A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Doug Herzog’s television career has come full circle. At 56, the president of Viacom’s Music and Entertainment Group oversees a vast cable portfolio that includes his first network homes: MTV and Comedy Central, where he launched such iconic series as The Real World, South Park and The Daily Show. In his few years not at Viacom, he brought Monk (USA) and Malcolm in the Middle (Fox) to the air. Those credits, among others, now find Herzog joining Steve Harvey, Quincy Jones, Sophie Turner Laing and Norman Lear in receiving NATPE’s Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award.
Ahead of the Jan. 20 honor, Herzog reflected on three decades in TV and the challenges of making seven networks relevant in a tough cable climate. That includes the long-term plans for Comedy Central personalities Amy Schumer, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore — and the evolving identity at MTV News, where new editorial director Dan Fierman has been busy staffing up with fellow Grantland alums as part of a network-wide revamp.
What is your go-to cocktail party story from your first year at MTV?
Nothing that can be printed. MTV, in the early ‘80s, was a glorious place and a glorious time. I like to say that it was the most fun you can have with your clothes on. There was one afternoon, I got a call from [then-MTV Networks CEO] Tom Freston. He was out of town, but Muhammad Ali just showed up wanting to talk to him. Would I see him? I’m like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll talk to Muhammad Ali.” He just rolled in off the street because he wanted to maybe do something at MTV and said, “Hey, is the guy who runs this place around?” Everybody wanted to be on MTV — it’s hard to imagine, in a world as fragmented as the one we live in now, that there was one place like that. Cindy Crawford worked for free on the first season of House of Style because she wanted to be on MTV.
Cindy Crawford worked for free?
Yeah, she worked for free the first year. She didn’t work for free after that.I’ll promise you that.
Inside Amy Schumer just was renewed through a fifth season. How long do you see her at Comedy Central?
[The show] is near and dear to her, but it’s a lot of hard work. Hardly anybody is going to do a sketch comedy forever. In the world of Comedy Central, five seasons is kind of where we like to get to with everybody — South Park and The Daily Show being big anomalies. But Amy Schumer is a shooting star, or whatever generic phrase you want to use, and the truth about Amy is she’ll be able to do whatever she wants.
Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore have been critically well received; how will you grow their audiences?
We feel like we’re over the hard part, the transition from Jon [Stewart] and Stephen [Colbert]. Now it’s about building. These are marathons, not sprints. You look at the trajectory of Amy Schumer and go, “You know, five years would be great.” Anything else is gravy. The Daily Show or Nightly Show, you know, you’re talking about 10 years. The idea now is to make the shows a little better on Tuesday than they were on Monday, keep building the audience and establishing our new beachheads.
You tapped Grantland‘s Dan Fierman to lead MTV News. With Vice occupying that space, where do you want to see the division go?
I came to MTV in 1984 to start the news department. There’s big opportunity for MTV and MTV News — especially on digital platforms. Now it’s about defining our point of view. Certainly Vice, more recently, has done a good job around that. With Dan coming in, it’s an opportunity for MTV to refocus itself to a more specific point of view than it’s had. [After Herzog spoke with THR, Fierman hired former Grantland employees Molly Lambert and Mark Lisanti and named LA Weekly‘s Amy Nicholson MTV News’ chief film critic.]
The Shannara Chronicles, which premiered to 1.9 million live-plus-3 viewers, is expensive and ambitious. How much do MTV’s scripted plans hinge on its success?
If it’s a big hit, you know, you’re going see more of it. (Laughs.) But I think MTV, in terms of percentage of the schedule that’s going be scripted, I’m not sure we’re going be tipping the balance. MTV is still about 70 percent nonscripted. We want to do big, impactful scripted things — things that could kind of only be on MTV. When you step back from Shannara, it is kind of an out-of-the-box choice for MTV, but where else could it go?
and [the staff].””]
Is there a series that you think of as “the one that got away?”
No. I don’t feel like that about TV. But I do know that just prior to my returning in 2004, Comedy Central had an opportunity to pick up Family Guy and did not. That might have changed things a little bit.
How did you feel about the success of Malcolm in the Middle? You got it on the air and then very quickly left Fox.
I was at Fox for a cup of coffee. Fourteen months. Malcolm premiered in January of 2000, and I left the network that March. But I did leave them with one big fat hit. I like to take a lot of credit for it because somebody stuck it under my nose. It was at another network, and I sort of fell in love with it. [Creator] Linwood Boomer came in, and I said, “I just want you to make this script.” They were kind of stunned. But that pilot was submitted for the Emmys, which they won that first season.
Why do you think the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is featured so prominently on your Wikipedia profile?
Here’s what I want to say about Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans: They are small, they are loyal and they are vicious. (Laughs.) At that time at Comedy Central, I was getting death threats. They’re the most mean-spirited people I’ve ever encountered. It was a funny show, but it was basically getting no ratings. I was the new guy, and I wanted to try some other shit.
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