Q&A: Kent Alterman Takes Helm of Comedy Central

New Comedy Central president Kent Alterman, who earlier this month took over for departing network head Michele Ganeless, inherits a network that has struggled of late from a ratings perspective but is being looked upon by Viacom CEO Philipe Duaman to help spur the company’s financial fortunes.

Alterman recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss the network’s brand, its appeal to millennials and the struggles of its late-night franchises The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.

Related:MCN Original Video: Kent Alterman discusses the evolution of "The Daily Show" under Trevor Noah

MCN: How would you define the Comedy Central brand?

Kent Alterman: I’ll start by how our audience defines it, which is that it’s the No. 1 brand in comedy across all platforms. For me, what unifies all of our talent and content that we put out there is that they bring a very distinct point of view and voice to what they do that generally shares some degree of relevance, intelligence and an ability to reflect the world back at our audience in a way that gives them a break from the world.

MCN: You’re coming in at a time when the network’s ratings have been declining for some time. How do you view the network’s ratings performances and what can be done to curtail viewership declines?

KA: The entire industry is facing the same challenges, especially in reaching our young millennial audience. Viewing behaviors are changing, so we’re pursuing dual tracks.

We’re tending to the linear ratings – our audience consumes original content, and reruns don’t mean so much anymore, so we’re looking at ways to have more and better content.

We’re also making sure that we not only make our content available on all platforms, but also that we’re creating original content that is conceived and executed with these different platforms in mind so that it feels more organic. We were the only entertainment channel to be part of Snapchat Discover and we’ve been doubling down on how much original content we’ve been creating for that platform. It also affords us a development pipeline in the sense of making more bets with emerging talent and having more ways to working with talent in general on different platforms so that we can open up the aperture of our talent development.

MCN: Having said that, what would you consider to be the network’s core shows?

KA: The good news for us is that we’ve been having this great run of shows like South Park, Tosh 2.0 and The Daily Show, which has been an institution. We don’t have Jon [Stewart] but we’re bullish on Trevor. The Daily Show under Trevor Noah is the No. 1 late night show with male millennials and second overall after [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy] Fallon. It’s been experiencing several months of repeated growth, so all the signs are pointing the right way, and creatively Trevor is taking the ball and running with it – we’re really pleased with his evolution.

There are other shows that are incredibly popular including Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Drunk History, Another Period,Nikki Glazer and so on. Ultimately what we feel gratified by is that in the last several years we’ve had a great run in introducing new talent, and they are all resonating with our audience.

MCN: You mentioned The Daily Show, and obviously a lot has been written about the show’s declining ratings as well as those of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert left the respective shows. From your perspective, how have those shows performed with their new hosts and what if anything can be done to get ratings for the shows back to prior levels?

KA:  I think you have to look at a few things. It’s not like we replaced those shows at a time when there was stability in the marketplace of our business. It coincided with a period of incredible disruption in our business, and so its almost an unfair comparison; its not apples to apples. Even if you look at our late shows now and you include all the platforms where people are watching complete episodes – whether its on our website or our app or Hulu – the numbers are really significant, so it’s a tough comparison. What we care about the most is our fans and how [the shows] are resonating with our fans, and we try to keep our eye on that ball.

MCN: What are the biggest challenges the network is facing today?

KA: We’re living in a very tumultuous, disruptive time in our industry, and so I think we’re all facing the same challenges. No one knows how it's all going to settle out, and for the most part we try to keep our eye on what’s most important, which is our talent and our content. No matter what changes come in our industry, the thing that will never change is the importance of having content that resonates for our audience.

MCN: You mentioned programming for multiple platforms. How much does the digital platform influence the content development and distribution decisions you have to make?

KA: We’re trying to be very holistic about development and not so much separate linear with multiplatform distribution, but just continue to serve all masters simultaneously. We don’t just produce our content and then chop it up and distribute it on other platforms. We’re really expanding our aperture to work with different people and develop content that is targeted to different platforms because, ultimately, we are led more than anything else by our audience, and our audience is consuming content in different ways on different platforms, so we want to be able to meet them where they are.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.