Comedy Central Execs Talk Regime Change and Clear Mandate: "More Is Better"

Michele Ganeless, Kent Alterman, Doug Herzog and David Bernath Split - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Comedy Central

Michele Ganeless, Kent Alterman, Doug Herzog and David Bernath Split - Publicity - H 2016

"It's simple in theory. It's pretty challenging in execution," Doug Herzog says of a linear ratings turnaround, joining Michele Ganeless in her exit interview.

Comedy Central finds itself in a particularly unique scenario during the current executive shuffle. President Michele Ganeless exits at a time when the network's brand identity is as strong as ever, home to marquee names (Amy Schumer) and critical darlings (Broad City), but its ratings narrative is like that of most of cable — it could be a lot better. 

A day after announcing Ganeless' impending departure — she'll stay on through the end of May — and the rise of programming topper Kent Alterman to her post and David Bernath's promotion to GM, the trio joined Viacom Music & Entertainment Group boss Doug Herzog in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the changing of the guard, the current climate and an era of flux at Viacom.

Reflecting on Ganeless' long tenure at the network and turning an eye to a future with more original content and a linear viewership turnaround, the group also emphasized that Alterman's involvement in creative won't been reduced (too much) in his new position.

Michele, how long have you been thinking about this — and when did you and Doug start talking about a departure?
Ganeless: This is a very hard decision to make and not one that I took lightly. [Doug and I] have been talking about this for the better part of the last six months ... really, for me to figure out what I want next in life. I love this job. I think I have the best job in television. But I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I want to build other things and flex other muscles. In order to do that, I have to leave my work family. Doug gave me a lot of freedom to make my own timeline. So, after our upfront in March, I finally made the decision. We've been talking about the succession plan to Kent and Dave since then.

This job can really take one out of the day-to-day of creative. Kent, how do you plan on staying in the trenches and continuing to identify and nurture emerging talent in this new role?
Alterman: The truth is that I haven't been doing it alone. There's an incredible staff of executives in the talent and development department that I've been leaning on and working with for a really long time. None of that really changes. They know about emerging talent before I do. I'm going to be relying on them to step up even more. I have no doubt about the team we have in place. In that regard, it won't change. I won't be as involved in some day-to-day aspects. But, in terms of a collective group, what we do isn't changing.

Many executives regret losing some of those day-to-day aspects of the creative process. Were you at all conflicted about taking the job?
Alterman: I think that change is a double-edged sword. It has a mix of excitement and fear and anxiety attached to it. I don't know how it's going to all unfold. I know that in the big scheme of things, the idea of building a brand that connects and resonates with our audience, and is amplified on all sorts of platforms now, the essence of all of that keeps moving as we try to adapt to the changing world. The degree to which I can broaden my scope at the network and hopefully have an impact on continuing the great corporate culture that Doug and Michele built here is also exciting to me.

Corporate culture can be delicate ...
Alterman: One could even call it oxymoronic.

True. But how do you keep that morale up when there's other executive turnover at Viacom and the ratings are down?
Herzog: These are challenging times for businesses like these — a lot of headwinds. Viacom is one thing, but here at Comedy Central we've had a fair amount of stability and longevity. That will sadly end to a certain degree with Michele's departure, but what we do have a good core group here being led by Kent. The content and the brand are in pretty good shape. We have a lot to do in terms of creating more, creating better, finding things that perform better on linear and are going to work on all platforms. Not just for Viacom, not just for Comedy Central these are challenging times for this industry. As I remind our guys every day, this is what managing through adversity is. I believe that if we keep doing what we do well, a lot of these things are going to get figured out over time. We have to keep the brand vital, relevant, healthy. That's what we're going to do.

You mention that the brand is strong, but the linear ratings are down. How does that situation inform your jobs right now?
Herzog: In the linear world, it's pretty simple. More is better. This is an era where people want endless amounts of original content. The viewer has more choices than ever before, so we need to give them more. I think we have pretty high-quality stuff, but we have to do even better. It's simple in theory. It's pretty challenging in execution.
Alterman: It's not that these are new circumstances that we're confronting. Our young millennial audience is on the leading edge of consuming content on different platforms. Early on, we've embraced putting our content on different platforms and creating content just for those platforms — like Snapchat.

Dave, where would you like to see digital and platform-exclusive content going forward?
Bernath: We're very bullish on the Snapchat relationship. The next Amy Schumers and Key and Peeles are probably on Snapchat right now. It's another part of the pipeline. As we face the headwinds on linear that everyone is facing, we have to fight that good fight in the meantime and embrace platforms that don't have as clear of a monetization in the future but will in the future. You have to do both.

And Snapchat does service the brand in a way you can monetize and not just engage?
Bernath: That is correct. We have a big ad sales relationship with them domestically and internationally. There's a lot of consumption happening. Like any digital platform, I can't tell you. (Laughs.)

Michele, when is your time up?
Ganeless: Doug just looked at his watch, so I'm guessing pretty soon. (Laughs.) I'll be in the office through the end of the month and available until September as needed. I'll be cheering from the sidelines for the rest of my days. That sounded so morose.

Is there a high point of your tenure?
Ganeless: It's hard to pick a moment. I was here when we launched. Coming back in 1996 with Doug and launching South Park and The Daily Show, those were some pretty heavy moments where we felt like we were creating a brand with value. Then the last 12 years have been an incredible journey, watching people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Amy Schumer and on and on and on become household names. We pride ourselves on finding and nurturing talent here. Kent and his team do that better than anyone else in the industry.

Before I let you all go, what did you think of Larry Wilmore's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
Herzog: It put Larry into the conversation — which, in 2016, is a place we all have to be if you're in the content creation world. Clearly it got people talking. I feel that's usually a good thing.
Alterman: The ones that are memorable are the ones that stake out a position and go for the jugular. That's what Larry did.