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Comedy Central Chief Kent Alterman on Trevor Noah, Viacom, and Making Movies With Paramount

Variety logo Variety 2/15/2017 Daniel Holloway
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One day after CEO Bob Bakish announced his new strategic plan for Viacom, Comedy Central’s Kent Alterman — one of Bakish’s highest ranking employees — announced a new structure for the talent and development teams at the cable channel he oversees as president. Alterman obviously timed his announcement to pivot off of his boss’s, right?

“I’d like to say that I’m that thoughtful that I could plan things,” Alterman said. “It just kind of came together this way.”

Alterman is closing in on his one-year mark as president of Comedy Central. It’s been quite a year. Viacom has been roiled by turmoil, with longtime chairman Sumner Redstone’s daughter Shari Redstone seizing control of the company, forcing out CEO Philippe Dauman, flirting with merging the company with CBS, then backing off from that prospect and appointing longtime Viacom international TV executive Bakish CEO. Alterman’s boss Doug Herzog, who facilitated Alterman’s ascension to network chief, departed Viacom amid the churn.

But looking ahead, Alterman has reason to be optimistic. Rolling out his new Viacom strategy last week, Bakish identified Comedy Central as one of six core brands that would be the foundation of his rebuilding effort. And despite his admonition last week that “leadership needs to be held accountable,” Alterman, MTV and VH1 president Chris McCarthy, and TV Land, CMT, and Spike chief Kevin Kay are believed right now to have Bakish’s confidence.

Alterman, meanwhile, is plowing ahead. “Knowing that Bob has expressed a direct commitment to the value and importance of Comedy Central as a flagship brand and knowing what comes with that with more resource and support and so on, that’s great, because that just enhances what we’ve already been doing,” he told Variety. On Friday, he named two of top lieutenants, Sarah Babineau and Jonas Larsen, to lead talent and development, filling the void created by his promotion last year. “On some level, not that much will change,” he added. “We’re still going to be doing the same things that we’ve been doing in terms of identifying and nurturing and developing and launching comedy talent, and that continues.”

What is likely to change in the coming year is Comedy Central’s relationship to Paramount. Bakish said last week that he envisions a close relationship between the movie studio and its cable cousins, one that will eventually yield collaborations on several feature-film releases a year.

“The idea is not for Paramount just to make a comedy movie of their own accord and then slap our logo on it,” Alterman said. Details — such as whether Comedy Central will form a feature-film development unit within the network — have yet to be sorted out. “This has mostly been moving forward I think at a 40,000 foot macro level. It’s starting to formulate now how it’s going to be executed. But what has been expressed is that it’s going to be real and tangible and kind of a two-way street.”

Speaking with Variety last week, Bakish said, “We’ve had a lot of talent in the past that we’ve groomed and then let them off to do films elsewhere. We’re going to try to stop having that happen.” It’s a safe bet that much of the talent Bakish was talking about comes from Comedy Central, which has seen the likes of Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele branch out beyond their network platforms.

Alterman said that Paramount will be a carrot, not a stick when dealing with talent. “I don’t think we’re going to be moving forward in an indentured servitude kind of way,” he joked when asked whether Comedy Central talent would be locked into more restrictive deals. “I think that it’s more that we’re actually going to have something that is going to be enormously appealing to talent. I only see it as a positive thing, not as a leverage thing.”

Another positive is what Alterman sees in his flagship late-night franchise, “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” After a rocky start in 2015 and steep ratings declines, Noah has seen his numbers climb — although not yet to the heights enjoyed by his predecessor Jon Stewart. In the fourth quarter of 2016, the show averaged its highest 18-49 rating yet under Noah, with those numbers continuing to rise in January.

“He just continues to keep really having a strong point of view and his voice is coming through, and he has really shown that he has an original, unique voice, and very relevant and strong voice,” Alterman said. He added that the network still has not settled on a permanent solution for the 11:30 p.m. post-“Daily Show” timeslot, which has been occupied by “@midnight” since “The Nightly Show” was canceled last year. But finding a long-term fixture there “is definitely a priority for this year.”

Another priority: Continuing to look to digital as a developing ground for talent and projects, as the network did with “Broad City” and “Workaholics” as well as the more recent “Idiotsitter” and the upcoming “Hood Adjacent.”

And although Alterman is planning no intentional pivot toward politics, the rolling drama of the Trump presidency is already informing development.

“We definitely are getting lots of pitches that seem to be driven by our current presidential situation,” Alterman said. “We’re not going to do anything just for the sake of it. But of course, the best comedy as is reacting to what’s going on in the world.”

He added, “When things are heightened, of course, the cream of the crop in the comedy world are going to be the ones that step up and do it in really profound and strong ways.”

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