When the call came, Michele Ganeless didn't want to pick up the phone. Stephen Colbert was on the line, and the Comedy Central president had a feeling it was bad news. "There was a moment of, 'I don't know that I want to have this conversation because I'm afraid of what it's going to be,'" she recalls. Sure enough, the star of the network's longtime hit The Colbert Report told her he was leaving to take David Letterman's coveted late-night slot on CBS. After hearing the news, "there was maybe a moment of perspiration," she says with a laugh. Colbert's departure will be a big test for Ganeless, who has worked at Comedy Central on and off since the channel's birth in the early '90s and was appointed president in 2007. In May, she announced Colbert's replacement: Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore, whose satirical news-commentary show, The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore, will debut early next year.
Fortunately, Colbert is hardly the only bright spot in Comedy Central's lineup. The network has assembled a remarkably strong slate, including established brands like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, South Park, and Tosh.0, along with emerging favorites like Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, and @midnight. Such programming has attracted a devoted, engaged community of viewers, and Comedy Central is especially popular with the important 18-to-34 male demographic. We talked to Ganeless about developing talent and where Comedy Central goes from here.
Fast Company: As the person who's ultimately responsible for the success of the network, what goes through your head when you get the news that one of your signature stars is quitting?
Ganeless: Well, there's some mild panic. But it was going to happen at some point, right? Nothing goes on forever. It's the opportunity of a lifetime for Stephen. I'm so proud of him and happy for him. I took a deep breath and thought, Okay, we have probably the broadest, most diverse portfolio of talent that we have ever had, many of whom have multiple ideas in their heads. We couldn't be better positioned. We sat down with our development team, and a short while later, Jon [Stewart] brought us an idea that he wants to bring to life with Larry Wilmore.
How did you know Larry was the right person to take on such a high-profile slot?
Never bet against Jon Stewart. I have learned that. The talent that Jon has brought to light on The Daily Show is a mile long: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry. Larry is a brilliant performer but also a brilliant producer and showrunner and writer. There aren't many people who can helm a show like that. And he has a point of view, as an African-American male, that is not on the air in late night.
Your programming is notably diverse.
This is going to sound hokey, but it truly is about the funniest idea and most fully realized idea. We certainly make an effort to make sure we're seeing the full range of comedic voices, and then the funniest ideas are the ones that make it onto the air. We want to be a reflection of our audience, and our audience is the millennial generation, which is a melting pot of ethnicities and points of view.
How do you find and cultivate those strong comedic voices?
What we do is find unique talent, give them a platform to do their thing, and kind of get out of the way. That has worked in everything from The Daily Show to Chappelle's Show, Sarah Silverman, South Park, Colbert, Amy Schumer, Nick Kroll, Key & Peele, on and on and on and on.
You say that like it's no big thing: Oh, you just find the talent...
[Laughs] Oh, no, I know it's hard. Believe me. If it were easy, everybody would do it. Our development and talent departments are deeply embedded in the comedy community. They are following people over time and building relationships. When we first saw Amy Schumer, she was doing stand-up in the clubs. She did a five-minute set in one of our stand-up shows. Then she got her own half-hour, she got her own hour, she did some interstitials, she hosted some stuff. And then she was ready. She had honed her point of view to the point where she wanted a platform and she deserved a platform. It's not a science by any means, but there is a process. Part of it just comes from doing it for a long time and being able to identify what's original. If you've ever spent any time at a comedy festival or going out to clubs night after night, you see a lot of bad comedy. We can identify pretty quickly the ones who have something unique to offer, even if it's really rough.
Another piece is that we are constantly having a conversation with our audience. We spend a lot of time getting feedback from our viewers. So by the time we have heard a pitch, seen a script, heard the concepts, watched the roughs, seen the pilot, we have a sense of whether or not it's going to work. None of it's foolproof, right? Sometimes you put something on air and think it's brilliant and the fans don't respond. You just don't know why, and that is television. If we had that formula, we'd all be a lot richer.
What's something that didn't connect?
Demetri Martin. Really smart, really funny, had a fantastic season 1. Season 2, he couldn't get arrested. I could not to this day tell you why. We put a marketing campaign behind it; he had a ton of fans the first season. It was still a great, funny, smart, quality show. Didn't work.
You mentioned being in touch with your audience. How do you think the rise of digital culture has changed comedy?
I don't know that it's changed comedy so much as it's made comedy so much more accessible. Because comedy is so shareable, so clippable. Back when I was growing up, if you heard the coolest new song first and you told all your friends, "Oh, my god, you have to hear Elvis Costello, you have to hear R.E.M.," that means you're cool. You discovered it. So if you're the first person to put that clip of Key & Peele on your Facebook page or your Tumblr and your friends discover it, you're the funniest guy in the room. I think the digital age has made comedy into currency, just like music. And it has democratized the creative piece of the business. It has put the power of comedy in the hands of our fans. The challenge for us is really making sure we're everywhere our fans are. If they're not watching this screen [points to the TV in her office], then we are providing comedy to them wherever they are and then figuring out how to monetize it.
You just launched a slick iOS app with tons of full episodes and other content. What were your goals?
We were not the first TV app to launch, certainly, but we wanted to get it right. We spent a lot of time with our fans and had them use various iterations of it and made sure it was immersive, user-friendly, easy to navigate. We wanted to make sure it was easy to share content. I think we've succeeded, but only time will tell. The big goal right now is to build usership of the app. It doesn't stop with its release. That's the start. It was one of those moments of, like, "Woo-hoo! Pop the champagne! Get back to work!" We're using this phrase internally of, "How do we feed the app?" Because it's a living, breathing thing to us and to our fans. They want new, new, new, more, more, more. We have to meet their needs.
Shows like Tosh.0 and @midnight are themselves very digitally savvy in a way that a lot of other TV programming isn't. How much of that is a conscious effort on your part versus just naturally reflecting your audience?
Well, it's a conscious effort to reflect our audience [laughs]. Because this is how they live, right? Our fans want to have a conversation with Comedy Central. They don't just want to sit and watch the show. Part of our marketing department is now called Fan Engagement. It's about how we stay connected to our fans 24/7. We don't have a digital department. We used to, but it became very clear that digital is just a piece of everything we do. So if you were working on digital marketing, well, you're just doing marketing. If you were working on making digital content, you're just making content.
Given how fast things are changing, where do you see Comedy Central five or 10 years from now?
If you had told me five years ago that my primary way to watch TV would be on my iPad or that Netflix would be doing original programming, I wouldn't have believed you. I was not on Twitter five years ago. All the things that are happening happened so quickly. I'm just hoping we can stay ahead of the curve enough to keep up with our audience. We're not the first to do this, but we have this reverse-mentor program where we have junior-level people mentoring senior-level people. It started out as sort of, "Help the old folks understand social media." But now most of us are using social media, so it's helping us understand the conversations that are happening among twentysomethings. My mentor is a 23-year-old guy who works on our research team. He was talking to me the other day about this phenomenon of "check your privilege," which I didn't know about. Staying close to our audience—how they think, how they consume, seeing trends—is going to help us in the next five to 10 years.
There must be fans of your content who have never heard of Comedy Central or who couldn't tell you what number it is on their cable or who don't even realize they're watching a TV show. It's just something that gets shared via social media.
We did a campaign with Key & Peele doing videos online, saying, "Hey, we're a TV show, and if you want to see all of our content you need to go watch us." Seriously.
People can discover our content in so many places. And if we're doing our job right, we're going to be there on whatever platform they use.
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A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.