Interview Date: December 06, 2007
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Cable Mavericks Collection
NELSON: Hello, I'm Steve Nelson for the Oral and Video History Program of The Cable Center. Today is December 6th and our guest is Tony Fox. He's the Executive Vice-President of Corporate Communications for MTV Networks Entertainment Group – I think I got that title out...
FOX: You did indeed.
NELSON: Also known very well for having been involved with Comedy Central from way back when. So, let's just start out, I just want to get a little bit of your personal history back from when you were a kid just so we know where you came from.
FOX: Okay, alright, I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, was an athlete, played a lot of sports and Chatham is a suburb of New York City so I kind of always assumed I would end up working in Manhattan which is something I wanted to do, and believe it or not, I used to hang out in this very building many, many years ago when I first started at HBO. I worked at HBO for ten years, and I started as sort of an executive gopher/messenger and for me it was just an opportunity to get into HBO which was a business that was really, really taking off, as was the cable industry.
NELSON: But before it takes off, I've got to ask you this because I read this somewhere – I know you were a jock in high school but I also understand you were kind of the class clown kind of guy. Is this true? I don't want to impugn your reputation.
FOX: I was. It is absolutely true. I was a good student but I spent, I think, as much time trying to entertain my classmates as I did studying, and I always found it quite wonderful and somewhat ironic, or perhaps not, that I ended up working for the class clown of the cable industry, which is Comedy Central of course, and it just was a perfect fit for me.
NELSON: You're the kind of guy that goes back to your 25th high school reunion and people say, "Gee, Tony, what are you doing?" and you tell them and they go "What else?"
FOX: Absolutely right. They think I couldn't have written a better job description or future for myself than this position.
NELSON: So after high school, did you go to college? What did you do after high school?
FOX: Well, interestingly, I did. I went to college but when I started out, when I was in high school and even younger I was very interested in science and nature and I was very good at math, so I started out as a biology and chemistry major out at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, Lake Forest College in Illinois, which is where my brother went and he was pre-med and was also very much into science but while I was there, even though I was doing well, I just didn't really feel like that was my future. I didn't plan to be a doctor like my brother had and I just finally realized that was not my future and I wanted to change that. So I ended up taking a year off of college, traveled around the U.S., kept a journal and really became interested in writing and I read a lot of books. I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac which was a real inspiration, I must say. And I decided you know what? Maybe I should become an English major. I love reading, I love good writing, I like to think of myself as creative, so I went back and became an English major. I transferred from Lake Forest College after my year off travelling – I lived in New Orleans for awhile, I moved out west to San Francisco, I ended up living in a house with seven girls on the coast at the University of Santa Barbara in southern California and had the time of my life, but I went back to school...
NELSON: That's a beautiful location.
FOX: It was. I became an English major. It's interesting – I was always an outgoing kid, and as I said, a bit of a class clown, a storyteller, very comfortable around people, and what I really didn't know at the time and I'm so thankful I discovered this, but I was sort of a natural-born PR guy and I didn't know it, and it was only after getting into HBO and working very hard and being the best messenger that I could be that I ended up having an opportunity to pick a department in which I could work at HBO and with my English background and my personality PR was one of the groups that I had the opportunity to choose from, and I can tell you that story as well...
NELSON: But HBO – was this your first job?
FOX: Yeah, this was my first job out of college.
NELSON: How did that come about?
FOX: Well, I'll tell you the story because it's quite wonderful.
NELSON: Did you know much about television?
FOX: Again, because I had a creative background and I was into writing, I thought I want to work in a creative industry. So I looked at publishing, I looked at advertising, and television was sort of one of the things that I was interested in – movies, television, music – and it just so happens one of my best friends growing up in Chatham, his brother-in-law was working in the human resources department at HBO.
NELSON: Good place to get hired!
FOX: And he used to regale my friend and I, his nephew and I, with these wonderful stories of how great it was to work at Time, Inc. and at HBO in particular, how young and vivacious the people were and how much fun the work was and how successful the industry and HBO in particular was becoming. It was like I want to work there, too! This fella, his name was Rich Thomas, he got his brother-in-law into HBO first, taking this executive gopher job, and we were both college educated kids but we felt the most important thing was getting our foot in the door, and if we could do that, to be part of an industry that was growing, it seemed like a pretty good idea to both of us. So he got in first and he was clearly over-qualified for the messenger job and they recognized that very quickly and they gave him a job in the marketing department, and he convinced his boss, a woman named Dana McGee – God bless her! – I don't know that she's still at HBO but she did not want to hire another person who was only going to be in the job for a few months because quite honestly it was a pain for her to keep filling the job every few months so she was resisting that idea. My buddy, Scoot McPherson, said, "Listen, please, you've got to meet this guy! I swear if you meet him you'll hire him." And she begrudgingly decided to meet with me and she did like me and she did give me the job.
NELSON: Did you last more than four months at it?
FOX: Well, I did. I think it was more like four or five months but... You know, I decided I would be the best messenger they had ever seen in their life and I would do whatever I was told whether it was a senior executive – and I did a lot of favors for senior executives, but whether you were a receptionist or an assistant or you were the president of the company, I did favors for everybody, or I did chores or whatever they asked me to do. One of those guys was a fellow named Tony Cox, God bless him, and he was the number three executive at HBO at the time. Jim Heyworth was the president, Michael Fuchs was in charge of all of the programming operations, and Tony was in charge of all the sales and marketing departments. One of the perks of my messenger job, quote unquote, was I had an HBO car that I used in the city during the day running program logs, tapes, inter-office mail between this studio and the headquarters, which at the time was in the Time Life building on 6th Avenue.
NELSON: And we're in the studio on E. 23rd Street for those who wonder where we are. This is HBO Studios; you can watch Inside the NFL right from this studio. Set the stage.
FOX: That's right. So I get a call – people knew that I had this car and Tony Cox I had met previously because Tony Fox, Tony Cox, occasionally we'd get each other's inter-office mail.
NELSON: That was convenient!
FOX: And of course I would tease him about the fact that I longed for the day when payroll confused us, which unfortunately never happened. He found out that I had this car and he also found out through another executive who worked in the sports department that I lived in Chatham, New Jersey which is right next door to his hometown, Summit, New Jersey, and it was around the holidays and he had bought his mother for Christmas, who also lived in Summit, a huge Sony console TV and he needed a way to get it out of the city and to his mom's house, and he called me up and said...
NELSON: Oh, you can take that on the train!
FOX: Exactly, and he called me up and said, "Hey, I know you have the HBO station wagon and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind helping me get this thing home," and his mother happened to be away at the time so we were going to go stash it in her garage, cover it up with some blankets, and then I was going to drop Tony off, and of course all I could think was an hour in the car with the number three executive at HBO – are you kidding! Of course! I mean, I'm painting some guy's apartment who was a low-level person kind of stuff, so I thought, oh, this is a great opportunity. We ended up driving home and we hit it off personally almost immediately. He like me and I liked him and we dropped the TV off at his mom's house and I then drop him at his house and just as he's starting to get out of the car, or even before that, he grabs my hand, shakes it very firmly, looks me straight in the eye and says, "You know what? I owe you a favor." And he starts to get out of the car and I'm thinking – again, I'm 19 years old maybe, and I'm almost panicking and I'm thinking "Tony, this is your moment, this is your opportunity, don't blow it." So I end up grabbing him by the jacket sleeve as he's starting to get out of the car and it sort of startles him and he stumbles back in the car looking at me like what are you doing? I said, "Listen, Tony, I'm college educated, I took this job at HBO because I saw it as a great opportunity to get into a wonderful company in a growing industry and business, and to be honest with you I don't plan on being a messenger my entire career and I was wondering if I found an entry level job within HBO would you consider writing me a letter of recommendation?" And again, firm handshake, looked me straight in the eye...
NELSON: Boy, you went right for it!
FOX: I'm tellin' ya! That was not my personality back then; I just knew that this was an important moment and I had to seize the opportunity. So he shakes my hand, thanks me and says, "You bet." I drop him off and he gets out of the car, and I go home and in less than a week... And meanwhile, I'm such a low person on the totem poll, I don't have an office, I don't have a cubicle, I don't have a desk. I have a phone on the wall in the reception area of the 7th floor of...
NELSON: Because you're not supposed to be staying anywhere, you're supposed to be running errands, right!
FOX: No, I'm supposed to be on the road! And there was a very cute receptionist at the time. Meanwhile, this is the 7th floor of the Time Life Building which was the power floor. This was the executive floor, and the receptionist who was a very cute girl, and I was single at the time, we used to flirt a lot, and I came back from one of my runs down here at the studio and there were like 16 messages waiting for me. They were vice-presidents and directors and a lot of important people and I thought, "Oh my God, what have I done wrong? What did I screw up?" And of course the receptionist, "Oh, Mr. Bigshot! Everybody wants to talk to Tony Fox today!" So I started to call all these people back and strangely they're all sort of saying the same thing, they're like "You know, we're hearing good things about you and we think you may have some real potential to move ahead in the company and we want to talk to you about an entry level job in our department." Again, I haven't put two and two together yet. I'm just thinking, "God, this is odd." So I've gone on three or four interviews and finally one of the people I'm interviewing with pulls out a full page memo that Tony Cox had written the day after we met – full page! It described how we met, it described his thoughts about me and what he thought about my potential, and he was a famous jokester, ball-buster, if you will, a wonderful guy and a mentor to hundreds and hundreds of people in our industry. The last line of the memo was "I like this young man. I want you to talk to him about a job in your department because if you don't I might just give him your job." That's how all these calls happened. And so I ended up meeting with the people...
NELSON: That's a pretty powerful recommendation.
FOX: It was awesome, and I ended up sort of having my pick of all these entry level jobs in a variety of departments, and again, because of my English background, my personality, PR was one of those departments and I thought, you know what, that seems like the right fit for me and that's how I started.
NELSON So now who was it you went to work for?
FOX: I went to work for Quentin Schaffer, who I understand you're also speaking to for this project.
NELSON: Yes, we did.
FOX: I worked for him. Judy Terello was the woman who ran the department, but Quentin worked there and there was another fellow named Richard Lacotta who's now at Showtime, and I worked for both of them at a certain point during that time.
NELSON: And what specifically were your responsibilities? Or give us an example of something you were doing?
FOX: I was sort of the guy, "give it to Mikey, he'll eat it", so it was a lot of odd projects. I handled pitching TV book covers for awhile, I worked on some documentaries, and ultimately what happened is the guy who was handling sports publicity used to have me help him out on certain projects. I used to go to some World Championship boxing matches and things like that and would help him do whatever he was doing. He ended up leaving the company rather suddenly and I was in a staff meeting with all of my peers in the group and they were talking about what they were going to do to fill this guy's position. The boss, Judy Terello, looked around the room and she goes, "Fox, you've been to some fights, you've done some sports stuff, right?" I said, "Yeah, I've worked with Tom on a number of things." She goes, "Well, great! You're now the head of sports publicity."
NELSON: Right in front of everybody?
FOX: Right in front of everybody else, and of course I felt horribly guilty because they guy had left under not the best circumstances and I was distraught over that fact, but at the same time it was a tremendous opportunity for me.
NELSON: And what year was this just so we can kind of keep the chronology here.
FOX: That was probably 1984 or 5. I started in the messenger job in 1980, did it for awhile, and then I was a coordinator in the press department and they promoted me from that coordinator position to the manager of sports publicity, and that was again probably '82, '83, maybe '84.
NELSON: Okay, so now what were you doing?
FOX: Doing the sports publicity?
FOX: I had the great fortune to be around when HBO created the relationship with Mike Tyson. I ended up going to 26 Mike Tyson fights in a row, sat ringside in these fights usually within the first or second row where our broadcasters – Ray Leonard, originally Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant, and Tompkins was later replaced by Jim Lampley – and we used to call them the splatter seats because you literally could get hit with blood, sweat, a tooth, a mouth guard. When Mike Tyson knocked out Trevor Burbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing, he hit him with a punch that literally knocked him down three times. He was so wobbly, he kept trying to get up and the last time he got up he fell through the ropes and landed right on top of me. 290 pounds of sweaty black man landed on top of me, but it was exhilarating.
NELSON: And also he was knocked out!
FOX: He was unconscious. I was watching some of the sportswriters write their stories about the first punch in the history of boxing to knock someone down three times. It was wonderful! I went to Wimbledon... I had a great relationship with Quentin Schaffer and it got to the point where I'd say to him, I'd rush into his office all excited and go, "Quentin, I've got an idea..." and he knew whenever I did that I was going to ask him to send me somewhere. I got him to send me to Japan for a Tyson fight, and my deal with him was I over-delivered on whatever I promised him. I'd come up with a plan, I'd say "Here's what I want to accomplish over there, if you choose to send me." I was the first guy they sent to Wimbledon and I came back with a press digest this thick. It got to the point where I'd run into Quentin's office and he'd just roll his eyes like "Okay, where do you want to go now?" But I always delivered on what I said I would and that's why he kept sending me.
NELSON: But come back to Wimbledon. You talked about this big stack of clips. You're some Yank, right?
FOX: Yeah, well, it was the tenth anniversary of HBO's Wimbledon coverage at the time...
NELSON: So that had a lot of credibility.
FOX: And Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King were our two broadcasters and they were legendary. In fact, I actually got into a bit of a battle with Billie Jean. She was a very tough lady but a good lady and I liked her a lot, but she was complaining a lot about the fact that I was asking her to do some international media. HBO was only available in the United States but there were crews and journalists and television outlets from Japan and Germany and all these wonderful places, and Billie Jean was like "Why are we doing this?" I convinced her, I said, "Listen, you're a legend in this sport. People want to talk to you, and as a public figure, I think you should." We had a lot of back and forth and she was kind of mean to me at certain points but when I handed her that press digest this thick, she shook my hand but she later sent me a letter which I was so impressed by, and she pretty much said, "I was wrong about you and I was wrong about what you were up to, and having read this amazing document of all the coverage that you managed to generate I realized what you were up to," and it was wonderful. I thought that was really tremendous of her to do something like that. I was very pleased.
NELSON: She was asking what does it do for her – what did it do for HBO? You were basically a domestic service at the time.
FOX: I think it had a very positive effect on HBO's coverage. We were perceived as a premium outfit. We had the best people, the best talent, both in front of and behind the camera, and I think in a strange way it really helped to burnish the image of HBO as being one of the best places for really quality sports coverage.
NELSON: So even people in the sports business in the U.S., they would see that your people are being covered worldwide and it would just add to your luster.
FOX: That was certainly my belief and I think Billie Jean came to believe that as well.
NELSON: Yeah, apparently. So what happened next?
FOX: Well, I loved HBO and had no intention of leaving...
NELSON: We saw this coming!
FOX: Whenever I would go out to Las Vegas for a championship fight which was usually about once a month, I would get there early – the fight would be on a Saturday night, I would show up on a Tuesday because we used to host a cocktail reception for all the boxing writers and we would screen the pre-fight features that the HBO sports guys would put together that they ran before the actual live fight. And so we'd screen the features. A lot of times the fighters who were profiled would show up, occasionally we'd have a pushing match and of course the writers are going like this. Ross Greenburg would talk about the coverage that was planned, and it was a great way to sort of ingratiate ourselves with boxing writers and they were more interested in the live event, not so much the television coverage of it. So how were we going to get boxing writers to again convey the important role that HBO played in the boxing business and that was one of the techniques that we had. And so I would be out there on a Tuesday, and I also played a lot of golf with the sports writers. Before they covered the fight they were always out drinking and carousing and playing golf and doing whatever they could do, and of course I would do it with them because I was pitching them stories and trying to get as close to them and tell them our story as best I could, and by the time the senior execs would come out I'd be sitting out in the pool – I was already tan! – they didn't have cell phones back then but I had a porta-phone and I'm working the phones and the press, I'd be tanned with a peach daiquiri or something in my hand, and the senior execs from HBO would come out and they'd see me, and I'm a manager at the time, and they're like "Who is this guy and how is he getting away with this?" And again, I think it was mostly because I got a lot of great coverage. They stopped asking who I was and how I was doing what I was doing because the evidence of my efforts were in print all the time.
NELSON: But you just alluded to the fact that you never saw it coming but you left!
FOX: I did leave, and I hated it. I hated to leave but my reputation started to get around a little bit and Richard Lacotta, one of the guys who I worked with early in the HBO days had left and he recommended me to CBS Sports, which this was in 1990 and they had gone out and bought every major sports franchise there was. They had the Super Bowl, they had baseball, they had NFL, they had NCAA basketball, the Masters, the Daytona 500 – they had every significant sporting event throughout the year.
NELSON: And that was a big strategy for them.
FOX: It was. They called it the dream season, and I think at the time the network was suffering a little bit in their entertainment programming so they saw sports as a tremendously valuable platform to launch all their new entertainment programming, obviously coming out of Sunday night NFL coverage and things like that. So, Lacotta recommended me and CBS called and they wanted to talk to me, and I figured I'm not leaving HBO but I'd be a fool not to go at least hear what they have to say. They told me about the Dream Season, they offered to double my salary, and it was one of those things where I could have said no and I came close to saying no because I really didn't want to leave HBO, but it was one of those Tony, if you don't do this you're going to hate yourself for not doing it.
NELSON: And you had access to all of these sports. It's not just boxing and tennis.
FOX: Yeah, and I went from four or five events a month to 30 a weekend. So it was scary and overwhelming to some degree because it wasn't a huge department that I was inheriting, but I had to do it and I did do it. I ended up not liking it that much, not so much because of the sports and there were a lot of wonderful people at CBS, but they had a very different philosophy in dealing with the media. HBO was honest and open with the press and they taught me about integrity and very important things that still very much drive the philosophy that governs my work today. CBS was lie, cheat, steal, get it right or we'll fire you, and I just didn't want to work under those circumstances. I lasted about a year; I was overwhelmed at first but I started to get my legs and they ended up bringing in somebody over me and they took my bonus away, gave it to this woman, and I quit within two weeks. It just so happened that my best friend Scooter, the guy who got the messenger job before me, he was working in a marketing job at the Comedy Channel and their PR person at the time had just left.
NELSON: And the Comedy Channel at this point...
NELSON: Struggling, very new, and we're going to talk about...
FOX: We can get into that.
NELSON: Oh, we will, we will for sure.
FOX: But at this point I was single, I was miserable at CBS. They had just really screwed me, basically, and I said, "I've got to get out of here." And so my buddy Scooter knew that I was miserable, knew I was trying to get out of CBS, and he said, "Tony, the head of PR at the Comedy Channel just left," and I knew this guy because he came from the HBO PR department, his name is John Kelly, and I thought you know what... I was looking at a salary cut but I was miserable and I was single at the time, and I knew the channel was 50/50 in terms of whether it was even going to survive but I figured you know what? I'll go there, if it doesn't work out I'll collect a little severance, maybe I'll travel a little bit and I'll start over.
NELSON: So this is now covering your whole... I brought up your youth before, the jock and the class clown. You've been doing the jock thing and so now we're getting another aspect of the personality.
FOX: Exactly right. It seemed kind of exciting to me and I knew what I was getting into having moved to CBS where I was sort of like, whoa, this is not really what I expected. I was technically going home. And I had left HBO under very positive terms. People knew I didn't want to go but they knew it was something I had to do. They threw me a big party when I left, they got it.
NELSON: Look, anybody that's a professional sees that somebody doubles your salary...
FOX: They just knew that this was the logical step for me in my career, so no one begrudged the fact that I took the job, but when I found out about the job, Scooter mentioned my name to Larry Divney, the long-time... he was the head of ad sales and marketing and PR at the Comedy Channel at that time, he later became the president of Comedy Central and a wonderful, wonderful guy, a tremendous mentor to me as well. Scooter said you've got to check out my buddy Tony Fox, and there was someone else in the room at the time and they said, "Fox? You can get him? Get him!" And I ended up going to meet Larry Divney in the morning the next day. I met him in the morning and I met the president of the channel, Dick Beers in the afternoon, and that night they called me and offered me the job. So I was hired in one day, largely based upon my reputation at HBO.
NELSON: Now Comedy Channel, just so people understand, this was started by HBO, by Time Warner...
FOX: That's right, that's right.
NELSON: How old was it at this point?
FOX: It was less than a year old when I joined them. I wasn't there for the launch but I was probably there six months after the Comedy Channel had launched. Since the Comedy Channel launch and since I had joined, MTV Networks had launched their competitor channel, HA!
NELSON: So this is a very shaky situation.
NELSON: I mean, you've gone from CBS which certainly might be a miserable job but it pays well, it's not going anywhere, and you've hopped on this boat that may or may not sink.
FOX: Right, right. But again, I was single, I was young, I was optimistic.
NELSON: Yeah, I guess we could do those kinds of things, right?
FOX: If it doesn't work out I'll do something else. I really wasn't terribly worried about that, but again, the notion of sort of going home to HBO was very attractive to me. The Comedy Channel, I thought wow! What a perfect fit for me that is. I also learned at CBS Sports that even though I'm an athlete and I enjoy sports as a spectator, I don't live, drink, eat, sleep and dream sports like a lot of guys do. So it seemed like this might be a logical transition for me to do something else.
NELSON: So you got this job same day, went to work the next day or a week or two later – I assume it wasn't very long. So when you walked in the door there, what was it that hit you that was okay, here's what I've got to do. Here's this struggling, fledgling network, it's got a competitor – both of them are struggling for that matter – you've got a lot on your plate. What were you looking at at that point?
FOX: You know, it's funny. The competition between Comedy Channel and HA! – we used to call them the comedy wars because it was a vicious, vicious battle. I came in and I realized our programming model was very, very different than HA!'s was.
NELSON: How so?
FOX: We were about original programming. In fact, the guy at HBO, his name is Art Bell, he later became the president of Court TV, was most recently the president of Court TV, and it was actually his idea to launch the Comedy Channel. He put together a business plan and it was very much modeled on what MTV was like, taking clips, both standup clips and clips from comedy movies, having video jocks not unlike on MTV for music, and hosting these clips and various sources of material as well as starting to create original programming.
NELSON: So with the programming, you would just be hopping from one thing to the next?
FOX: Right in this very studio, well, not in this actual room but about four or five floors up we had the Comedy Channel studio and it was a low budget operation. It was a theater-in-the-round in effect where the sets were in the corners of the room and the cameras were in the middle. And so you could just point the camera in a different direction and all of the sudden it was like it was a different studio and quite honestly we were making this stuff up as we went and it was like the early days of live television and it was very exciting. It was a room of creative people, there were toys and gadgets and crazy, wacked out creative folks all over the place, and it couldn't have been more exciting. I truly believe that not only did we have a press advantage over HA! – because HA! was primarily off-network sitcoms from the Viacom library, and as I think most people recognize, publicizing original shows versus something that's already been seen and publicized many years before, there's just more potential with original programming. And not all of it was good, by the way.
NELSON: But it was original.
FOX: It was original, and that was our calling card, and I truly believe that we had a better programming model than our competitors.
NELSON: So that was your story when you went out to the press.
FOX: That was our story. Our very first hit was a show called Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I milked that baby for everything it was worth.
NELSON: I'm smiling because...
FOX: It was a brilliant show. It was wonderful.
NELSON: It's amazing that show, which was on not that long really, the residual effect of it.
FOX: The cultural impact was quite substantial. Tom Shales who was and still remains to some degree the preeminent television critic of the time, it was his favorite show on television. He wrote five love letter reviews within three years on this show, and so we really started to gain some traction with our original shows and that's where we started to gain the competitive advantage over HA! The problem was we were still in our coaxial days of cable; there was no fiber optics, so channel capacity was an issue. Time Warner and Viacom were both huge suppliers to the cable television industry and I think there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of the operators to choose one over the other.
NELSON: And obviously neither had the advantage.
FOX: Yeah, and never mind the fact that there wasn't a lot of channel capacity to begin with so the notion of two comedy channels when there were maybe 20 or 30 channel slots available was just something that didn't appeal to the operators either.
NELSON: Yeah, and this was a time historically in cable when channel capacity was very constrained.
FOX: Exactly right, exactly right, and the operators kept saying, "We're not going to launch either one of you. You better figure this out." Which obviously led to the merger of the two channels among... you know, I think Sumner Redstone was suing Time Warner at the time for what he deemed unfair competitor practices against Showtime.
NELSON: Yeah, by HBO. There was that whole legal background.
FOX: They were at each other's throats at the time but interestingly the creation of Comedy Central actually created a relationship. Fuchs and Bewkes became very, very close friends with Tom Freston and the leaders over at MTV Networks. We were the olive branch between those two companies ultimately.
NELSON: Well, that's carrying a big burden. But talk more about this merger because from what I have read it wasn't as simple as all that because of the negotiations – who's in charge of what, who's name goes on what, who occupies which office.
FOX: It's absolutely true and basically when the two channels actually did merge – and I was very upset because I was working on a Wall Street Journal story that I was absolutely convinced would put a spike through the heart of HA! and allow Comedy Channel to declare victory. I had found a guy at the Wall Street Journal, a guy named Dennis Neal, who was a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
NELSON: There it is again.
FOX: I said, "You know what? You want to go out to the show?" The show was being produced in Minneapolis and we also had another event going on in Denver with Alan Havey, another guy who had a show upstairs in one of the small sets in the corner of the studio. We used to do a lot of things, I did at CBS Sports and HBO Sports even earlier, we used to call it the Stockholm syndrome. If you get a journalist and you sort of give him extraordinary inside access and they live with you long enough, they begin to see the world through your eyes and will tell the story just the way you want them to. So putting a journalist in a television truck during a live sporting event, watching all the commands from the producers and the director and everything else, was really a compelling perspective and not a lot of people were willing to do that because there was a lot of risk involved. If something went wrong the journalist was there to capture it.
NELSON: I don't want to let you get away with that reference to the Stockholm syndrome because that's a term that refers to the behavior of...
NELSON: Behavior of a hostage becoming on the side of its captor over time from this pure exposure and all the details.
FOX: That's exactly what I mean, though.
NELSON: But that's an interesting attitude.
FOX: It is, but there's some risk involved in bringing someone in that close but once they really spend time and they develop relationships with the people around you they're going to want to tell the story that you want them to tell and it works. In this particular case with Dennis Neal, I invited him to come out to Minneapolis. I wasn't even going to stay there. He came to Minneapolis and he was going to spend three days with the Mystery Science 3000 creators and actually help write one of the episodes. I owned him! I absolutely owned this guy. It was like he died and went to heaven. So he does that and then he comes to Denver where we did this big affiliate event and of course all the big operators are in Denver and it was a stand-up event at a comedy club with Alan Havey and actually I told Dennis Neal on this trip that I just had been engaged to be married, so he wanted to go out that night. And I happen to have a wild cousin who lives in Denver so we took him out for the night of his life. Believe me, I can't even tell you half the stuff that went on.
NELSON: I'm not asking! It's okay.
FOX: But he was about to write this A-head column story in the Wall Street Journal about this wonderful upstart channel that was really doing innovative things in original programming and literally days before the story was going to run the merger was announced, and I always told the story, having worked in boxing, I said it felt like being a boxer who actually had his opponent on the ropes and then get hit in the back of the head with your trainers towel and the fight was over. I was distraught because I was absolutely convinced we were going to win the public relations battle and all of the sudden it was over.
NELSON: When they announced it, this was announcing there was going to be a merger. This is the beginning of another fight.
FOX: Difficult work, yeah. Both the presidents of the channels were let go. They decided in order to make this new entity work they had to root out some of the animosity as well as some of the notions of going into this thing. People were sort of set in their ways and their own philosophies. It would be difficult to reconcile that so what they ended up doing is getting rid of both the respective channel presence and their respective heads of programming, and they hired a new guy – he used to work at HBO but also had a relationship I believe with MTV Networks – a guy named Bob Creek, and he came in, a former Navy guy, and he had the very difficult task of getting these two warring teams, and basically what happened is they merged the two staffs. There were some people who were doing double duty at MTV where they were working on HA! and also on VH1, so some of the VH1 people were absorbed back into that company and very few people actually lost their jobs because we were very lean and mean at the time. But then you have a new president, two news heads of programming and these staffs that were trying to basically kill each other for the last 8 months. It was a very tense atmosphere. Creek, who was a very smart manager, figured out that the only way to really get these guys to operate as a team was to create an impossible task for them to accomplish in short order.
NELSON: That will get them distracted.
FOX: Yeah, well, it was like "Oh my God! We've got to work together!" What happened was we had an enormously creative guy at the time at the Comedy Channel called Vinnie Favalli who came up with the brilliant idea of... President Bush Sr.'s first State of the Union address in 1992 was about to happen, it was about a month away, and Vinnie came up with this brilliant idea of... and just to backtrack a little, at the Comedy Channel we had what we called the buzz committee. The most creative people within the organization would get together every morning, they'd read newspapers and talk and try and come up with creative publicity stunts to try and get our name out there and create some sense of brand for the Comedy Channel. So we've merged, the buzz committee is still operating, and Vinnie Favalli says, "What if we took a live feed of the State of the Union address and made fun of it, did a comedy overlay?" Creek at the time goes, "That sounds brilliant!" Of course it was cheap, too because the feed is the programming, we just had to do the commentary.
NELSON: This is a Navy guy, right?
NELSON: He's not exactly saluting the Commander-in-Chief at this point!
FOX: He saw this as, yeah, this is kind of a cool idea, let's try this.
NELSON: Which nobody has done anything like this before.
FOX: Nothing! And let me tell you something. That became... in 1992 was the forefather of our Indecision political coverage on Comedy Central today which is worth in incremental revenue from sponsors about 30 million dollars every four years. But there were some challenges. We had to get access to the pool feed, and we had this wonderful pit bull of a lawyer back then, a guy named Steven Paul Mark who was actually paralyzed in a football accident when he was a kid. He was basically in a wheelchair, but a tenacious, really great, tough, smart, fearless guy. So he went down to Washington and we discovered there were two ways that you could get access to the pool feed of the President's State of the Union speech. One was through the Radio and Television Gallery of the House and Senate and we had missed their deadline to apply for that opportunity. So there was only one other way that we could get access to the speech, and that was to request it from the pool feed members which at the time were the three main broadcaster networks: ABC, NBC and CBS and CNN. They controlled the pool feed and every year a different one of those organizations would be sort of the boss of the pool feed. So we went and applied to them. They were like, "What?! Making fun of the President?"
NELSON: Oh, you even told them what you were going to do?
FOX: Oh, yeah! We were the Comedy Channel. It was fairly obvious that we were up to no good. We went to them and said we'd like access to the feed.
NELSON: Who was in charge that year, do you remember?
FOX: CNN was, interestingly.
NELSON: Wow, that was probably a good thing, right?
FOX: It wasn't, necessarily, because all of them said, "No, we're not going to let you do this. We think it's inappropriate." And Steven Paul Mark, First Amendment guy, he filed a lawsuit and I picked up the phone and I called Howie Kurtz, the media critic at the Washington Post, and I explained to him, here's what's going on, and don't you find it ironic that these news organizations that live and die by the First Amendment right are prepared to deny little Comedy Central their First Amendment right? He wrote a story the next day, full-page, that just lambasted the pool feed members and they caved within 24 hours. They basically realized that they were in a very untenable position and they said, "Okay, we're going to let you in."
NELSON: So just by that story...
FOX: By that one story...
NELSON: And you had the lawsuit behind it.
FOX: We got Al Franken and a guy named Bill Kimball who did the simultaneous comedy overlay, and it was rough, it was live, we were making it up as we went, but one of the big television...
NELSON: Some of the jokes worked better than others, of course.
FOX: Yeah, some were terrible! But Howard Rosenberg was the top television critic at the LA Times at the time, and the day after our coverage, or the following day because we went late into the evening, he wrote a story that basically said this is the true promise of what cable television was supposed to be. He complained that cable television was supposed to be about diversity and all these wonderful niche interests, but much of cable television at the time was really driven by off-network acquisitions. Nobody had the money or the budgets or the success to finance original programming so we were just running all this stuff off of broadcast TV. So he pointed to our project as really the true promise of what cable television could be, and needless to say...
NELSON: But that must have gotten a lot of press elsewhere.
FOX: It got an enormous amount of press.
NELSON: I remember that. The outrageous idea – "Who are these people to think that they could do this?"
FOX: That's how it started. Then in 1996 we decided we were going to do four hours of live coverage every night of the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, and again, we did this knowing that the networks were being criticized for cutting back on their political coverage. So the irony of a comedy network devoting more coverage to this event than the news networks were and the broadcast news divisions was again an irony that the media just couldn't resist. So they wrote endless stories and columns about that.
NELSON: Which was wonderful for you!
FOX: It was perfect.
NELSON: I mean it's perfect for the channel, but also for you in your position.
FOX: Some of the things that we did during our live coverage! Christopher Hitchens came in, he was drunk and started swearing on live TV, and Creek at the time was freaking out. We pulled him off camera and he was like, "Come on, this is cable! You can do anything, right?" We're like, "No, not basic cable." So it was really a wonderful time.
NELSON: Did this help set a tone for Comedy Central? It became kind of anything goes, very irreverent, it's sort of your signature.
FOX: I think you're absolutely right, Steve. What it did is it helped inform our future brand. Al Franken is an enormously smart guy. He went to Harvard, was a writer and a performer on Saturday Night Live. These were really smart, smart, funny people. If it was just gratuitous and sort of taking pot shots at people I don't think we would have been nearly as successful or perhaps not successful at all. But it was smart, it was incisive, and we were giving voice to the frustrations that people had. I think at the time, and I think this is still true today, the news networks were sort of softballing the issues and softballing the candidates. They weren't asking the tough questions, they weren't pointing out the contradictions in their positions and things like that, and that's what we were doing and I think the public for the first time began to realize, wow, these guys are telling the truth and they're doing it in a funny, entertaining way, but they're talking about the important issues and they're doing it in a way that the broadcast and news divisions weren't. I think people really thought that was fantastic.
NELSON: Somehow that resonates with some of your lead programming today, and I can see where the roots have been. The Daily Show and all that really comes out of that.
FOX: It does, and everything that we did... the buzz committee used to create these topical segments and it was really – I'll tell you about Herzog who came in later – but we used to do these topical things. We called them topicals. They were short, two-minute segments that we put on the Comedy Channel that had something to do with what was going on in the world. When Connie Chung was dumped by Dan Rather as the co-anchor of the CBS Evening News, we offered her a job on the Jumbotron in Times Square to come work for the Comedy Central news division. It was a pure stunt. We never expected her to say yes. We didn't even have a job for her. We put it on the Jumbotron and we sent a media alert out to all these news crews throughout New York City and they showed up in droves. We must have had 15 or 20 network television news broadcasts on this particular effort.
NELSON: Shooting the Jumbotron, right?
FOX: Shooting the Jumbotron.
NELSON: And there she is.
FOX: When Comedy Central launched in Manhattan we dropped Judy Tenuta, a comedian who played an accordion, from the flagpole in Times Square. 15 crews showed up to that thing. We were doing these goofy sort of stunts that let people know that this channel had a personality. We weren't just a network of shows strung together back to back. We were this thing that was paying attention and commenting on what was going on in the world around us, and that is something that when Doug Herzog came in he said, "We need a reason for people to watch this network every day.
NELSON: And what year did he arrive? Ballpark.
FOX: He came in probably, I'd say, '95. A very talented programming guy, and he looked at it like SportsCenter on ESPN. He thought people tune into ESPN everyday, they tune into SportsCenter everyday because they want to know how their teams are doing, they want to know the scores. We need to create something similar for Comedy Central where people will want to watch this channel everyday. If they tune into something everyday that's our opportunity to promote them to watch a lot of other things.
NELSON: And you didn't really have that signature show.
FOX: We had the topicals, we had the idea, kind of these little segments, but the notion of them all sort of residing in one place, we did not have that idea. And it was when Herzog came in and said, "How about a nightly news show that allows us to reflect on what's happening in the world around us every night," and that's how The Daily Show was born.
NELSON: So it really stems out of that State of the Union address.
FOX: We struck gold with that and we said, hey, what else can we do, how else can we reflect on what's happening in the world around us, and that led to topicals and ultimately topicals led to The Daily Show and now there's Colbert.
NELSON: Talk a little bit about the development of The Daily Show, how it came about, how it's structured, where Jon Stewart came from – the whole thing.
FOX: Herzog was a very successful programming guy at MTV Networks, he grew up in MTV Networks. He started actually, I think he worked briefly at CNN, or Entertainment Tonight, then CNN, and then ended up at MTV Networks and he worked in the MTV news division for awhile. And so he came in, he had the idea for The Daily Show and ended up hiring some people who worked on Jon Stewart's syndicated show. It originally started, Jon Stewart had a show on MTV and then it became syndicated, didn't last very long as a syndicated show, but some of the people who worked on that show Doug felt were really talented, creative people. Madeleine Smithberg was on of them and I'm trying to remember the other gal's name. [Editor's note: Lizz Winstead] She was a comedian, fairly well known, and I'm forgetting her name right now. But they came in and the working name for the show was The Daily Show. That was not intended to be the actual title. It was just that's what it is, it's going to be on every night so we call it The Daily Show. They started working on the show and at the time Jon Stewart was not the host. Again, Doug Herzog who had a great feel not only for programming but also for talent, and was a big sports fan, so he used to watch ESPN a lot, he saw this guy, Craig Kilborn, who had sort of a snarky sense of humor on SportsCenter and said, "I think that's the guy." So we ended up offering him the job. At that point at SportsCenter, I think, Kilborn was sort of feeling like he was maxing out, a lot of other people were sort of copying his snarky comedic persona, so he kind of felt like he had hit the wall, and we were surprised quite honestly that he took that job. So he ended up coming in and I remember we had the show, we were very close to going on the air and the television critics' tour was coming up. I didn't feel like we could actually do the show justice. We hadn't actually taped a show yet so we had nothing to send to the critics for them to look at and so we were just putting basically a guy that nobody knew up there to talk about this nightly news show, and I didn't think that that was really going to do the trick for us so we decided to recreate a broadcast in the room. We set up the set, we put Kilborn at the anchor desk, and as our TCA presentation we did a 20 minute version of the show. People went beserk!
NELSON: And you'd never done it at all before.
FOX: We'd never done it. I mean, they had been practicing and doing run-throughs and things like that but that was really the first staging of the show was at the Television Critics' Tour, and the critics loved it. They loved it. So there was a great deal of anticipation for the show when it went on the air and even though we didn't have a huge audience it took a long time for the audience to really build to The Daily Show because it was on at 11:00, it was on against a lot of syndicated comedy, off-network sitcoms. We decided to put it on at 11:00 so we weren't going to compete with the Lettermans and Lenos of the world, but we were still competing with local news and a lot of other things and it took a long time...
NELSON: Why not earlier? I've always wondered about that timeslot. I can see not going head to head with the 11:30 guys.
FOX: It was really Larry Divney in the early days who recognized the bullseye for our network was young men. We were among the first channels that really, truly targeted young men, and young guys watch a lot of TV late at night and I think the feeling was that was our best chance to really every night catch an audience. Strip it at 11:00, primetime ends and they're sort of surfing around looking for something to watch before they go to bed and we felt that was really an idea spot for it.
NELSON: Well, it's interesting because you grabbed kind of a timeslot there that by and large in terms of the broadcasters is given over to local news and in a way it's sort of a dead time on TV. If you're not a real news junkie, what is there to look at? So in a way that was very clever to take that over.
FOX: It's been in the same timeslot now for a decade. So Kilborn was in the job for quite a while and in fact, as I was about to say, the ratings weren't huge but the press coverage of what we were doing was enormous. Again, not unlike Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Politically Incorrect and other shows that we had done that were really innovative, we really started to get some traction. The press was really paying attention to us. Our advantage at the time was we were doing risk-taking, innovative things and television critics are so used to seeing the same old thing, derivative, over and over again, they really focused on us and even when we did something that failed they gave us a lot of credit for trying something new and different.
NELSON: And you didn't have the kind of ratings that would necessarily say why are these guys paying so much attention.
FOX: No, we didn't, but we got disproportionate amounts of coverage because we were doing risky, edgy, innovative stuff and they gave us a lot of credit for that and they supported us for it. So Kilborn lasted about three years in the job, or maybe even a little less than that. The show had become so hot and so successful CBS went after Kilborn and offered him a late night gig after Letterman, and so we lost Kilborn, his contract happened to be up, so there was nothing we could do to keep him. Again, Doug with his relationship from his MTV days with Jon Stewart said, "You know, I think I've got a guy who could really do this and do a great job," and that was Jon.
NELSON: The rest is history, as they say.
FOX: Here we are, and he took the show to an entirely different level.
NELSON: Yes, absolutely.
FOX: He really brought it to the place it is.
NELSON: But this brings up a question, going back to the merger you've got the Time Warner side, you've got the Viacom side. What were the contributions of the two sides from a programming standpoint, other than the State of the Union business and all that?
FOX: Well, it's interesting. It wasn't always programming.
NELSON: Or whatever, yeah.
FOX: We basically took the best programming from both sides to create the new channel. So Mystery Science Theater 3000 absolutely made the transition over. The MTV side had some interesting stuff and they started to actually get into the original programming business. When they saw how we were cleaning their clock in the press because they had mostly acquisitions, they started to get into original programming as well. So when the merger happened, the HBO studio which was producing a lot of our original shows was obviously a valuable asset, and so HBO said okay – and also it was making money because even though it was part of the company we were still paying for that programming and that money was going to HBO. So MTV was like, "Okay, if you're going to get the studio, or the studio's going to the Comedy Channel, we want our affiliate sales staff to handle the distribution efforts on behalf of the channel."
NELSON: So this was part of these negotiations?
FOX: Yeah, it was all horse trading. We were in the HBO building, they were in the Viacom building and MTV had a lease up at 1775 Broadway up near Central Park and Columbus Circle area and I guess it was a lease... they didn't even need the space anymore but they were paying for the floor so they said, "Okay, we want you to take over this lease and have the combined company basically work out of this building," and so it was a constant tit for tat kind of situation where okay, you get this, we get that. And they ended up coming up with a structure and a deal that was amenable to both sides and that's when the deal was concluded.
NELSON: From what I understand, Michael Fuchs, who's a brilliant guy and has all kinds of things and stories about him, apparently was a pretty tough negotiator.
FOX: He was a tough negotiator and he was also a tough critic. Even in the Comedy Channel days, at one point a journalist asked him, "If you had to rate the quality of this network from 1 to 10, what would you give it?" He gave us a 2.
NELSON: And this is his network.
FOX: This is his network! And we're like "GAHH!"
NELSON: Well, that's honest. Gee, thanks for the support.
FOX: It took us a year to wash away the smell of that number. But you know, I think perhaps at the time it was his way of saying you guys got to do better.
NELSON: Got to do better, come on, guys – give you a little dig.
FOX: And of course that's how we reacted, after sort of freaking out we're like, okay, we're going to show him he's wrong. So it was actually kind of a clever thing to do.
NELSON: Now we touched on the history of The Daily Show. How about South Park? Where did that come from?
FOX: Well, South Park, I just love it and it's been a great, great opportunity for me to work on a show like that. Again, a lot of my personality and background came into play in promoting that show.
NELSON: I'm sure that's a fun one to promote.
FOX: It was. It was scary but it was also like you had to be fearless to handle that show or you just wouldn't be able to do the job. What happened was there's a guy named Brian Graden who's now the top programmer at MTV Networks, a very, very creative guy and a very successful guy. He had met Matt and Trey when they had moved from Denver to Los Angeles. They both had gone to film school at the University of Colorado and they were interested in pursuing a career in Hollywood like everyone else who goes to film school or thinks they're an actor or actress or whatever. They were poor, living in Los Angeles on their friends couches, and somehow they met Brian Graden. Brian had seen one of their college films that they had done, and it wasn't "The Spirit of Christmas" but it was something similar. It was called "Santa vs. Frosty" and it was this very crude cartoon about Christmas and it was the precursor to South Park. It was very, very funny and Brian said to these guys, "Here's a thousand bucks. Go make me a video Christmas card, something like this thing but here's a little more money so you can do a little bit better quality job on it, and I want to use this as a video Christmas card to send out to the people I work with and friends and things like that." Matt and Trey ended up creating "The Spirit of Christmas", that five minute, unbelievably profane short involving the South Park characters and Jesus and Santa fighting over the true spirit of Christmas.
NELSON: For a thousand bucks?
FOX: For a thousand bucks, and Matt and Trey did it for half that, pocketed the rest of the money so they could buy Christmas presents for their families.
NELSON: Got to make a profit on the job, right?
FOX: And Brian Graden popped the thing into his machine, watched it, and he was freaked out but it was hysterical, freaked out but realized not only is it brilliant but I have to cut my Christmas list. The people I intended to send this to, about a quarter of the people I planned to send it to will actually get it because it's just too out there.
NELSON: Too much.
FOX: Too much, too edgy. It was actually one of the very first Internet viral videos. We were bicycling tapes around; we got a copy of it, one of our West Coast development people got a copy of it and she said, "You have to see this," to Doug Herzog. Doug just became the president of the channel, and I remember being in a senior staff meeting where we had this tape, we plugged it into the VCR and watched it, and all of us were screaming, crying, hysterical. We could not believe what we were watching. The tape ends and the room is silent for a minute, and we're all looking around, and Doug was the first one to say it, he says, "We have to make this into a television show." And Larry Divney, the head of sales, goes, "There is no way in hell any advertiser on the planet will go near this thing. I think you're out of your mind." And so we were so excited, we said we've got to do this. We had already, as I said, sort of been experimenting with pushing the envelope and poking the status quo a little bit, so this seemed somewhat consistent with that.
NELSON: But that's tough because you're in the position, you're not an HBO, right? You're an ad-supported network.
FOX: Right, we're not a pay service, we have ad support. It came at enormous risk to us.
NELSON: The more you push the more you're risking just cutting the cord of whether anybody's going to give you any money.
FOX: That's right, and the interesting thing is that at the time the television rating system had just been developed, and I was one of the very earliest advocates of taking the TVMA rating and giving it to South Park for two reasons. Number one, I felt that it was an honest reflection of the content of the show, but more importantly it would protect the show when our critics came knocking, and we knew that was going to happen. We actually came up with a very smart plan to generate cultural support for "The Spirit of Christmas". We had this tape, it was circling around Hollywood, we heard George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and guys like that were huge fans of this videotape. So we started to send it out to tastemakers and important opinion makers throughout the entertainment community because we figured if and when, pardon the expression, the shit hit the fan we had people who would come out and defend us, and that's exactly what happened. We ended up going forward with the series and it was originally almost like claymation. It was cut and past animation of construction paper. The entire first pilot, the half-hour pilot "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe" took them six months to make. The show is now done on these powerful computers where they can do it in four days.
NELSON: Yeah, sure, where it only looks like it was done that way, right?
FOX: But at the time, I mean these guys were bleeding on the hands from cutting themselves with the paper and the scissors.
NELSON: You used the word viral video – I mean it's viral in the sense of people passing around a physical tape?
FOX: No, you can actually – and I forget the technology, it was nothing like broadband – but you could actually watch it on the internet when it first came out.
NELSON: Well, I guess that the movement in there was simple enough because at that time you couldn't watch a sports event or something like that.
FOX: Yeah, I mean it was not good quality, it certainly wasn't good quality, but the point being that it became this phenomenon that everybody was talking about.
NELSON: And yet it wasn't on the air.
FOX: No, no, and that was another reason we were attracted to it, it was like everybody's talking about this thing, we've got to do this or someone else will.
NELSON: Yeah, feeling like we're going to lose out on this, we're losing the effect of this being out there.
FOX: And we wanted it!
NELSON: And here's a PR case where you've got incredible buzz about what? We don't have a program to go with the buzz. We've got buzz, we don't have a show.
FOX: Right, we have got to do this and see what happens if and when we put it on the air. And it was an instant hit. In fact, the exciting part about it was – and there was plenty of criticism, I went on national television easily a dozen times. I went on the Today Show, I was on World News Tonight. Parents and teacher's organizations were coming after us. The language and the portrayal of certain racial stereotypes; we had advocacy organizations all coming after us and the TVMA rating, again, was one of the most important things. We said, "Listen, the show's rated TVMA, it's on at 10:00 at night. Just because it's a cartoon and it's about fourth graders doesn't mean it's for kids. In fact, this show is not intended for kids. It's a very sophisticated adult social satire." And our position was, listen, we're not America's babysitter, we're being responsible, it's labeled properly, it's aired at a time when most children are in bed. We're not America's babysitter. All these detractors, religious organizations were saying it doesn't belong on the air. And our argument was we have a right to serve our adult audience and it's not our job to babysit America's kids. That's the parents' job. And that was a position that we took from the beginning and they could never put a chink in that armor because once you made the argument "Do you want the Catholic League or the Parents' Television Council or some organization deciding what you and I as adults want to watch on television", I mean, that's un-American, and anybody, even people who thought what we were doing was wrong, when you couched it that way they're like, you know what, you're right. You should have the right to serve the audience that you want to serve.
NELSON: Were you worried about any kind of political fall-out because there's always...
FOX: Less the political fall-out. We were worried about the advertisers and I think what's interesting – and there were a ton of advertisers who wouldn't go near the show when it first launched, but once it became a cultural phenomenon, every week we aired the show the ratings were going through the roof and a lot of the controversies that were surrounding the show were just generating the press attention that made people curious, like, "Gosh, this sounds wild. Maybe I should check it out and make my own judgment about this," and literally every week the ratings just kept going through the roof. At one point we did an 8.2 rating which was the highest rating for an entertainment program in the history of basic cable, and it was scary but we were winning the game and as it became this cultural phenomenon advertisers were fighting over getting in the show, they wanted to be part of it.
NELSON: Who took the first...?
FOX: The early guys were movie companies, people who had content issues of their own.
NELSON: Thought they were reaching the young male audience or something?
FOX: Yeah, and listen, they were dealing with violent and sometimes...
NELSON: Yeah, who are they to talk, right?
FOX: Exactly, videogame companies, the early days of videogame companies.
NELSON: But how about a consumer product?
FOX: What was interesting that I thought was fascinating is Burger King did a commercial where they had a very similar character to Kenny, the guy who is tied up in his little hood and just mumbles. Here's Burger King who was not yet buying the show who ripped off the character of Kenny. I thought, "You know what? We've arrived. When that happens we've arrived."
NELSON: So you didn't think about suing them?
FOX: No! I think our sales guys called them up and said, "Don't you want to be in the show?"
NELSON: The real ones?
NELSON: And did they come on?
FOX: They did.
NELSON: And that must have broken... if you get a Burger King that tends to break the barriers down.
FOX: We had a lot of major mainstream advertisers who ultimately got into the show. What was also interesting too is media... again, a benefit of our honest and open relationship with the press, we never ran from the controversy, we always hit it head on, and again, the television critics were among the groups that we sent out the five minute short to. In fact, even better, long before the series arrived I had the five minute short and it was a year before the series would arrive, and we had again another television critics tour coming up, and I said to Herzog at the time – and he is a gutsy guy as well – I said, "I've got a crazy idea and I want to know what you think of it. What if we, without promoting anything, we go to TCA and we plug in "The Spirit of Christmas" and just let it play?" He sort of looked at me like "Really?"
NELSON: Was this the January TCA?
FOX: I think it was January tour. I forget if it was January or July, but it was radical to say the least. Doug was sort of wondering whether that was the right idea or not. He was a little reluctant at first, but I said, "Listen, we're committed to doing the show. It's going to be on the air soon. Why not get people either excited or outraged by it so that by the time the show does end up everybody in the world knows about it because people have been fighting over whether it's appropriate or not." So we finally agreed and sure enough, we pop the thing into the videocassette player. We got great attendance at our TCAs, again because we were doing a lot of innovative stuff. The tape plays and people were on the floor. I mean literally falling out of their chairs, holding their stomachs, their chests, screaming, and I'll never forget it – there was a very conservative TV critic from the Houston Chronicle named Ann Hodges who was a very religious person, and you could see the steam coming out of her ears. The minute the tape ended she was bright red, she got up, grabbed her stuff and stormed out of the room. She was the only one. Everyone else thought it was the greatest thing they had ever seen. Every few months critics would call me, television writers, when's it coming? When's it going to be on the air? They could not wait for the arrival of the show, and again, once it was on the air and once the controversy started to happen, they were the first ones to say this is brilliant. When we sent out the first show I can't tell you the number of reviews that were rave reviews. I can't even remember a single negative review from the first episode mailed out. Again, it was different, it was risky, it was unlike anything that they had seen on television before and they applauded us for that and supported us throughout.
NELSON: So that was kind of a nice, from a PR standpoint, that's an awfully nice thing to have to work with. You have the TV critics, they're all over you.
FOX: Yeah, but we had a strategy to enroll them and get them to support us early on and they did, but it took some guts, some real risk because it didn't necessarily have to work out that way, but we felt fairly confident that they would embrace us because we were taking some risk which was so unusual in television.
NELSON: But in the course of you talking about taking risks and sometimes it doesn't work out, was there a moment or an episode in the early days of Comedy Central, the new organization, where in the press maybe something didn't quite work out the way you wanted?
FOX: Well, we got into trouble a lot. The problem with walking the line in comedy is you never really know where it is. You kind of know where it is, and it obviously changes as the culture develops and changes over time.
NELSON: And you probably changed it, you guys have probably changed it.
FOX: I think we moved the needle. In fact, I know we did. We were really responsible for sort of the resurgence of primetime animation. The Simpsons were there, but The Family Guy and a bunch of others after the success of South Park, primetime animation experienced a resurgence and it was really as a result of South Park. And I think just general content in television – we were saying and doing things that had never been said before on television and people were like, "Oh my God, how are they getting away with that?" And I think the way we were able to get away with it was we were really smart about it and we had something important to say.
NELSON: But you talked about this line and I guess you've got to kind of feel...
FOX: Well, we did. We stepped across that line a lot, and when you do step across the line you get slammed for it.
NELSON: Okay, give me a case where you stepped across.
FOX: Well, one, and I think you guys are aware of this one, is we made fun of President Reagan's Alzheimer's.
NELSON: I was going to let you bring that one up.
FOX: And Tom Shales, our friend, the big fan of South Park, was outraged. He was a Republican and he was a huge fan of Ronald Reagan, and he was outraged. He wrote an extremely nasty column. I think Vice-President Gore actually wrote a letter to Michael Fuchs basically saying this is outrageous. What we didn't know at the time, Michael Fuchs' mother died of Alzheimer's, so he was not too happy either. Interestingly, one of the women who helped create that piece – this was one of the topicals, actually – one of the women who created that topical, her mother had Alzheimer's, and we tried to use that as somewhat of a defense that we weren't making fun of the disease, or we weren't making fun of Ronald Reagan – I forget our actual justification for it but it clearly wasn't holding water and we got the snot beat out of us.
NELSON: So you figured, okay, we went a little too far there.
FOX: Yeah, we did, and it's not the first time. There were plenty of times where we've gone too far. Even South Park itself has done a couple things where we later either edited it out of the show or chose not to air that episode again. It's rare but it has happened.
NELSON: But it hasn't really deterred you in the sense of we're not going to back off and be a middle of the road, vanilla kind of comedy.
FOX: No, definitely not.
NELSON: You knew you were taking risks and sometimes that's what's going to happen.
FOX: Yeah, and I think the good thing, I became very, very good at crisis management because of South Park. We were constantly under siege and getting in a lot of trouble and as a PR guy crisis management is the hardest thing you have to do and there's no room for error. You get one shot at it, you either get it right or they destroy you. I got a lot of training, trench-like training in crisis management with that show. After a while the South Park guys would actually try to provoke a debate. They saw it as a great opportunity to promote their show. It wasn't them that had to clean up the mess, it was me and obviously senior management at Comedy Central that had to deal with that.
NELSON: Were there any moments... obviously before you put an episode on the air people internally had seen it, and here you've got these two guys that know they're really pushing it...
FOX: What they ended up doing is they would deliver the show so late that sometimes it was too late to change. We'd get the show the night it would air...
NELSON: And it was deliberate, no doubt.
FOX: Sometimes it was.
NELSON: Well, sometimes it's just hard to meet the deadline. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt.
FOX: Right, but yeah, they knew that if they caught us close enough to air time there was little we could do about it. And listen, we had very impassioned arguments with the South Park creators, and they understood that we had a business to run, and they were constantly pushing and pushing. What was interesting, and this is still true today, we have standards and practices people who are really, really talented at what they do. People think of standards and practices as this sort of committee of people that just say no all the time. Our standards and practices people would try and come up with creative solutions for... rather than say you can't touch that subject matter, it's like how can we say it in a different way that allows creatively to accomplish the same thing but allows us to stay on the air and not have our advertisers abandon us in droves. I think the South Park guys and most of our show producers have come to really, really respect the skills that these people bring to the party because they don't say no. They say, "Okay, I see where you're going. We can't say this, for any number of reasons, or we can't depict it this way, but how about if we did it this way?" They're really, really tremendous collaborators and I think most of our show producers really value that kind of approach.
NELSON: Now let me bring up another subject that would create problems for a comedy network, and that would be 9/11. People were not in a very funny mood at that time.
FOX: No, and I'll tell you an interesting story about that. I was in the office on 9/11, as many of us were who worked in Manhattan.
NELSON: Here in the city.
FOX: Yeah, and it's interesting, one of the women who works for me was ill that day and her husband called, she was so ill she was in bed and sleeping, and her husband called me up and said, "Tony, Mary Ann can't make it in today but did you know that a plane had hit the World Trade Center?" I didn't have my TV on, it was before 9:00, I was catching up on some emails or whatever, and I'm like no! So I turned on the TV and I'm watching the coverage when I see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center, and I'm freaking out as everyone in the country was, and Larry Divney, who was right across the hall from me calls an emergency meeting. It was the whole senior management team and the discussion was about whether it was appropriate for the channel to stay on the air.
NELSON: At all, I mean even beyond?
FOX: At all, yeah. I mean the notion of a comedy channel broadcasting when this national tragedy is unfolding just didn't seem right. Our ad sales guy at the time, a guy named Hank Close, was adamant. He felt it was absolutely wrong for us to stay on the air, and our GM at the time, a guy named Bill Hilary, who was an Irish National, who'd gone through a lot of bad stuff in Ireland, and there'd recently been the Omagh bombing where 180 people, or some God awful number of people were killed by this huge bomb that was planted in a small town in Ireland, he had gone through this tragedy and experienced something very similar, certainly not on the scale of 9/11 of course, but he was sort of the dissenting voice, and as a PR guy I was kind of of the mind we shouldn't be on the air because...
NELSON: Dissenting against the take it off the air kind of view?
FOX: Yeah. He said, "You know what? Number one, people are going to need an escape, someplace to go because let's face it, this is going to be a news story for days and weeks and you won't be able to escape it, and that's the way it was in Ireland." That was his first point and it really got us to think about the situation differently. But he also said, "And when is it appropriate to go back on the air? Tomorrow? The next day?" There was just no appropriate time. It was a heated debate, a very impassioned debate, and we finally decided to stay on the air. What was interesting is most of the basic cable networks were going off the air or throwing to their affiliated news channels. So all the Turner channels threw to CNN, all the MTV channels threw to CBS because they were still part of Viacom at the time. Other than Nickelodeon there were very few channels that stayed on the air, entertainment channels. Obviously with Nickelodeon they wanted kids to be able to avoid this story as much as possible, which made a lot of sense, but we were a little bit different and it was really Bill Hilary who convinced us to stay on the air. He was right because not only did our ratings go up, but we got hundreds of letters and emails from people saying, "Thank you! I just couldn't take it anymore. I needed to escape and your channel helped me do that." It was a very difficult decision to make.
NELSON: Another related thing, you guys have done a number of public service type of things. How do you do that, go out there and do the good thing when at the same time it's coming from these guys who are so irreverent? How do you find a way to be serious?
FOX: It's hard to do, actually, and we've done a number of things through the years. For awhile, I was in charge of that area in addition to communications and for awhile we had an initiative called Comics Come Home. Dennis Leary actually created this up in Boston where he and Cam Neely, a former Boston Bruin, collaborated to create this halfway house for kids who were fighting cancer at Boston University Hospital, or one of the big hospitals in Boston, and we decided that it was a really neat idea and that perhaps we could take... there were a lot of famous comics from all over the country, Tim Allen was from Detroit, for instance – could we turn this into a thing where you would go into a city, whatever the local need might be or whatever the passion of that local celebrity comedian was, and there are lots of towns throughout the country, whether it's Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta, that have comedy communities. We'd go in with a big name comic, we'd hire some of the local comics, and we'd perform for a local charity, and that was quite successful for us for awhile. We did funny PSAs. You have to do it sort of in your brand, and obviously you're talking about a young audience, they're not the kind of kids or people who like to be lectured. You have to sort of... In order to reach them effectively with a message you have to speak their language, so we did a lot of fun and interesting PSAs. Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist – when I first was put in charge of this area I had no budget so we started to take our programming and we'd edit it into a message. So Dr. Katz had a special relationship with his dysfunctional son in the show and we ended up cutting a PSA with a voiceover that supported the fatherhood initiative. That's my phone, forgive me.
NELSON: It's Dr. Katz!
FOX: I should turn this off, I'm sorry.
NELSON: Just staying on this theme while you're adjusting your equipment there, so when you do these kinds of public service things, you can't get out of your identity as to who you are. You have to work with it but you still able to deliver a positive message or benefit somebody with it.
FOX: Yes, yes, and listen, we always felt that it was important if you are someone out there sort of poking fun at everybody that you do need to give something back. I think that was our reputation... it's funny, throughout the history of Comedy Central we'd go to the same big, black-tie events as all of our peers, whether it's Lifetime or the Turner channels or Discovery, and I'll never forget – it might have been the Walter Kaitz dinner or something like that, and of course in the early days we were the schmucks so we always had the table in the back, back in the corner, and we didn't necessarily mind that because it gave you a great escape route out of the room without anybody noticing, you know, the rubber chicken, long boring speech kind of events – but at one point as the channel became more successful, we got closer and closer to the action, we got better and better tables. And I'll never forget one night, we were all sitting around and we obviously had some cocktails in us and we're laughing and making a lot of noise and people started to look over at the table like who are those guys? And once they saw that it was the Comedy Central table they're like, "Oh, of course! That's what they're supposed to do!"
NELSON: Yeah, they're allowed. Let's talk about, you just had your Blackberry out there so I can't help but ask you, there's been so much going on on the technology front, let's talk about how that affected you, and let's just start with say, On-Demand, which of course is now a very established technology. How does it affect your programming, your promotion of the programming, what does it do for the network?
FOX: Well, it entirely changes the game, as you might imagine. And believe me, when I started in this business it was coaxial cable, a couple of niche programmers and a pay service or two, and that was it! Now it's impossible to keep up with all the technology, all the various applications, and the business is just so, so complicated these days. But I think the good news for Comedy Central certainly is our content is among the most popular in the digital realm, if you will. Comedy travels very, very well, whether it's audio, text, video. Comedy works very well in short, snackable bites. We have content that has great value in the space which is a real plus for us, a competitive advantage for us. News, music, there are other things that do well also, but comedy is among the top genres on the internet, but we also have an audience, a young, affluent, well-educated audience and we always have. We have one of the highest CPMs in basic cable because of that. That hard to reach, tech-savvy, early adapter, young male audience, and they don't watch a lot of TV.
NELSON: That everyone wants!
FOX: Everybody wants them and they're the most difficult to reach. We reach them very, very effectively and those are the people who are out there buying Blackberrys, buying iPods and all those things, and what are they doing? They're looking for content to consume on those devices and we're the content they're looking for.
NELSON: So give me an idea of some of the things you've been doing there.
FOX: We're everywhere, a part of the MTV Network strategy is make your content available and allow consumers to interact with it. For instance, Verizon V CAST service, we're the most popular service on Verizon V CAST out of 30 different channels of content and that includes CNN and ESPN. We outperform them. iTunes, we're among the top downloads on iTunes. What was surprising is how successful standup comedy was on iTunes. Chappelle, South Park, Daily Show – Daily Show and Colbert both created the first subscription package for iTunes. There was no such thing until we came on board and said, hey, we have a show that's on four nights a week. Instead of $1.99 an episode which seems a little exhorbitant, how about creating a monthly subscription package for people who want to download.
NELSON: Do you think that that's – because everyone's trying to figure out what these models are and these platforms – do you think that that is, and it obviously is working for you, but is that the sort of model that we may see going forward that's a subscription instead of, excuse the phrase, a pay-per-view?
FOX: I think it probably could be. As the business matures, how are you going to squeeze more revenue out of these people? Rather than offer them Lost on a per episode basis, how about some sort of discount on the entire season, that kind of thing.
NELSON: And they're going to be doing more of that?
FOX: Those are the only two shows that we have that are stripped every night, but yeah, if we had another topical show or some other show that was a strip I'm sure we would because they've proven to be extremely popular. Again, we have a lot of innovative people in our marketing departments and elsewhere, we're doing some really, really interesting things in viral marketing, a lot of our stuff travels extremely well. We were again one of the first to do a viral marketing campaign with Crank Yankers. We sent out an audio file of a crank call that involved Wanda Sykes that's one of the funniest things you'll ever hear, and I can't really get into the details for this, but we sent this out virally. Nobody knew it was from Comedy Central, and I had friends of mine from college and elsewhere emailing it to me and saying, "You've got to check this out!" I'd email back, "You idiot, that's us!" It's been really remarkable how well we have adapted and I think MTV Networks in general because they have a lot of brands that appeal to young people. We've done very, very well in sort of navigating this brave new world that is the digital world and it's working very well for us.
NELSON: And I should say, because we're really focused on comedy because of your long history there, that now you're also involved with Spike and other activities in MTV Entertainment Group that is looking at how to serve the young male audience.
FOX: It is. That's what the Entertainment Group is all about. It's about reaching men in big numbers, and once you take Comedy Central, which skews male, you take Spike TV, TV Land a little bit to a lesser extent, a little bit older audience, but there are also the websites – I-Film, Atom Films, XFire game trailers, if you take all those properties together, we out-deliver young men, we deliver more young men than all the ESPN channels combined. It's remarkable and it's not something you would think is true but it happens to be true. ESPN skews toward older...
NELSON: Sports has to be...
FOX: Yeah, they skew much older because everybody loves NFL and things like that, but we out-deliver them with young men and that's what this division was really created to do.
NELSON: Now we're getting to the end of our time so I just want to ask you to sort of put on the big picture hat and look back and just kind of give me a sense of how you see what kind of contribution you've made or whatever kind of...
NELSON: First personally, sure.
FOX: Personally, well, I think I'm probably as good an example of somebody who made it in the industry. I had a college education, I started at the very, very bottom of the industry, but I was smart enough, and I don't even know how at the time, but I recognized cable as a wonderful, growing industry and the notion of getting in early, whether it was at HBO and later Comedy Central, seemed like a smart thing because if it did become successful, I could grow with that company and hopefully become successful myself. I'm very fortunate that, as you pointed out earlier, my passions were sports, I was a class clown, and I've been lucky enough to work in two great companies that allowed me to sort of pursue what I was really passionate about. I think because of people like Tony Cox and Larry Divney, who contributed so much to my growth and development I spend a great deal of time mentoring younger people, whether it's the interns that come through my department, friends, family, I talk to more young people than you can imagine about my career, how I got started, how I was able to be successful, which has turned out to be quite inspirational for a lot of these people. I talk about the internet and the digital age being very similar to what cable was 20-30 years ago when I started. Go where the action is, go where the business is exploding, go where the innovation is happening. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the fact that I help contribute to building a really valuable franchise in Comedy Central. The company lost 185 million dollars before we made a penny profit and now the channel's worth probably in the neighborhood of 4 billion.
NELSON: And what is the channel's contribution, beyond your contribution?
FOX: I think the channel's contribution is it reminds people of the importance of the court jester. Political humorists and satirists have played a very important part in this country's history. It's the only country in the world where you can get away with it and it's celebrated. A lot of countries you make fun of the king, the president, the prime minister, you can end up dead or in prison. That isn't the case in this country, thankfully, and I think Comedy Central has helped keep our politicians, our celebrities, and a lot of other people a little more honest and a little more aware of what the potential is for us to make fun of them if they don't fly the straight and narrow. I think it's an important lever in a democracy to have someone like us around.
NELSON: And how about – I'm going to get real big picture here with you – how about just the impact of cable itself, as a whole?
FOX: I think cable has changed the world. It's changed television, it's changed communications, it's modernized the communications industry in ways that nobody could have ever imagined. The notion that I get 300 emails a day, the productivity gains just by being able to communicate with people instantaneously as opposed to telephone calls, meetings, it's changed the way we do business, it's changed the way we're entertained, the way we communicate with each other, it's been quite extraordinary. I'm lucky!
NELSON: Yeah, you are. When you're saying cable, because you're talking about the communications side, you're no longer just thinking cable is TV?
FOX: No! It's broadband, it's everything. It runs my household. I have telephone service over cable, I have security systems over cable, it's remarkable. Nobody could have imagined where this business ended up 20 years ago.
NELSON: When you're in that household, what do you do in your spare time? What do you like to watch on TV besides Comedy Central?
FOX: I don't watch a ton of TV but I do obviously watch The Daily Show and Colbert because I just think they're absolutely brilliant. My 13-year-old son loves South Park.
NELSON: And you can't get previews of Daily Show and Colbert, right?
FOX: No, no. I mean I can go to the taping in the afternoon. I love documentaries so I love PBS. PBS is one of my favorite channels, believe it or not. It makes me sound like an old fogey when I say that but I do love... the Ken Burns documentaries I think are just extraordinary. I love HBO, and it's not just because I worked there. I love their original stuff, I love their sports documentaries. Nobody does better sports documentaries than HBO. I like Discovery Channel. I surf around a lot and I have kids who have interests in certain things, so I watch some things with them that I wouldn't probably otherwise watch on my own.
NELSON: Well, you sound like a cable customer!
FOX: My cable bill is substantial and I have a beach house with all the bells and whistles of cable down there, so I spend a lot of money on cable but I consider it a great value because you get a lot.
NELSON: Well, I got a lot out of this interview and I really appreciate you taking the time.
FOX: Thank you. It's my pleasure, Steve. I enjoyed it very much. It's like a walk down memory lane.
NELSON: Well, some of these stories, they don't come out unless we get guys like you to come in here and talk about them.
FOX: Well, I'm happy to share them.