Comedy Central

Cathy Tankosic, former VP, marketing, Comedy Central

For Cathy Tankosic, building the brand might mean clever on-air promos, or it might mean innovative Internet guerrilla marketing, but it would all be meaningless if she didn’t first nail down the basics: understanding her audience.

“I felt we needed to hear from viewers about what drew them to MTV’s Comedy Central. Are they drawn to the network or just to specific shows?” says the former senior VP of marketing at Comedy, who is now serving as a consultant on new-business endeavors to MTV Networks. “We discovered they are, in part, drawn to the network: Comedy Central stood for something to them, a particular sensibility. They connected with the irreverence and loved the honesty.”

Clearing up what the network stood for “made us realize there was a lot of power that we could tap into,” Tankosic adds. So in creating a new image for the channel, the first step was to craft a sense of consistency—both visually and editorially—for on-air promos and marketing. One key issue was tone. “You need to be funny but not say you’re funny,” Tankosic says. “You need to deliver humor but not lecture.”

The on-air team was “incredibly collaborative” with the various shows’ producers and talent to ensure they felt the programs were well-positioned. Marketing comedy requires a “delicate balance,” Tankosic says, especially since many of the shows, like The Daily Show or Chappelle’s Show, often find humor in material that might not seem funny out of context.

“It’s often about story-telling, not just about rapid-fire jokes,” she says, “and that makes it tricky.”

But even funny material wears thin if repeated too often. “We had to really build into the planning of how many spots we’d need to make to keep the campaigns fresh so viewers wouldn’t get bored by one joke,” Tankosic says.

To build the brand and keep it on track, the network’s promotional and marketing campaigns take chances and break the traditional rules. For instance, while most networks would never mention in-house problems, Comedy Central recently promoted a Chappelle’s Show marathon with spots that poked fun at the strange twists the show and its star, Dave Chappelle, had recently endured. “It’s saying, 'Hey, we’re on the same page and we won’t talk down to you,’” Tankosic says.

In branding Crank Yankers, Tankosic broke with all convention by initially releasing crank calls via the Internet without including any mention of Comedy Central. Only after the mystery created buzz among the people sending them back and forth did the network reveal itself; then it created an on-line program where people could have a crank phone call automatically sent to one of their friends.

And that is how, Tankosic says, “we delivered on the sensibility of the show in a unique way.”

Stuart Miller

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.