innovative and break comedy background like they have with “Key & Peele,” and “Strangers With Candy.”
It looks like McCarthy is going to repurpose his MTV strategy playbook for Comedy Central. He joined MTV in 2016 and turned the network’s fortune by leveraging its past hits to generate nostalgic curiosity by rebooting shows like “Jersey Shore,” “The Hills” and “Total Request Live.“ Plus there are a host of program marathons of “Ridiculousness,” “Jersey Shore” and “Catfish: The TV Show.”
Check out a typical week of MTV’s linear schedule
Comedy Central’s late night signature program, “The Daily Show,” has continued to be relevant with Trevor Noah. Also its new sitcom, “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” is putting up strong ratings. Despite the success of original programming, the network’s schedule is heavy with reruns of one of its longest-running hits, “South Park,” and old shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” That prevents opportunities for the next Chappelle or Sedaris, but short game is paying off as viewership has trended upward in recent months.
Despite current strategy of heavy repeat TV schedule lineup, Chris McCarthy suggests that Comedy Central would embrace new content, particularly movies, animated projects and unscripted shows. “We remain deeply committed to our talent and partners as we work together to grow existing hits and develop new ones that define culture across adult animation, scripted series/original movies and topical shows — the hallmarks of the Comedy Central brand for almost 30 years,” Mr. McCarthy said in his statement.
The comedy game is going through a tough time as the Covid-19 pandemic has grounded standup comics, talent managers and club owners from touring. Coupled with the challenge traditional cable networks face to hang on to their audiences as more people are cutting the cord and opting for OTT alternatives.
Streaming has been on the rise for a decade. In fact, more people are streaming video content around the world (613 million) vs. the number of cable subscribers (556 million) according to the Motion Picture Association of America. This change in viewing habits have upended the media, tech and telecommunications sectors.
Netflix heavied up its stand up comedy game by spending millions to lock down Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle for their live shows. The platform is also helping to create new comedy superstars with comics like Hannah Gadsby and Ali Wong.
Also, let’s not forget that five years ago there was a changing of the guard as a slew of high profile comedy talent either retired or moved on to another network. From Stephen Colbert taking over Letterman’s CBS Late Show, Samantha Bee going to TBS and John Oliver going to HBO for their talk shows. Long time The Daily Show host Jon Stewart retired.
ViacomCBS does have its own streaming service, CBS All Access, which features Peele from “Key & Peele” in their rebooted “Twilight Zone” series. The company has opted to leverage its content to other platforms. Paramount Pictures, a ViacomCBS property, made a deal with Netflix to release “The Lovebirds,” a comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae.
ViacomCBS recently made a deal to sell the “South Park” library to HBO Max for a reported $500 million. And the company has engaged in talks with several streaming services, including HBO Max, about selling some current series and library content, according to two people with knowledge of discussions.
Company executives believe the new programming strategy — movies, unscripted topical shows, animated programs — will attract more viewers than new scripted series at a lower cost. But people in the comedy world doubt and lament the loss of the Comedy Central they’ve known for decades.
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