MTV Networks boss Doug Herzog weighs in on “South Park’s” humor, late-night’s expansion and Stewart vs. Conan.
Doug Herzog’s résumé is no laughing matter. He served as Comedy Central chief from 1995-98 and has been president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group since 2006, after rejoining Comedy as president in 2004. During his tenure, he has launched the careers of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Daniel Tosh and South Park’s Matt Parker and Trey Stone. This year, Comedy Central, which celebrates its 20th birthday April 1, ranks 10th among basic cable networks, with primetime viewership up 17 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. Herzog, 51, also oversees Spike and TV Land. The Paterson, N.J., native, a father of three, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at his Santa Monica office to discuss the plan to expand Comedy Central’s late-night block, the ongoing boundary-pushing on South Park and why viewers should tune in to yet another awards show.
You made the decision to put South Park on the air 15 years ago. Would you make the same decision today? Would it be easier or harder?
South Park was breakthrough in so many ways. At the time, it was, “Oh my God, can we actually put this on TV?” The “Wow, can we do this?” piece used to keep me up at night. The one interesting thing, though, is Comedy Central was a joint venture at the time; it was basically run by MTV and HBO, so I was working for Tom Freston and Jeff Bewkes. The great thing about a joint venture is that you have two bosses, but in a way you really have no boss. So South Park was completely outrageous, and I remember showing it to both of them, and they were both like: “All right. OK. All right.” But I’ve often wondered if Comedy Central was a wholly owned company whether somebody would have said, “You know what, I’m not going to let you put that on.” I’m not sure. And then I’d go back to today, where it’s a little more risk-averse out there in the world in general, and I wonder. On the other hand, there are a lot of people doing great envelope-pushing, groundbreaking stuff every day on basic cable, whether it’s us or MTV or FX. But I think South Park was literally the battering ram that started the whole thing.
Does it still keep you up at night?
Last spring [after a planned joke about Muhammad spurred death threats and was censored], there were certainly nights. That was a difficult moment, but that comes with the territory. Everybody has moved on, and that’s the beauty of the show. [Laughs] You should never get too comfortable around South Park.
What is the biggest challenge you face today?
Job number one is always about finding the next hit. Beyond that, it’s everything that’s happening in technology; the expanding windows and platforms are mind-boggling, and we spend a lot of time trying to navigate that. But that always brings us back to content. Ultimately, we need to figure out how to monetize all of it, but I think as an industry, and as a company, we’ve been pretty smart about it. We know we’re not the newspaper business or the music business, and we feel pretty good about where we’re going.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, friend or foe?
Hmm, I think right now they seem like friend as distribution opportunities. They’re all beginning to make inroads into original content as we all just read with Netflix’s House of Cards deal. Look, I know I’m going to be watching that closely, and I certainly applaud that, but they certainly have a long way to go to challenge companies like ourselves that are in the content business in a big way.
When it comes to late-night, has the paradigm shifted in favor of cable?
Broadcast isn’t going away, but it’s no longer just a two-horse race, which it was for many, many years. So now the audience is being sort of divvied up in different ways, which was inevitable. But I like how we’re positioned. We do something completely differentiated, and we think we’ve got the two best guys out there in Stewart and Colbert. That said, I do think you’re going to see more people trying to get into the business.
Do you see expanding your late-night presence?
Yeah, possibly. There’s a real opportunity from 10 to 1; we often talk about that as being primetime for young men. So I think there is an opportunity. It’s got to be the right thing at the right time.
On a daily basis?
Remember, daily for us is four nights a week. We’re looking at it, trying to figure out how you extend it and not go broke doing it at midnight on basic cable.
Has Conan proved to be the threat you expected it to be?
I think it’s kind of all netted out where we thought it might, with little to no harm to us. We seem to be as strong as ever, and we’re winning most nights, or every night more recently. I sort of liked having 11 o’clock all to ourselves, but what are you going to do?
Stewart frequently says he’s “just a comedian.” Is that accurate?
He’s just a comedian who hosts a nightly format that covers the news — it’s not his fault that he also happens to be brilliant and enormously interested in world events. So I think he’s got a journalist’s instincts, but he’s a comedian at heart.
Any plans to spin off any more Daily Show correspondents into their own shows?
John Oliver has been hosting some stand-up shows for us, and we think he’s a great talent. We’d like to be in business with him for a long time, but for the moment he’s fully committed to The Daily Show, and that’s a full-time gig. But look, Jon Stewart has proven more than adept at developing talent. Look at Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry and Rob Riggle. He’s the new Lorne Michaels. It’s like having a super-secret weapon, certainly as it pertains to finding and indentifying new talent.
Tosh.0 is a hit, at a price bean-counters love. Will you try to replicate the format?
The format has always been a part of TV; it’s never gone away. It’s part Funniest Home Videos, part Soup — but that’s not the important part. The important part is Daniel Tosh. You could do that show with a 100 different guys, and 99 times it’s not going to work.
Your roasts have been big audience grabbers for Comedy Central, in part because of their raunchiness. How does the latter impact advertising?
Look, not everyone wants to be in something like that, but there are those advertisers who are looking to reach that kind of audience that’s a little more willing to jump in on something like that. And then they generally know what they’re signing up for. It’s not like we’re doing The Sound of Music. There are plenty of advertisers who don’t necessarily want to be a part of an evening like that, but there are also those that do. We really love them internally. And yes, we love the raunchiness, though sometimes they even make us blush.
What was running through your head as the Situation was getting booed on the dais?
I thought, “Ooh, this might be Minute 16 of his career that we’re witnessing right here.” One of the things that I love about the roasts is that despite the fact that they’re taped, there’s a “this thing can come off the rails at any time” feeling to them.
On April 10, you’ll air the first Comedy Awards. How do you persuade viewers to watch another awards show?
Like the world needs another awards show! But think about it: Movies have their night and generally ignore comedy; TV has its own night; Broadway has its own night; pornography has its own night, for God’s sake. Comedy doesn’t, and we’ve wanted to do this for a long time.
Are there genres you’d like to be in?
At Comedy Central, we started as this upstart kid shooting spitballs in the back of the class to being, I believe, at the head of the class. Now, I just don’t want to get old, fat or lazy. I want to be relevant, funny and right on the edge of everything that’s happening on all platforms. We’ve got a couple of shows coming up that we feel really good about in Workaholics and Sports Show With Norm Macdonald. And then we’re working hard on trying to crack the scripted comedy stuff.
You dipped your toe in the broadcast world as Fox entertainment chief (from 1998-2000).
Yeah, for like a cup of coffee.
Does returning to that world hold any appeal?
Zero. I’m not sure why I did it in the first place. I used to tell people that if I had to do it again, I probably would. I don’t think so anymore. I had grown up in a time when it was all about the networks, so the idea of running one was appealing — as misguided as it might have seemed. Once I got there, I was like: “What am I doing here? I love cable television.