Magazine article Newsweek

Meanwhile, Back at HQ

Magazine article Newsweek

Meanwhile, Back at HQ

Article excerpt

`South Park' is a hit, but Comedy Central can't be a one-joke wonder. Will it stay on the laugh track?

Here's a dirty little secret: Doug Herzog can't tell a joke. "I really am bad," he says. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily--except that for the past two and a half years Herzog, 39, has been president of Comedy Central. People have expectations. "My biggest frustration in this job is that everybody is like, `Hey, Doug! Comedy Central! Tell me a joke!' and I never have a joke."

For years, the same might have been said of Comedy Central. Sure, it had jokes, but the network's programming never quite lived up to the promise of its name. "They'd nm a set that you did at a club in Jersey in 1987 for 24 hours a day, along with, like, `Mary Tyler Moore' reruns," says comedian Denis Leary. "Who the f--wants to watch that?" Not nearly as many people as are drawn by a hit like "South Park." Since its premiere last August, the raunchy animated romp has lent new luster to a network that once trafficked in must-flee TV. Launched in 1991, the product of a shotgun marriage between competing comedy channels owned by HBO and MTV Networks, Comedy Central turned its first profit last year. The network now reaches about 47 million homes, up from 31 million in 1994, and ad rates for spots during "South Park" have rocketed from about $5,000 to as much as $50,000. Ratings are still paltry by broadcast standards, but in February an average of 329,000 households tuned in curing prime time, an increase of 73 percent over a year ago. "There's definitely a feeling that they're coming on strong," says Larry Gerbrandt of Paul Kagan Associates, a media-research and -consulting firm. "The next challenge is not to fritter away the `South Park' success."

Comedy Central has, after all, watched prior triumphs evaporate: the vodka-soaked Britcom "Absolutely Fabulous" drew attention, but its producers pulled the plug after a measly 18 episodes. …

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