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He Laughed Himself Into A New Career

It was a bad idea for Home Box Office, one of the network's rare flops but it was Art Bell's best lesson in television. And it helped spawn Comedy Central.

Now second-in-command at Court TV, Bell was a junior manager at HBO when he was drafted in 1986 onto a team launching splinter channel, Festival. At the time, HBO's penetration of cable homes was stalling, with non-subscribers complaining that uncut Hollywood pictures were just too racy to bring into their home. So HBO executives decided that a family service, featuring "airline cuts" trimmed of sex and violence, would get them into new homes.

But cost was the primary reason non-subscribers weren't signing up. Worse, sex and violence were important, differentiating HBO from broadcast and other cable channels. So Festival crossed a line from "family" to just plain "bland." It collapsed in 1988 with just 50,000 subscribers, 3% of basic cable homes.

But that wasn't the lesson. What the Festival launch did was bring Bell out of his pigeonhole of economist and analyst. The process exposed him to world of programming and marketing, creating product rather than tracking it and listening to viewers elaborate detail about how television is woven into their world.

"These were families, with feelings and lives," Bell said. "It was was a fascinating introduction. It was really Television 101. My first interaction with programmers."

It served Bell and HBO well. Bell was put on a committee to consider other networks. The conclusion in 1988 was "there were no basic cable networks likely to launch, it was already over," Bell said.

But Bell toyed with an idea, quietly drafting a business plan for a comedy network. HBO had long used hour-long specials featuring comedians like George Carlin and Whoopi Goldberg to add some originals to its lineup of theatrical releases.

Bell says that one slow day, his boss, Larry Carlson asked what he was doing and Bell showed him the plan. "I was the one who at the time said you ought to be in the basic cable business," Bell said. "You are the comedy network already. Just do it as a basic channel." Carlson took him up to CEO Michael Fuchs immediately to pitch the project.

Dick Beahrs, Comedy Channel's first president and the man Bell is replacing at Court TV, also credits Bell for the plan.

But starting the Comedy Channel was brutal. MTV had a similar plan, called Ha!, relying on old sitcoms rather than stand up comics. They both launched in 1989 and the two engaged in what was called the "Comedy Wars," fighting for distribution on cable systems. But operators were annoyed at the high-profile fight and rolled the networks out very slowly, pressuring them to merge. After less than two years, they agreed to combine into Comedy Central.

After the merger, the new Comedy Central purged most of the old executives. Bell was one of the few survivors, working on program acquisitions and, later, development. He stayed until a regime change in 1996, then worked as a consultant before being recruited to head programming at Court TV. At the time, the network had just squeezed out founder Steve Brill and had just a few thousand viewers in prime time. And affiliates were dropping the service.

"Even though Court TV launched in 1991, I saw Court TV as a startup with big possibilities," Bell said. "I saw this as an 86 million subscriber business."

Bell sprinkled the schedule with off-network crime series to get some immediate ratings juice, then follow up with a fuller slate of originals focusing on crime. Now the network averages about a million viewers each evening and is narrowly focused on the investigatory aspects of crime, with its biggest show being Forensic Files.