Comedy Central Int'l Bets on Global Formats, Diversity

Kerry Taylor
Courtesy of ViacomCBS

Kerry Taylor

"This year, we have seen an incredible increase in our video views," says Kerry Taylor, executive vp of entertainment & youth brands at ViacomCBS Networks International.

ViacomCBS' Comedy Central brand has been rolling out global formats across various international markets, including content shot during coronavirus lockdowns, and featuring diverse talent to better serve existing audiences and attract new fans. And London-based company executive Kerry Taylor is happy with the results so far.

"We are tracking our video views, including engagement and social sharing," Taylor says. "This year, we have seen an incredible increase in our video views, 164 percent [through August] on our social platforms," which are more and more important to building an audience. And even the linear Comedy Central channels in some key markets have seen total viewership growth this year through August. For example, Comedy Central in the U.K. is up 5 percent for that period, while Poland is up 3 percent and Spain 8 percent.

In January, ViacomCBS Networks International promoted Taylor to the role of executive vp of entertainment & youth brands, reporting to David Lynn, president and CEO of ViacomCBS Networks International and Chris McCarthy, president of entertainment & youth brands, ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks. That added Comedy Central to the portfolio of the former executive vp of MTV International and chief marketing officer for ViacomCBS Networks International U.K.

"One of the challenges we face with comedy is that a lot of comedy is very local," Taylor tells THR in her first interview focused on Comedy Central International since her promotion. "But on MTV we have had really good success with taking global formats and rolling them out in local markets. So one of the visions has been to find such global formats that we can then roll out into each of our local markets and amplify local voices."

Related to that, a second strategy is "something we like to do at ViacomCBS, such as via BET Amplified, which is really use the privilege of our platforms to celebrate and nurture emerging talent," she adds.

Playing into both of these approaches is an eye for the basic universal appeal of featured comedy and talents. "One of the big things we are really focused on, being Comedy Central International, is what is the content people are loving everywhere," Taylor says. "We are obsessed with finding the universal truth. What does everybody find funny?"

What does that mean for content genres? "We have been making a lot of sketch comedy over the past year, which has been among our most successful content," she explains. "There was a sketch in [all-female creators online sketch show] Flaps about women putting their makeup on on the tube, and that just connected around the world, with people going 'I see myself in that piece of content.' That is kind of the holy grail and jackpot. Sketch comedy is almost non-verbal and therefore a really big priority for us."

A final key strategy has been, even preceding her appointment and this year's focus on diversity due to Black Lives Matter, to "not only open things up to different cultures and countries, but also ask ourselves what comedy voices are missing." Explains Taylor: "We want to bring together a whole breadth of comedians who come from really different, diverse backgrounds and experiences and give them a platform to share their stories. And by doing that we can highlight subjects to the channel like mental health, disability, obesity and gender identity issues, among others."

Series that have fit this mold include the likes of Dragony Aunts, in which drag queens answer audiences’ burning questions (the second season premiered on Comedy Central International’s YouTube channels in June, with 1.1 million video views across social platforms to date, with a podcast spin-off to compliment the series during COVID-19 and a Comedy Central Germany local version); Africa's CC Seen It, featuring curated content by female comics airing at key times of the day to a pan-African audience (which ended up getting featured comics Elsa Majimbo and Lesego Tlhabi added to the African version of Comedians in Quarantine); and Comedy Central U.K.'s Rosie Tries to Help, starring comedian Rosie Jones who takes on big issues like the environment or loneliness and mental health (the first season garnered over 3 million views).

And in latest news, Comedy Central International has just greenlit a special short-form, digital version of the hit format Drunk History called Drunk Black History. The series, the idea for which came from Gwendolyn Elliott, a 24-year-old communications coordinator at ViacomCBS in New York, will feature "inspiring stories of trailblazing Black figures and accounts of important events for the Black community," according to a description. "True to form, the comedians will be inebriated."

"I am really proud of our very talent-led approach," says Taylor. "The team will keep an eye out for talent and have a connection with people who represent the Comedy Central values of being relatable, warm and authentic, but also quite bold. Once we love them and know they have an alliance with our brand values, we then just ask them what they would like to do.
With Rosie, for example, she said with her Cerebral Palsy, everybody always wants to help her, and she wanted to turn that on its head."

Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has meant some tweaks to Comedy Central's global strategy. "COVID struck, and we went into lockdown, so the strategy had to take a slight pivot," Taylor tells THR. "That’s why we created Comedians in Quarantine as a global format. We sent kits to all our comedians’ homes, so they could film themselves. We were able to make short-form series with over 100 comedians in 10 languages and 12 countries and bring all our international comedians together under one brand." The Comedians in Quarantine brand has generated 12.2 million social video views to date.

A format that previously worked across markets was Comedians Solve World Problems. "We have had it in about eight markets," says Taylor. "Comedians discuss such issues as gender identity and others. That format and its relatability really connects."

Keeping the connection between talent and fans going is a key role Comedy Central can play amid the pandemic. "It’s great to be able to allow people and comedians to still get that connection to comedians," says Taylor. That's why the brand decided to team up with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society on a series of specials featuring up-and-coming stand-up comedy talent when it became clear that the Fringe, considered the world's largest arts festival, with comedy and other stage productions typically taking over the Scottish city in August, couldn't take place this year.

"But we had this real challenge," Taylor recalls. "You need the atmosphere of the comedy club. We saw a lot of comedy content created, but it felt slightly isolated and lonely. So we developed a system where we put together a crowd that was fed into our comedians’ ears, so they could get live responses.  And when we edited it, we showed the audience in a sort of Zoom audience way."

Based on the ratings, which grew well over the usual slot average, audiences enjoyed it. But so did the performers. Says Taylor: "The comedians felt it worked really well as you you get a real sense of the pace and tone of the comedy."

Comedians also laud Comedy Central for giving them a chance to shine even in challenging times. "I feel very lucky as, whilst the scene dried up a bit in the early stages of the pandemic, I was fortunate to do online gigs once they started and throughout," says Thanyia Moore from London. "Comedy Central assisted with that by offering me the opportunity to do Comedy Central at the Fringe, which was a massive hit."

She adds: "Since working with Comedy Central, which is very recently, I've experienced nothing but a willingness to support me in both my stand-up and presenting career. I have had some wonderful productive meetings and on-the-job experiences that make me feel very comfortable working with the organization, which is a massive plus as I need to be comfortable to be able to be great at my job."

And Nigel Ng, a Malaysian stand-up comedian and content creator based in the U.K., says Comedy Central "has given me a chance to perform my standup on TV, but through lockdown, they've also commissioned a few episodes where I try my jokes out on my parents back in Asia. This is something that we don't usually see on mainstream television, and I'm grateful for the opportunity."