Divney’s Divine Comedy

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If you’re going to make a sizable purchase-oh, let’s say to the tune of a billion two-you need to be damn sure you are comfortable with the product.
A large part of the reason Viacom President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin doggedly pursued the 50 percent of Comedy Central that it did not own-which the company recently bought for $1.255 billion-is that he not only thinks the channel is a good fit for the company, but, sources say, he is very comfortable with the person who runs the channel. That would be Larry Divney. the CEO and president.
The reason Mr. Karmazin feels so comfortable with Mr. Divney is that they are both, basically, ad sales guys. And radio ad sales guys at that. In fact, they’ve known each other for more than 25 years, Mr. Divney says.
“It was back in the late ’70s when I first met him. Mel was the GM of WNEW-FM, which was the leading rock station in New York at the time,” Mr. Divney said. “I was head of ad sales at a competitor, WPLJ-FM. But all I listened to was ‘NEW. With Mel, what you see is what you get. He’s as competitive as all get out, and so am I.”
It’s there that the comparisons between Mr. Karmazin and Mr. Divney stop. Mr. Karmazin is not universally beloved. In fact, when Joe Abruzzese, the former chief of ad sales at CBS who worked under Mel for years, left to join Discovery Communications last year he made this stinging comment upon his departure: “Working for Mel was like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Every day.”
It would be almost unthinkable to even imagine anyone saying something remotely like that about Mr. Divney.
“Divs is the most naturally likable person I’ve ever met,” says one former colleague. “He comes from a large family. He’s Irish, likes to drink, likes to party. He’s very open. What you see is what you get.”
“I took an instant liking to him the moment we met,” said Chuck Bachrach, executive VP-director of media resources and programming at Rubin Postaer & Associates in Santa Monica, Calif. “You can’t not. I would be leery of anyone who did not like Larry Divney. Yes, I would absolutely be leery of that individual.”
Consider this as a description of Mr. Divney: He has a “salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. His eyes have the twinkle of humor that delights in kidding others, but he can equally enjoy a joke on himself. He exudes a friendly, generous personality that makes everyone like him on sight. You get the impression, too, that he must have real ability in his line.”
That fits the lanky Mr. Divney, 60, who once sported a full beard but now keeps his gray facial hair closely cropped. But the description wasn’t written about him; it was penned four years before he was born by Eugene O’Neill, like Mr. Divney an Irishman, to describe Hickey, the protagonist in the epic barroom drama The Iceman Cometh.
Mr. Divney has been in ad sales almost from the moment he graduated from Notre Dame in 1965. He was at NBC in New York for about five minutes and then spent much of the 1970s at radio stations in the Big Apple and Chicago. But it was while working for Ted Turner and his fledgling CNN in the early ’80s that Mr. Divney cut his teeth.
“Ted’s absolutely wild and absolutely the best,” Mr. Divney said, launching into a quintessential Turner sales story.
“We’re up in the office of David Popofsky, who had an ad agency in the Empire State Building. He handled Mylanta, among other accounts, and as was typical back then, we weren’t getting any business. It’s a hot, humid day, and Ted’s late for the meeting, so we’re killing time. Next thing we know, there’s a big commotion. We hear Ted’s voice, and he’s moaning and groaning, really loudly. Then we see him, and he’s clutching his stomach, almost doubled over. He stumbles into Popofsky’s office, sprawls out on his desk, and David says, `Oh my god, what’s wrong?’ Ted looks up at him, grins that grin of his and says, `I need Mylanta! I need Mylanta!”’
But Mr. Divney’s favorite story about Mr. Turner, the one he’s repeated most often to colleagues over the years is this: “One day I asked Ted the secret to his success,” Mr. Divney said. “And Ted said, `Swift.’ I’ll never forget it. And I’ve tried to take it to heart.”
Mr. Turner honed Mr. Divney. “Turner never gave up. Divney never gives up,” said another former colleague. “When you think about how cable grew up, it was never a must-buy. For years you had to rely on relationships. That’s what Larry’s good at. You sell either by the book or by personality. He’s always done it by personality. And people tend to trust Larry because he’s not slick. He’s the anti-slick.
“Larry was our national sales manager,” the colleague continued. “We never saw him in the office. He was on the road, on the road, on the road. This is a guy who has a capacity to go 12 to 15 hours a day, and that’s what was necessary. Out there shaking hands asking, `What do you want? What do you want?”’
It’s a work ethic-the only real work ethic, sources say-that Mr. Karmazin respects. So it’s no wonder Mel loves Larry.
Mr. Divney suddenly turned serious as he recalled one last story involving Mr. Turner.
“I was with Ted on one of the worst days of my life. It was in 1984 at the Beverly Hilton. Ted was getting some man of the year award. And I get a message to call my son. So I go to a pay phone and he says, `Dad, what’s up?’ He was 13 and he knew something was wrong. And I had to tell him that his mom and I were splitting up and that it would be OK. I’m facing the wall, and the tears are streaming down my face.” Mr. Divney looks up from the desk. “Man,” he sighed.
Beginnings in New York
Lawrence Francis Divney came laughing and crying into the world March 13, 1943, in White Plains, N.Y., the third son of Jack and Gertrude.
Mr. Divney’s lifelong love affair with New York began when he was 6 years old, and his father, the head ticket agent for the New York Central Railroad, took him to work one day at Grand Central Station.
“I can still remember how amazed I was,” Mr. Divney said.
That same year, 1949, E.B. White wrote about the city: “It can destroy an individual or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” Mr. Divney would be the first to admit luck has factored into his success.
For example, as luck would have it, he’s known Tom Freston, chairman-CEO of Viacom’s MTV Networks, for about 22 years. Mr. Divney started MTV’s ad sales department in 1981, and it will be Mr. Freston to whom Mr. Divney will report at Viacom. Furthermore, it was Mr. Freston and Jeff Bewkes, then chairman-CEO of Time Warner’s Home Box Office, who in 1999 picked Mr. Divney to lead Comedy Central, where he had been chief of ad sales for eight years.
Why pick a sales executive? Wouldn’t a programmer have been a better choice?
“You’re right,” Mr. Freston said. “It’s increasingly a programming game. That’s where you’re going to make it.”
But after interviewing a lot of candidates from that field and others, the search turned back to the top internal candidate.
“We figured since the programming staff was very good and leadership was the issue to take Comedy Central to the next step without missing a beat, Larry seemed to be the optimal choice,” Mr. Freston said. “Even though he’s spent most of his time in sales he’s a great leader.”
Echoed Mr. Bewkes, “We looked around to see if there was some mythic figure out there to lead the channel, and the mythic figure turned out to be Larry.”
Michael Fuchs, known for his keen eye for comedy-as both entertainment and business-also thought Mr. Divney was the right choice to lead Comedy Central, which was formed when HBO’s The Comedy Channel and Viacom’s HA! merged in 1991.
He’s got great spirit,” said Mr. Fuchs, former chairman of HBO. “He’s a terrific people person.”
Great spirit, indeed. On the joie de vivre scale, Mr. Divney takes a back seat to few.
As Mr. Freston put it, “Larry has quite a wild and unusual lifesty
le. He’s got amazing stamina and energy and curiosity about life.”
Take roaming.
“Larry would like to roam, and I was his primary roaming partner,” said Mr. Divney’s longtime buddy, marketing consultant Jesse H. Jackson, known to the Comedy Central boss as “The Irreverend.”
Roaming? A former colleague at Comedy Central explained: “After partying all night at one of his favorite watering holes in the Village, where he lived, Larry would decide it’s time for the tour. A bunch of us would jump into his Jeep and he would drive us around New York between 4 and 6 in the morning.”
“It was Cecil B. de Divney at his finest when he was giving his Manhattan road tour,” said David Kohl, Comedy Central’s former VP, national ad sales.
Mr. Jackson’s favorite roaming story is tantalizing:
“It was either Halloween or New Year’s Eve and it had just snowed,” he said. “It was the middle of the night and we were going to a costume party. I had a red latex suit on. Larry was wearing a leopard mask. We were toasted, and for some reason decided we needed to see the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We’re in Larry’s Jeep, and he’s driving all over Central Park, and I mean all over. He’s off-roading it in the snow in Central Park in the middle of the night.
“We were finally stopped by the police as we drove up the lawn of the Met. So Larry gets out, and he’s got the mask on, and he’s also wearing a pinwheel on the front that’s spinning around while he’s talking to the cop. And the guy lets us go.”
So how did Mr. Divney talk his way out of that one?
“You’ve got me,” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s just Larry, man.”
Mr. Divney’s philosophy can probably best be summed up by the words written in the introduction of another great barroom drama, also circa 1939: The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan. “In the time of your life, live-so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
While Mr. Divney still lets loose occasionally, “He’s calmed down now that he’s married again,” said Mr. Freston.
Or, as Mr. Divney smiled and said, “There is no longer any risk of my arrest. Viacom shareholders should feel safe.”
These days a more focused Larry Divney spends most of his free time on a sprawling 300-acre farm in Columbia County, about a two-hour train ride from Manhattan, and gets his kicks on the job.
“I’m still having a blast-come on, how could you not, running Comedy Central?” Mr. Divney said. Indeed, this is the network which, when you call, puts you on hold with a recording that starts off “The person you’re holding for doesn’t want to talk to you” and then starts blaring various comics stand-up routines.
“When I took over we were pretty much known only for South Park, Mr. Divney continued. “I’ve put on a lot more original programming, and have been able to build new nights for us. The Sunday Man Show has done well for us, for example.”
Results have been impressive. In 2002 Comedy Central generated $371 million in revenues, $283 million of which came from advertising sales and $88 million of which came from affiliate revenues, according to a report by JPMorgan analyst Spencer Wang. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization were an estimated $95 million.
So as much as Mr. Karmazin likes and respects Mr. Divney he was also buying Comedy Central’s success and its potential. (Mr. Karmazin was busy and could not comment for this story, according to a Viacom spokesperson.)
“As part of Viacom, I think we can hit the next level,” Mr. Divney said. “We can really ramp up development.”
Mr. Divney rose from his desk and grabbed a jacket from a small closet behind him as he prepared to go to yet another programming meeting. Inside the door of the closet a reporter could see, pinned there, a short personal note handwritten by Mr. Freston. It was dated Feb. 17, 1999, the day Mr. Divney was named president-CEO of Comedy Central, and reads:
“Larry-you’re going to be great at this!
Love, T.”