This election season, there’s money to be made in making fun of politicians.
Tina Fey’s brilliant mimicry of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has helped boost “Saturday Night Live” ratings 46% over last year. And Comedy Central’s late-night news parody shows, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” are enjoying record viewership as the elections approach.
Comedy Central next week launches “Chocolate News” starring David Alan Grier, which uses a newsmagazine format to look at issues from a black perspective. While “Chocolate News” isn’t as topically driven as the “Stewart” and “Colbert” shows, given that it’s the height of the election season and one of the candidates is African American, the show will be talking about the topic.
While political humor once scared off advertisers, the jokes about this year’s election have some advertisers voting for comedy.
“‘Colbert’ and ‘The Daily Show’ are hot, hot, hot,” said Jeff Lucas, executive VP at MTV Entertainment Networks, who oversees ad sales for Comedy Central, Spike, TVLand and CMT. “Politics are hotter than ever. You can even see it with ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Advertisers who haven’t sponsored NBC’s sketch-comedy show for several seasons have returned to the show, a network spokeswoman said. Demand has spiked since Ms. Fey began appearing as Gov. Palin.
Between now and Election Day, “Saturday Night Live” will be doing a series of prime-time specials on Thursday nights, plus one on Nov. 3, the Monday before the election. The ad time in those specials was largely sold in the upfront, the spokeswoman said.
Comedy Central plans to capitalize on the rush to political humor with a live “Indecision 2008” Election Night special that will be sponsored mainly by clients who signed up last year for a special “Indecision” package, including Volkswagen, AT&T, Subway, Diageo, Apple, E-Trade, Columbia Sportswear and Anheuser-Busch. The “Indecision” package includes sponsorship in Comedy Central’s coverage of the conventions and Election Night, presence on an election-related Web site and other promotional opportunities.
“It’s turned into a huge bonanza for them because the show has been doing better, it’s hotter than ever, and they have an association with the main political theme,” Mr. Lucas said.
So far this season, “Daily Show” is averaging 1.8 million viewers and “Colbert” is averaging 1.4 million, both up 16% from last year.
While there is still commercial time available in “Daily Show” and “Colbert,” Mr. Lucas said demand exceeds supply and the network is being careful not to have regular sponsors squeezed out at the last moment.
He estimates that this year’s “Indecision” has generated more than twice the revenue it did four years ago. (The Emmy Award-wining “Colbert Report” wasn’t on the air in 2004.)
Advertisers traditionally have shied away from political humor out of concern they could be seen as taking sides, said Shari Brill, senior VP of programming at media buyer Carat.
This year, it’s clearly different.
“They must have said a prayer to get a windfall like this,” she said of the networks.
Ms. Brill believes that while partisans will sometimes claim that shows like “Saturday Night Live” favor one side or another, “I think they just make fun of all of the candidates.”
On top of that, advertisers who buy late-night spots know they’re going to get a different kind of atmosphere.
Some clients still want to steer away from anything controversial. But clients looking to reach out to young men will go for edgier content, Ms. Brill said.
“There are advertisers who wouldn’t touch ‘South Park’ with a 10-foot pole,” she said. “But the movie advertisers who want to get those young audiences, they all go into that.”
And some clients may be a bit wary about “Chocolate News” as well, she said.
“I would think the title alone may cause people to take a closer look,” Ms. Brill said.
Mr. Lucas noted that even though “South Park” remains controversial, it has a huge following among clients because they know the show is the No. 1 destination for young men.
He said he hasn’t had any issues with clients over “Chocolate News,” and that the series is selling as well as the network’s other prime-time programming.
The fact that Mr. Grier has a good reputation has helped, he said.
Lauren Corrao, executive VP for original programming and development at Comedy Central, said “Chocolate News” is more of a sketch show in news packaging rather than a topical show. The network wants to balance its topical shows with programs that will do better in reruns and DVD sales, she said.
That doesn’t mean the election is off-limits. In the show’s second episode, Mr. Grier will urge viewers who can’t bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama because he’s black to remember that he’s only half-black, and to vote for the white half.
Another segment looks at John McCain’s controversial (fictional) dry cleaner, who believes in separating whites from blacks (at least when laundry is involved).
“You have to be pushing the envelope a bit to really stand out as a comedy show, and our advertisers, the ones that come to Comedy Central to really reach that young audience, know you’ve got to be cutting-edge because of all the alternatives [to TV] out there,” Mr. Lucas said.
Ms. Corrao expects “Chocolate News” to appeal to the kind of audience David Chappelle drew with his edgy comedy before he abruptly left the network.
“Not to bring up the ‘C’ word, but a while back this network had a lot of success with ‘Chappelle’s Show,’” she said.
Comedy Central is coming off a third quarter in which its ratings were largely flat. Network executives said the Summer Olympics presented competition for the young men who usually watch the channel.
In addition to “Chocolate News,” Comedy Central will be launching new seasons of “South Park” and “The Sarah Silverman Show” this month.
Ms. Corrao said she had recently screened six pilots but hasn’t made a decision on which of those shows will be picked up, or whether this summer’s new programs, “The Gong Show” or “Reality Bites” will be renewed.