Interview: Tony Fox

Comedy Central's VP of corporate communications

Comedy Central's VP of corporate communications

Tony Fox, Comedy Central's VP of corporate communications, has been with the network since its inception. He's seen the channel grow from a repository of sketch comedy reruns to a burgeoning entertainment option and a well-cited paragon of modern-day satire. With shows like The Daily Show, The Chappelle Show, and the venerable South Park pushing thought-provoking satire, the network has ramped up its PR to defuse criticisms and exploit opportunities. Fox spoke to PRWeek about the station's evolution, the difficulties in introducing South Park to the populace, and defends its "stoned slacker" audience. Q. How has Comedy Central evolved? Has it found its niche, making the communications messaging easier? A. Yes. In the early days, we didn't have a lot of strong programming. In those days, we were just trying to let people know that Comedy Central existed. When I first told people I worked at Comedy Central, I can't tell you how many times they asked if it was a comedy club. We did a lot of early work in conjunction with an outside agency, Dan Klores Associates. We did a lot of publicity stunts. We wanted the world to know that it wasn't just a network [featuring] half-hour programming strung together. We wanted to let the world know not only that we had a personality, but also that we were observing the world and what was going around us. In the early days, we created these little three- to four-minute pieces called Topicals that were our comedic take on what was happening in the world. We did a lot of them and they were very successful in positioning the network as a little anti-establishment. As the network began to grow, we began to invest in a lot more original programming. One of our earliest hits was Mystery Theatre 3000. It was popular among a limited, but passionate group of people. It was a very smart show and guys like [The Washington Post's] Tom Shales, the preeminent television critic in the country, loved the show. In the course of two and a half years, he talked about it five times. The next hit we had was Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, which started out on Comedy Central before it made the leap to ABC. We carved out a place for us that involved more intelligent and thought-provoking comedy. The next big hit was Absolutely Fabulous, which we acquired but treated like an original show. As these shows begun to hit our air, it was apparent that we were doing these things in comedy that you couldn't find elsewhere. Ultimately the big gem that put Comedy Central on the map in terms of brand awareness, financial success, distribution, and advertiser interest was South Park. South Park remains the top rated show on the network seven years later. Q. How much crisis management was there during the early days? A. There was a lot of crisis management involved in the early days of South Park. We were smart about how we handled it. We knew that because the show was a cartoon about fourth graders, the potential existed for us to be accused of corrupting young people. The show is a sophisticated social satire, designed for adults. We made a lot of noise early on, but it wasn't an attempt to get publicity. It was an attempt to protect the show. We were the first television ever to label a show TV-MA and we put it on at 10 at night. Once the show took off and merchandising became a big business, we didn't make lunchboxes. We avoided targeting kids. However, the Christian Right and the teachers' organizations just didn't believe it. Our point of view was that it was an adult show with a sophisticated audience. We should have the right to serve our audience. It's up to parents to decide and monitor their children's viewing habits. We're not America's babysitters. Even though there was a lot of controversy, they didn't lay a glove on us. We then used that controversy to create awareness and interest in the show among adults. Every time a kid was sent home from school for wearing a South Park shirt, it became a national news story. When that happened, we alerted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union [which then] stepped in to challenge a school of the constitutionality of that ruling. And the ratings kept climbing higher and higher. We also sent a lot of tapes out to the movers and shakers in the creative community in advance of its airing, hoping to generate a lot of support. And it was easier to defend because it was a really smart show. Q. Do you use different PR techniques for each program, tailored to their nuances? Or are there prevailing themes? A. It depends on to whom you are talking. We look at shows and try to determine whom they might appeal to. We've had a great relationship with the gay and lesbian media, starting with AbFab [Absolutely Fabulous]. Dave Chappelle's show clearly gave us a great opportunity to speak to the African-American media, which we hadn't done in a deep and consistent way previously. With the explosion of hip-hop culture, there's just a lot more media out there tailoring to the African-American population that didn't exist ten years ago. Prior to Chappelle's show, the African-American viewership for the network was 7%. It shot up to 20% after the [show] launched. Part of our programming strategy is thinking of ways to bring more people to Comedy Central without alienating our existing audience. Dave Chappelle was the silver bullet in that regard. When we first launched the show, we had Dave in to do roundtable interviews with the African-American media. He discussed the lack of freedom he had in the sitcom arena because they tried to water down his concepts and add white characters because they thought it would have a broader appeal for broadcast audiences. The best programming at Comedy Central has a smart, informed point of view. The Daily Show, The Chappelle Show, and South Park all have it. One thing that has made Comedy Central successful is finding the comics who have a point of view and allowing them to express themselves without a lot of interference by the networks. Q. The Daily Show has been wildly popular this political season and a source for public discourse as to whether the fake news is less likely to buy spin than the real news. How have you contributed to keeping The Daily Show in the public space? A. The Daily Show has been widely successful for years now. We've been doing Indecision since 1992, [when] it was Billy Kimball and Al Franken [hosting] and we did two hours a night of convention coverage. That was at a time when the broadcast networks were cutting back their coverage. The irony that a comedy network was covering the political process more extensively than the broadcast networks was certainly not lost on the mainstream media. In 2000, the Pew Research Institute found that something like 10% of young people got their political news from political talk shows. In 2004, Pew found the numbers shot up to 21%. Even Jon [Stewart] dismisses that young kids are only getting their news from [The Daily Show]. They're exposed to news all of the time. They're online and they listen to the radio. If The Daily Show were their only source of information, they wouldn't get our jokes. Our jokes are based upon the viewer understanding what's going on. A lot of political and media commentators were sort of lamenting the fact that young people are getting their news from late night talk shows. Did you see the recent Annenberg study? The basic premise of that study was [to determine] whether this was something they should be worried about. They discovered that young people who watch late-night talk and comedy shows are more informed about political issues then those who are not. We're actually tied with the cable news networks [in informed political viewership ]. It was disappointing that the study didn't get a lot of media coverage. It was a coincidence that the same day that I read the study I received a tape of Jon Stewart appearing on The O'Reilly Factor. [Bill] O'Reilly kept belittlingly [The Daily Show] audience as stoned slackers, suggesting that he was concerned that The Daily Show and Jon had such an influence on this election. In the process of expressing that, he kept referring to them as stoned slackers. It annoyed me as a network guy and it concerned me about the misperception it might create amongst the general public, advertisers, and other business constituents. So I asked our sales and research guys to run a report comparing The Daily Show to the O'Reilly audience and we creamed them on every metric imaginable - four years of college, $75,000+ income, and professional managerial background. Q. When it comes to serious business communications, do you ever adopt the irreverent tone? A. We try to be fun. Obviously we're a comedy network, so we try to have our releases be funny. The O'Reilly release was playful. There was a line in there that said [to an effect] that maybe O'Reilly should check what he's smoking. Jon has an enormous following among media people. The reason they love the show so much is because Jon has the freedom to say what he believes, and the mainstream media - especially the broadcast and news guys, with the exception of Fox - can't say what they think or believe. We're cutting through the bull and pointing that bright light that the mainstream media either skips over or takes as fact from the current administration or anyone else who is espousing a point of view. We really challenge the truth of some of the things that are being said. We find that extraordinarily refreshing. Q. How involved are you in products like The Daily Show's book or other side projects? A. We're not that involved in the book. It's a separate project, but we obviously work in conjunction with the PR people at Warner Books. As it turns out, the book comes out at a very interesting time for us and keeps with the momentum of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. We just had a big burst of activity covering the conventions and got a lot of press about that. We did a roundtable discussion with political writers. We really made a concerted effort to court the attention and the following of political writers. We did that by having a big media event in New Hampshire at the beginning of the campaign season. We want people to recognize that we are a player in the process. All you need to do [to validate it] is to look at the number of political players that have come to be a guest. All nine Democratic candidates have appeared on The Daily Show. Q. What strategies do you use to get ahead of programs geared towards similar audiences? A. We decided that we needed to do a better job of targeting our young audience where they consume their media. We discovered our audience is getting of its news from the internet and the college newspapers. Even if only 10% or 15% of college students read daily newspapers, a huge number of them read their college newspapers. Here I am competing with 100 channels out there for limited space in major market dailies. By just going to the college papers, I eliminate 90% of my competition. Maybe I'm bumping into MTV or ESPN2. And if I can go to that paper and ask, "Hey, do you want to talk to Dave Chappelle?" We set up a conference call with 40 newspapers and 100% of that audience is in our demographic.

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