MTV Networks Boss Doug Herzog: 'There's a Real Opportunity' to Expand Comedy Central's Late-Night
Doug Herzog's resume 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.
The Hollywood Reporter: 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?
Herzog: 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.
THR: Does it still keep you up at night?
Herzog: 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.
THR: What is the biggest challenge you face today?
Herzog: 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.
THR: Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, friend or foe?
Herzog: 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.
THR: When it comes to late-night, has the paradigm shifted in favor of cable?
Herzog: 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.
THR: Do you see expanding your late-night presence?
Herzog: 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.
THR: On a daily basis?
Herzog: 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.
THR: Has Conan proved to be the threat you expected it to be?
Herzog: 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?