Laughable Web site exchange

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Comedy Central wants to get out of its own way online.

In an unusual strategic about-face, the brand plans to move its Internet-only original programming off Comedycentral.com and onto AtomFilms, a Web site that Viacom acquired in 2006. By the end of the first quarter next year, Atom will be re-established as a comedy-oriented vertical channel under Comedy Central's growing suite of digital brands, including the recently announced TheDailyShow.com.

Now the network has come to realize that its brand might be working against itself online, where established media players are being challenged by upstart brands. That is the case particularly in the comedy category with such entrants as Break.com and FunnyOrDie.com.

"Comedy Central is viewed as a renegade on TV, but is it a renegade on the Web?" said Erik Flannigan, executive vp digital media at MTV Networks. "I won't say everyone saw us as the Man, but our originals came to be seen as what wasn't good enough to get on television."

The network discovered that the audience amassed by its online programs on Comedycentral.com paled in comparison to the performance of video repurposed from its TV series. What's more, the network's online originals did better on Atom than its own site.

The hope is that the network's originals will fare better on Atom, which is more suited to new content discovery, whereas they were overshadowed by the TV assets on Comedycentral.com. The shift will also enable MTV Networks ad sales to package Comedy Central and Atom together for advertisers.

While Comedy Central may be a better known brand than Atom, its traffic is only slightly better, with both brands approximately under 5 million unique visitors per month, according to ComScore Media Metrix.

Comedy Central has spent the last few years aggressively seeding its own site with dozens of edgy short-form programs not seen on its TV channel, some from established Hollywood pros. For instance, "The King of Queens" writer Michael Weithorn produced "Baxter & McGuire," an animated series featuring a talking pair of testicles.

Rest assured Atom will continue in Comedy Central's scatological tradition online. A development slate being assembled for relaunch includes "Steve & Steve," an animated series about conjoined twins connected at the groin. With its development operations now connected with Comedy Central, Atom will also continue to tap top comedic talent. "Scrubs" writer Ryan Levin is developing animated series "Benny the Escaped Convict." Both "Benny" and "Steve" will get a sneak preview Tuesday at a MTV Networks-sponsored "digifest" at the Digital Hollywood conference.

This isn't the first time Comedy Central has changed course for its online original strategy. In its initial phase, the original were a featured component of a video player, Motherlode, that launched off the site. But Motherlode was scrapped last year and the content was shifted back to the Web site.

"I can't think of anyone else in television who in dollars and resources has made a bigger effort," said Lou Wallach, senior vp original programming and development at Comedy Central. "We got in early and we went full force. This is the next evolution."

Atom has seen plenty of changes itself since being founded nearly 10 years ago by Mika Salmi, who has since been elevated to president of MTVN Global Digital Group. The company merged in 2001 with gaming company Shockwave, but those companies were split again under MTVN. The site has been a hub for short films for most of its existence, many with a comedic bent.
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