THR's Women in Entertainment 2011: Power 100
If there's anything to glean from the decor in michele ganeless' office, it's that, even after nearly two decades at Comedy Central, she's still its biggest fan.
Her corner space at the company's headquarters in Lower Manhattan is a shrine to the brand. The assemblage of tchotchkes includes a bag of Cheesy Poofs, South Park snarkmeister Cartman's favorite snack, and a number of items related to her Northwestern University classmate Stephen Colbert, including a bobblehead and a blowup of Colbert and Jon Stewart on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2006.
She was at the National Mall in October with more than 200,000 others for Stewart and Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. She was among the guests at the Broadway opening of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Tony-winning musical The Book of Mormon. And she has spent many an afternoon in the audience at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report -- though with a 3½-year-old daughter at home, she has had to curtail that somewhat. "I can't go as regularly now because they tape right around dinner and bath time," Ganeless admits.
Her most important job, as she sees it, is to enable the subversive brilliance of her stars. "We want people who have their finger on the zeitgeist," she says. "And we give them the creative freedom that not a lot of places will give them."
Once a stepping stone (original Daily Show host Craig Kilborn left for The Late Late Show on CBS, and ABC poached Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect), Comedy Central is now a destination for comedians. Last year, the network signed contract extensions with Stewart and Colbert through June 2013. And on Nov. 16, Comedy Central renewed South Park for three more seasons, keeping the show that began in 1997 on the air until at least 2016.
"My job is to create the right environment so they want to come work here. And that is an open environment that rewards creativity and is very hands-off," she says. "I do not manage Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Daniel Tosh. We identify talent that has a very singular point of view, and we give them a platform to do their thing."
Their thing, of course, includes lampooning sacred cows, which can mean alienating religious leaders, decency watchdogs and sometimes even Hollywood A-listers. "I don't feel like they would ever hang us out to dry," says South Park executive producer Anne Garefino. "We're good partners. And Michele is the point person for all of that. I feel like we're all on the same team."
Ganeless, 46, herself stands in contrast to the riot of sometimes-puerile guy humor that abounds at Comedy Central, which targets men ages 18 to 34. On this unseasonably warm early November afternoon, she wears a simple black V-neck sweater tucked into black slacks. Her only discernible jewelry is a modest diamond wedding band. It is a new item: She married Peter Land -- the father of her daughter, Lucy, and a communications executive at PepsiCo -- in October. Low-key and bookish, she approaches her job with a wonkiness honed in research, where her career originated when the Nyack, N.Y., native landed an entry-level job at a small Chicago research firm after graduating from college.
"I like numbers," she says. "I loved research, and I still do. It's the basis of how I make all of my decisions to this day. It's all about the consumer, about our fans. And if you listen to them, they will tell you how to be successful."
Says Doug Herzog, MTV Entertainment Networks Group president and her boss and mentor: "Michele is a great strategic thinker. I'm kind of ADD and a little bit more improvisational. I think that's one of the reasons we work so well together."
Ganeless joined Viacom in 1990 as a research manager for Ha!, the precursor to Comedy Central, and moved up the ranks at MTV and Comedy Central in research and planning as well as programming. Except for a stint at USA Network from 2001-04, she has spent her entire career at the company and was a key member of the programming team that launched The Daily Show and South Park.
"Michele is one of the architects of the Comedy Central brand," says Herzog. "She's really worked in almost every facet of this company. She has a true understanding of the brand because she really helped create it."
This year, the network ranks as the No. 1 entertainment brand in primetime among men 18-34 and is second only to ESPN across all of TV in that demo. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have bested their late-night broadcast competition and rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, among viewers 18-24 and 18-34 in late-night. The network had the highest-rated week in its 20-year history in September during broadcast TV premiere week, thanks to a roast of Charlie Sheen (a booking coup that nabbed 7.6 million viewers), Tosh's College Campus Invasion special (4.2 million viewers), the second-season premiere of Workaholics (2.6 million viewers) and the premiere of Jeff Dunham's latest stand-up special (6.5 million viewers).
Ganeless admits that a record-breaking week can bring a new set of anxieties. "I would be lying if I said I didn't worry about topping it," she says. But together with her development and programming teams, she is actively plotting the next frontier, including expanding original programming into the post-midnight hours after Colbert's show wraps and continuing to grow the network's ancillary business, which has become key in keeping top talent at Comedy Central.
Comedy Central takes a "farm team" approach to building talent, which then can get 360-degree deals that include websites, consumer products, national tours, one-hour specials and DVDs. "The key is finding these people before they become the Jon Stewarts or the Daniel Toshs," says Ganeless. Tosh, who hosts Tosh.0 and has been with the network for more than 10 years, was discovered by the talent department that scours the comedy club and festival circuit for promising young comedians. He started out doing five-minute stand-up sets, then graduated to hosting stand-up specials and landed his own show in 2009. Buoyed by a robust social media presence (6.8 million Facebook fans, 4 million Twitter followers) and original web content that drives the highest traffic to the Tosh.0 site when the show is on hiatus, Tosh.0 is now the No. 1 program on the network, with more than 4 million viewers an episode this season. It is also TV's top-rated show Tuesdays at 10 p.m. among men 18-24 and 18-34.
"I think, truthfully, Tosh is our best example of development and programming and digital really working in absolute concert with one another," says Herzog. "And it's Michele's job to bring that all together."
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