In Just 9 Months, Comedy Central Reshaped Late Night and Kept Advertisers Happy

Network rebounded after losing Stewart and Colbert

Not so long ago, Comedy Central's late-night lineup consisted of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. What a difference a year makes. "If you had told me a year and a half ago that Jon and Stephen [Colbert] would leave within 12 months of each other and we'd launch two new series in a period of nine months, I would have gone and crawled under a rock somewhere," says Michele Ganeless, the network's president. "But looking back, it seems to all make sense now."

When Colbert signed off last December as he prepared to take over The Late Show from David Letterman on CBS, Comedy Central tapped Larry Wilmore as his successor. Then in February, Stewart said he'd retire as Daily Show host by year's end.

Ganeless courted major comics like Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler before offering the hosting gig to show contributor Trevor Noah. Hiring a millennial for the job "was really important, to bring new viewers in," says Ganeless. While ratings have fallen versus Stewart—Noah's premiere week was down 37 percent in adults 18-49 from a year earlier—Comedy Central stresses that the show is No. 1 among viewers 18-24 and has doubled its African-American audience in adults 18-34. Meanwhile, consumption of the show via digital platforms has jumped to 40 percent, from 30 percent last year. "That says to us we've done something right," says the exec. "He is absolutely the right guy to take this franchise into the future."

Advertisers have bought in. "Demand never wavered, and when we sold the upfront we didn't change our pricing at all," says Jeff Lucas, head of sales and marketing at Viacom. "We said, 'Jon's show is getting older, and we want to be younger. Trevor Noah is the only millennial host, and we think we can cut through the clutter.'"

Message received: Daily Show sponsorships are sold through January, and the program will soon feature brand integrations for the first time ("We have a lot of plans," said Lucas). The Daily Show's average 30-second ad rate is $36,890, according to SQAD NetCosts, the second highest in late night.

Buyers remain bullish. The ratings dip "is simply a result of going with an unknown," says Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at OMD. "It's going to take awhile [to rebuild that audience], but I think Trevor Noah is doing a great job. It's good to see that the show is in such good shape."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.