Two years ago, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert departed Comedy Central within eight months of each other, it sent the network into a tailspin that it’s just beginning to recover from.
Kent Alterman, who took over as network president in May 2016, has been working to fill Comedy Central’s late-night hole and find a suitable companion to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. On Sept. 25, he’ll launch The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, where the former Daily Show correspondent will spoof alternative-media outlets like Infowars.
While Noah has found his groove—August was the show’s most-watched month ever among total viewers (1.6 million in live-plus-3) and the 11th consecutive month of year-over-year gains, as it passed The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to become the No. 1 daily, late-night talk show among adults 18-34—the network has continued to struggle elsewhere. Its year-to-date prime-time ratings in live-plus-7 are down 20 percent in total viewers, according to Nielsen, while its 18-49 and 18-34 demo ratings have each slipped from a 0.3 to a 0.2 rating.
However, as Comedy Central’s hits South Park and Broad City return tonight, and The Opposition joins the lineup in two weeks, Alterman is optimistic about the network’s future. He sat down with Adweek to talk about turning around late night, the network’s new scheduling approach and when Inside Amy Schumer might return.
Adweek: When you took over the network last year, what was your top priority, late night?
Kent Alterman: We definitely had a very specific focus in late night, and we feel like the last decade we really had a powerful hour in the form of Jon and Stephen. When we launched Trevor, we launched with total belief in him but also an understanding that it was going to take a while for Trevor to find his voice and grow into that role, just as it took [Stewart] a while. I always tell people it’s totally fair to compare the two, as long as you compare Trevor’s beginning to Jon’s beginning. And the thing with Trevor was we didn’t hire him for his experience—we hired him for his talent and his brain. So we knew it would take a while.
When did you feel that Trevor was starting to find his way?
We really started feeling a difference around the conventions last summer. Trevor was finding his voice, his point of view. It didn’t feel like he was an outsider, just standing outside of it and commenting. Even though he had spent a lot of time touring in the States and had been living in the States, now he’s been creating a show on a day-to-day basis in the United States during an insane political campaign and absorbing it in a way that you can’t duplicate except by living it. He was really more immersed in it and became more of an audience surrogate in experiencing it and reflecting back and commenting. And he got more comfortable with the machine that he had stepped into, and he started figuring out ways to make it his own in terms of process and how he engaged with the writing staff. What’s the most gratifying is that since then, it feels like he keeps hitting new plateaus. He gets stronger and stronger, and everywhere we look, we see affirmation of that. [UPDATE: On Thursday, Comedy Central announced that Alterman had extended Noah’s contract through 2022.]
What was your approach to settling on your 11:30 show?
We feel that … 11:30 works best when it actually is in sync with 11, something that makes organic sense. And the good news there is that Jordan really emerged, especially during the campaign and through the election, with a strong voice and point of view. Trevor agreed—and he’s an [executive producer] on Jordan’s show—and we started discussions with Trevor and Jordan that evolved to us having the total faith and confidence in committing to Jordan developing the 11:30 show.
When you signed Jordan for the 11:30 p.m. show, did you know at the time what it would be, or were you just betting on him?
We were talking in principle, but it wasn’t fully executed. And that’s the good news: You want someone who’s so smart and talented that you want them to start absorbing what’s going on in the world and ascertain what’s the opportunity and how does that intersect with their own talent? That’s what we have with Jordan and The Opposition. This show could not have existed a year ago, and that’s what’s exciting. He’s looking at where the world is now and what’s the comedy that he can mine from it that serves the character he’s creating.