Can broader appeal and co-viewing keep Comedy laughing?

The channel is doubling down on a strategy that has served it well over 20 years, relying on syndicated and second-window hits to provide viewers with TV comfort food.
Queen of late night Samantha Bee is leading the channel's charge to attract more female viewers.

Queen of late night Samantha Bee is leading the channel’s charge to attract more female viewers.

The Comedy Network is looking to tickle more funny bones this fall. In response to cord-cutting, pick-and-pay and the death of genre protection, the channel is sending in the clowns from a batch of tried-and-true U.S. series and movies. “We are going to unlock Comedy’s best primetime schedule in its 20-year history,” declares Mike Cosentino, Bell Media SVP, content and programming.

Comedy’s fall schedule might seem familiar. In fact, it looks an awful lot like Global’s lineup circa 1997. This spring Bell Media made a deal for golden oldies Seinfeld and Friends, which Cosentino regards as two of television’s most durable comedies, and which will air back-to-back episodes on the specialty.

Add in strips of more recent U.S. hits The Goldbergs, Fresh off the Boat and Mike & Molly and you have a lineup he says offers “broad appeal and co-viewing, as we try to create a more accessible channel that is going to be more popular with more viewers.”

And let’s give a hearty round of applause to The Big Bang Theory, the value of which to Bell Media cannot be overstated. A regular ratings champ for CTV, it also airs on Space (because its characters are sci-fi nerds) and can be streamed on digital platform CraveTV. The series airs a half-dozen times daily on Comedy, where it is the number-one show with an AMA of nearly 179,000 (Source: Numeris, 8/29/2016 to 5/28/2017, Ind. 2+, 3+ airings, excluding marathons and duplicates.)

Comedy is doubling down on a strategy that has served it well over 20 years, relying on surefire syndicated and second-window hits. And it can now go heavier than ever on imports since, starting in September, its Cancon exhibition requirement drops to 35%, from 60%, of the broadcast day.

Taking advantage of another recent freedom, it’s also looking to air Hollywood feature film faves such as Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something About Mary (1998), whereas previously it could only air Canadian movies. In 2013, the CRTC denied Bell’s attempt to end that restriction, but it went away a couple of years later along with genre protection. The caster could not confirm any Canuck flicks for the fall season.

Comedy’s move further toward guaranteed crowd-pleasers is hardly panic in the face of digital disruption – more like a pre-emptive strike. According to CRTC data, in 2015 (the most recent year available), the channel’s total revenues were $56.6 million with a pre-tax profit of $26.9 million – stable numbers over the five-year span. For the 2016-17 broadcast year to date, the channel ranked ninth among entertainment specialties in the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demos, and sixth for 18-to-34.

Cosentino acknowledges that Comedy’s mainstream move is in part a bid to keep building its female audience. In earlier days, Comedy courted the young male demo with heavy rotations of The Simpsons and South Park (the latter of which remains in the lineup), and even as recently as five years ago its audience was only 39% female. That has risen to 45% thanks to female-led first-window series in the 10 p.m. hour, including the Emmy Award-nominated Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (confirmed to return), Inside Amy Schumer and Rashida Jones-starring Angie Tribeca.

“Some of that is chasing the big hits coming out of Hollywood and some is how we are commissioning all the way through,” Cosentino says. “You can make a very compelling argument that women and female comics rule the day. But we’re taking that lead and trying to grow into that opportunity.”

Late night will be occupied by the station’s Comedy Central block, including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and new series The Opposition with Jordan Klepper featuring the Daily Show alumnus, both in simulcast.

The specialty’s relationship with New York-based Comedy Central dates back to the beginning, when then-director of programming, and later Comedy president and GM Ed Robinson purchased South Park. Comedy picked up The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2000, and in 2007, then-parent company CTVglobemedia dealt for exclusive Canadian rights to the Comedy Central library. It is Comedy’s biggest supplier.

While other specialties such as Bell’s Space are driven largely by their original programming, Comedy is light on first-window Canadian productions, happy to provide viewers TV comfort food rather than appointment viewing – series they’re familiar with and perhaps even episodes they have already seen. “You can lean into the schedule and feel good about sitting there starting at 5 p.m., watching all the way through and getting some of television’s most popular shows,” Cosentino says.

According to the CRTC, the channel’s annual Canadian programming spend between 2011 and 2015 dropped 62% to $5.5 million, the decline starting with the introduction of broadcaster group-based Cancon spending, and as series such as Comedy Now!, The Match Game and scripted Brent Butt creation Hiccups ended.

Now when Bell Media’s comedy execs greenlight properties, those series may very likely end up on an outlet other than the specialty. (The central team includes Sarah Fowlie, director, comedy original programming; production executive Bill Lundy; and Corrie Coe, SVP, original production.)

More FAKE NEWS! on The Beaverton. But will it be absurd enough to compete against the very real Donald Trump?

More FAKE NEWS! on The Beaverton. But will it be absurd enough to compete against the very real Donald Trump?

For example, small-town laugher Letterkenny premiered on CraveTV and was to be broadcast at strategic times on Comedy – it aired in a Canada Day marathon – but was deemed so important a driver for the digital service that it is now a CraveTV exclusive. Also, comedy series don’t travel as well as sci-fi programs, and can be harder to finance without buy-in from foreign broadcasters.

Comedy does have a local success with Pier 21 Films’ satirical The Beaverton, inspired by a popular website and returning for a sophomore 13-episode season. In its rookie outing it was the channel’s ninth most popular program for 2+ viewers (104,500 AMA) and 11th in the 18-to-49 demographic (43,700 AMA). Season two will feature greater emphasis on the fake-news segment anchored by Miguel Rivas and Emma Hunter, which is perfectly suited to a Donald Trump world.

As to her relationship with the caster, Pier 21 producer Melissa Williamson says, “The team at Bell Media are fantastic collaborators. They give smart script and production notes, they’re decisive and most of all they love comedy, which is probably why we get along so well. It feels like we’re all doing what we love and we get to laugh a lot.

Comedy’s biggest Canadian supplier by far is Montreal’s Just for Laughs, which provides a self-titled one-hour show featuring stand-up from its world-leading comedy festival; Just for Laughs: All Access, offering more stand-up from Montreal’s Place des Arts and Club Soda venues; and the half-hour Just for Laughs: Gags collection of hidden-camera bits.

JFL has been on board since the Oct. 17, 1997 launch, when Les Films Rozon – as the festival’s parent company was then known – was a 5% stakeholder in the channel. Baton Broadcasting, which controlled CTV, held 65% of Comedy’s voting interests, while Shaw Cable Systems and Astral Broadcasting owned 15% each. Baton soon merged into CTV, which was subsequently swallowed in the formation of Bell Globemedia. By 2002, the media conglomerate had bought out its partners for full ownership of Comedy.

The specialty’s early schedule was heavy on JFL programming, along with the homegrown stand-up of Toronto’s SFA Productions’ Comedy Now!, Saturday Night Live reruns and HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, Dennis Miller Live and Dream On. At the onset the channel had limited resources, and so its Canadian programming consisted largely of second-window shows from CBC, including This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Air Farce.

In its first year, JFL content, CBC’s The Kids in the Hall and stand-up programs on Saturday and Sunday nights were the biggest draws, helping the station land fifth among 11 new specialties. In those days of fewer outlets, even a 2 p.m. weekday show like the British improv series Whose Line Is It Anyway? could draw 135,000 viewers.

Starting in Comedy’s third broadcast year it had to dedicate at least 41% of the previous year’s revenues to Canadian originals. Some hits included Biography spoof Liocracy (2001-2002, Creative Atlantic Communications), hosted by Saskatchewan native Leslie Nielsen, the wacky Puppets Who Kill (2002-2006, PWK Productions) and the animated Odd Job Jack (2003-2007, Smiley Guy Studios).

By 2008 the channel was recording its best ratings to date, fueled by increased popularity for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (one episode attracted 177,000 viewers who perhaps needed some amusing insight into the economic downturn) and The Comedy Central Roast specials. The latter peaked with the skewering of Charlie Sheen in September 2011, setting a record for the most-watched non-sports Canadian specialty broadcast with 1.32 million viewers.

The enduring popularity of Corner Gas on Comedy helped get its animated sequel greenlit.

The enduring popularity of Corner Gas on Comedy helped get its animated sequel greenlit.

By far the channel’s biggest original success is Corner Gas, produced by Vérité Films and 335 Productions and developed under Ed Robinson and longtime Comedy VP programming Brent Haynes. The Brent Butt-starrer about a whole lot of nothing going on around a gas station in fictional Dog River, Sask. was seen as a good fit for the main network as well, where it premiered in January 2004 and consistently drew more than a million viewers over six seasons. It is also Comedy’s highest-rated Canadian series ever, averaging 196,000 viewers.

“We made it with the intention it would go on CTV and then back-door onto Comedy. We felt it was a bigger, broader network play but it would be nice to share with The Comedy Network,” Haynes told Playback in an earlier interview.

Alongside the defunct Comedy Now! and The Red Green Show, Corner Gas reruns remain a staple on the channel. It’s hardly surprising it is going back to the well with Corner Gas Animated, which continues the adventures of the kooky band of characters in a 13-episode cartoon version involving the original producers and cast (minus the late Janet Wright, whose character’s voice will be handled by Corrine Koslo) and featuring animation by Smiley Guy Studios. After airing on Comedy, the show will be available on CraveTV, and there’s a chance it will crack the CTV lineup.

“When Brent brought his pitch to us for an animated version, the timing was right and the creative was great,” Cosentino says. “It gives us a chance to unlock the library, reignite the strip and leverage a hit show that can be brought back in a new way.”

Otherwise, Bell has more original comedy in development, but is waiting to see how this current crop performs. In the digital space, it has soft-launched the SnackableTV iPhone app, which will include original short-form comedy content (30-120 seconds) from providers including The Beaverton and Just for Laughs. But the caster has been mostly occupied with the short term.

“Our focus right now is fall 2017,” Cosentino says. “We’ve been working hard to launch a revamped schedule. Regarding our originals and digital shorts, our strategy is about making sure we are delivering on our promise to be more accessible and the home of comedy from every angle.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Playback magazine.