POSITIONING CTV: THE COMEDY NETWORK
(aka “Comedy Central”)
By Bill Burnett (1990)
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF POSITIONING:
Descriptive and Aspirational
DESCRIPTIVE POSITIONING DEFINES AN EXISTING SITUATION.
Avis was #2, and (at least theoretically) already was trying harder before they came out with that position.
7-up didn’t reformulate to become the “Un-cola”. The position merely described what the product already was.
ASPIRATIONAL POSITIONING DEFINES A GOAL FOR A PRODUCT OR COMPANY.
MTV positioned itself as “MTV vs. normal TV” before the channel even got off the ground. The positioning served as an aspirational yardstick for everything MTV did, from advertising and programming to staffing and acceptance of paid advertising.
FOX’s position was that it wanted to become the 4th broadcast network. It was a long term goal that could not be accomplished overnight.
But it provided everyone at the company with a clear sense of purpose.
It gave a certain savvy section of the public someone to root for.
And, after careful selection of material and development of new product, it bore fruit.
They never would have made it without the position.
WHAT TO BE AND WHAT NOT TO BE–THAT IS THE QUESTION.
An aspirational position should answer this question:
What can we become that will be successful, generate excitement inside our company as well as in the world, and be as valid ten years from now as it is today?
Aspirational positioning is especially helpful when the “product” doesn’t yet exist, as is the case with CTV. It is not intended to determine specific programming questions, like whether to do a weekend of all stand-up or a Lucy marathon, but it could help point in the right general direction.
It does not have to be true now in order to be appropriate, as long as it is something we could legitimately work toward.
WHAT CAN CTV: THE COMEDY NETWORK ASPIRE TO?
Let’s pause for a quick look at history…
THE HISTORY OF TELEVISION IS COMEDY.
From its earliest days as an entertainment medium, TV has been dominated by comedy. While there have been successful dramatic shows, TV’s benchmarks are, and will always be, Milton Berle, Lucy, Sid Caesar, Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, The Smothers Brothers, Laugh-in, Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H*, All In The Family,
Saturday Night Live, Cheers, Cosby, Rosanne, The Simpsons etc….
THERE’S COMEDY EVERYWHERE.
Viewers don’t need more comedy on TV because they have it.
They’ve always had it.
They always will have it.
All the broadcast channels, and nearly every cable channel programs some comedy every day.
But so far nobody IS comedy.
WHAT CAN CTV OFFER VIEWERS THAT THEY CAN’T GET EVERYWHERE ELSE?
Comedy round the clock?
Yes, but that’s a basically passive claim.
The home for comedy?
Sounds like a retirement community. (Where comedy goes to die.)
The first stop for comedy?
Fine, but why? How do we give CTV the sense of energy that you find with say, MTV or CNN? Maybe we need to ask a bigger question…
HOW CAN CTV EARN A PLACE IN TELEVISION HISTORY?
Let’s pause for another look at history…
THE HOTHOUSE EFFECT
Now and then in the history of show business, time, resources, talent, and vision fortuitously come together to form hothouses of creativity.
MGM studios in the 30s and 40s is one example.
Disney Studios in the 40s and 50s is another.
Motown in the 60s and Saturday Night live in the 70s are two more recent “hothouses”
All of these emerged from relatively humble beginning and became creative factories where exceptional talent could be discovered and thrive.
They were places where people who were passionate about movie making, or animation, or music, or live TV comedy, were eager to come to work often for peanuts –they were drawn to these places because there was an aura about them of being “the” place where their dreams could come to life.
CTV COULD BECOME THE TELEVISION COMEDY HOTHOUSE OF THE 90’s.
IT COULD BE “COMEDY CENTRAL”
WHAT WOULD COMEDY CENTRAL BE?
CTV should see itself as encompassing all of TV comedy’s past and future.
The place where TV comedy lives, in the form of classic shows, new shows being created, new talents being discovered, and eventually new venues being explored (i.e. feature films, Broadway shows, who knows?)
Like FOX becoming the 4th network, this will not happen overnight.
Like MGM, Disney, Motown and Saturday Night Live, it will mean slowly building a consumer following around the talents that CTV has nurtured.
Before we laugh that off as being too grandiose, let’s look at what we have going for us.
Time: This is a time when cable is ascending and the broadcast networks are on the wane. (CNN is already assuming a prominent role in TV news.) Soon virtually all American households will have cable, and the distinction between broadcast and cable will blur until it disappears completely.
Resources: CTV is beginning life with a fair amount of publicity, thanks to the war between HA! and the Comedy Channel. It is the offspring of the most credible, successful parents in the basic (MTVN) and pay (HBO) cable businesses. It has the combined financial and subscriber bases of the two, plus an impressive programming roster to choose from.
Talent: The hottest new talents would spark to this positioning if it were properly expressed to them. More established talents would be intrigued and would gravitate to us as time goes by.
Vision: The sky’s the limit.
TWO ROLE MODELS: COMPARE AND CONTRAST
ESPN is a cable channel with no vision and very little energy.
All they do is put sports on TV. Not the top sporting events (they can’t get them) or the most complete, incisive coverage of sports–just sports.
If they started the ESPN play-by-play Institute to teach sport casters how to do better commentary, people would laugh. ESPN is unlikely to ever become “the world’s place for sports.”
CNN, on the other hand, positioned itself as the world’s place for news. They opened bureaus and placed equipment in tiny burgs around the world. At first, people were skeptical of CNN’s vision. But now we’re all watching live CNN feeds from Baghdad, the Secretary of Defense cites CNN as giving the best coverage of the Persian Gulf war, and the broadcast networks are interviewing CNN reporters on their air. CNN has, in fact, become the world’s place for news.
CTV has a little-known studio which can literally be the “hothouse” where talent and material can be nurtured. Comedy fans (read: everybody) will be rooting for a channel that not only gives them great comedy round the clock, but also is growing it from within. It is the only channel that actually could become the “mythic visionary” of TV comedy.
CTV is in a unique position to become the MGM Studios of television comedy. It can provide and develop every type of comedy for every taste. It can build and nurture fresh new material and talents. It can be Comedy Central, a home for everything from the solo stand-up to the next Ghostbusters.
What would Comedy Central mean?
WHAT COMEDY CENTRAL WOULD MEAN TO CONSUMERS.
Comedy Central would win support and patience from the public.
It would place CTV in the role of pioneer, instead of just being one more cable channel vying for attention.
It would make CTV a channel to watch, regardless of what you might see any specific time you tune in.
WHAT COMEDY CENTRAL WOULD MEAN TO THE CABLE TRADE.
Comedy Central means that CTV would be a focused channel with vision.
A focused channel with vision translates into an exciting place on the dial–and therefore an additional lure for new subscribers.
WHAT COMEDY CENTRAL WOULD MEAN TO THE PRODUCTION/CREATIVE COMMUNITY.
Comedy Central would attract adventurous young talent.
It would represent a chance for freedom and experimentation for more established talent.
With careful development of material, it would eventually become the place to be for anyone working in comedy.
WHAT COMEDY CENTRAL WOULD MEAN TO CTV.
Comedy Central would build pride and energy within the company.
It would give ad sales, marketing, on-air promotions, and programming a horn to blow and a target to aim for.
And–if the history of television tells us anything–with luck, vision and hard work, Comedy Central would succeed.