Interview Date: October 2, 2020
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
STEWART SCHLEY: Well greetings and thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Hauser Oral History series from the Cable Center. I’m Stewart Schley it is October of 2020, I’m at the Cable Center’s Denver facility. My guest today is in Greenwich, Connecticut and before I introduce him, I want to tell you for your real cable industry trivia buffs the first movie ever televised by HBO upon its 1972 launch was a forgotten family drama with Paul Newman called Sometimes a Great Notion. Sometimes there really is a great notion, sometimes it even happens at HBO and the gentleman we’re with today had one of those moments of inspiration a couple of decades ago that we’re going to talk about. What we know of today is Comedy Central, what it was when it started was something different. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Art Bell greetings and welcome and thank you for being with us.
ART BELL: Hi, great to be here.
SCHLEY: So Art you’ve had a long and estimable career in the cable programming business but it didn’t really map out that way when you were a kiddo. I was interested to learn that you were really an economics guy at Swarthmore, in the University of Michigan. How did you get in the TV business?
BELL: Well, growing up I loved comedy and you know I did a lot of entertainment kind of stuff when I was a kid you know I’d make my own radio shows and we made our own movies and everything with my brothers. And when I was in high school, I did shows, you know, I did theater, a little bit of theater, and I also wrote satire and comedy in high school. We started an underground newspaper and I found I really liked writing comedy. Then I went to college and I was taking both lit courses, English Lit courses, and economics courses. I actually I got interested in economics because I failed my very first test as a college student, and the test was in economics and I remember saying to myself I’m just going to have to recalibrate this whole studying thing and everything else. And for some reason that got me interested in it because I had to work real hard for the next test. So I ended up taking lots and lots of economics over the course of my college career and I liked it, I really thought it was cool. A lot of my friends were going to go to LA and become writers and they said come on we’ll do that. And I said you know what I really don’t feel like a writer, I think I’m just going to — I had a job as an economist in Washington, I’m going to do that. And so I went to work in Washington at a consulting firm that was doing consulting to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both of those were pretty new agencies at the time. And at the age of 23 I was having a blast, I thought everybody in Washington who was doing anything was under 25, you know what I mean. Running the thing, writing the laws, writing the bills, and it was great to work with a lot of really smart people at the consulting firm and I learned a lot, it was a great first job.
SCHLEY: And then somehow you go over to work for CBS though I think from that point, right? How did that happen?
BELL: Well what happened is after a couple of years as an economist which as I said I enjoyed, I was sitting at my desk reading Coal Weekly one day and realizing that I didn’t really think that Coal Weekly was going to be my entire future.
SCHLEY: I want to break for — that’s Coal C-o-a-l, a trade publication I presume?
BELL: It was a trade publication we were working on energy, you know, nuclear plants and coal and how to ship coal and all this kind of stuff, and I was building complicated mathematical models for that. You know again it was kind of cool. But I just, you know, I just didn’t see it as my life. I would have had to have gone, go back for economics for a grad degree in economics which I guess would have been okay. But like then I would have gone into academia maybe, I just didn’t want to do that. So, I went back to business school, Wharton is a graduate business school in Philadelphia, thinking that if I got a degree, an MBA from Wharton, you know, it would be a great help getting into the entertainment industry. Nobody said it wouldn’t, that would have been helpful. But I did go back to Wharton and that was a good experience.
I did something there that really kind of influenced my interest in what I wanted to do later which was when I got to Wharton I asked what do guys like — you know what do students like me do? Students who are interested in the arts or television or film because that’s what I want to do. And the person that I was talking to said well there’s this thing called the Wharton Follies and it’s a musical review and all the kids like you they, you know, they go work on that and write and perform. And I said that sounds great so I went to the first meeting and I was really incredibly surprised to find that so many of the people there were people like me who wanted to change the channel in their careers, but most of them were coming from — I mean we had a producer from Broadway, we had a choreographer from Broadway. I mean these were people who were in the entertainment business doing that kind of stuff. Suddenly I’m working with them on this review and it was great fun. And the second year I wrote the whole thing which was really interesting. And as I was writing it, I thought you know I like writing comedy; I think it’s really a fun thing to do. And again I didn’t want to be a writer, but I thought maybe comedy’s kind of a direction I can go.
SCHLEY: So this was even before there was even a design or a concept for what would become the Comedy Channel and later Comedy Central you kind of had this inkling rolling around in your head it sounds like.
BELL: Yeah, I kind of came out of Wharton and as I looked around the cable industry the first thing I looked for — well not actually but I said how come there’s no comedy network, you know, 24-hour comedy network? You had all this other you know ESPN and you had 24-hour news; there was all kinds of 24-hour concepts. As a matter of fact that was the big joke, what kind of crazy 24-hour concept could you make up. But I thought comedy was a slam dunk, I was sure somebody was going to do it.
SCHLEY: And I want to talk about it, because that was really kind of a golden era in some respects for cable television programming. But you moved to New York to work for CBS then you went to HBO, correct?
BELL: Yes, well actually it was kind of a bizarre exit from Wharton. Most of my friends got jobs just like that. I was aiming at television and film, and I didn’t get a job by the time I got out. I got offers from consulting firms, because I had worked at a consulting firm, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I took a job at CBS in the televisions stations divisions for basically half of what I was making when I was working in Washington as an economist. And I remember my father asking me, “What’s the plan here exactly?” I mean and I said, “Don’t worry this will work out in the end.” Because I wanted to be there.
SCHLEY: But it got you to New York, right, and it got you in the television business and then how did you and HBO cross paths to begin with in the first place?
BELL: I was working in television stations division. I didn’t love it I have to say. It was a very big corporate environment. I was working on financial reports that nobody was reading, I was sure of it, and I just really was unimpressed with what was going on there. A friend of mine who I was working with there went to HBO, I don’t even remember what his job was, but about a month later he called me and said, “You know this place is great and you should come over here, see if you can get a job.” And I said, “Well I don’t know.” And he said, “Well there’s a job here for somebody to do subscriber forecasting, they want to build a model, a forecasting model. And is that what you did before you came to CBS?” And I said, “Yeah I can do that.” So I applied for the job, got the job, and there I was forecasting subscribers for HBO.
SCHLEY: And so people understand the reason we’re talking about HBO, this is recounted by the way in Art’s memoir that’s just out, Constant Comedy, but the reason we’re talking about HBO which at the time was a paid television network, a commercial free subscription supported paid television network, is ultimately HBO would be the birthplace of the Comedy Channel. And I know a little bit about that story from reading your book, but I’d love to just open it up to you to talk about why is there one day a comedy endeavor going on at HBO and there wasn’t two weeks before? What happened?
BELL: Well when I got to HBO, I was absolutely in the kind of job I didn’t want. I was stuck forecasting, but I knew how to do it and I did the best job I could and, uh, got around the company a little bit. And as I did, I would ask, you know, I would ask people, “Hey you know comedy network, I’ve been thinking about a comedy network for a long time. Why doesn’t HBO do it?” And everybody would say, “I don’t know HBO is doing what they’re doing.” Or some people said, “It’s not a great idea or it’s too expensive.” You know, kind of casually, and I did that for a couple of years. After a while I said okay, I ended up in the new business development department which was actually a good place to go. At that point, the new business development department was working on a paid television network called Festival. And Festival was an idea that came from research that HBO had done. They wanted to find out what kind of brand extensions they could do. So they did some research on why nobody was — why certain people weren’t taking HBO. You know, they were still convinced that HBO was a great product, they thought every home in America should have it. So they wanted to find out why they didn’t. So they asked the question, and the top reason was too expensive. The second reason was they didn’t want sex, violence, and bad language in their home because they had kids or they were, you know, had religious objections or whatever. So, idea, we’ll build a paid television service that looks kind of like HBO but doesn’t have R-rated stuff and that was Festival. And so when I got there, they were in the process of testing it and I was happy to be there because I was now closer to programming and product and had a better shot at talking to people about that. Festival didn’t work to make a long story short. For two good reasons one is it’s hard to promote something based on what it doesn’t have, especially when we’re in the entertainment business and what it doesn’t have is sex, violence, and bad language. You know you get a lot of people going, what? The second reason is I learned my first lesson in never underestimate the competition. Disney, the Disney Channel which at that point was a kid’s channel, they came flying at us before we even got out there. They said okay we are no more longer a kid’s channel we are a family channel.
SCHLEY: Because you were on their turf basically that–
BELL: We walked right into their turf. We said we’re going to take you guys out before you get anywhere, and they did.
SCHLEY: This was mid-’80s? When was Festival?
BELL: Yes this was mid to creeping into the later 80s.
SCHLEY: But you never gave up the vision, the idea of comedy which–
BELL: No, I kept it close, I really wanted to talk to people about it, I really and I’ll tell you a secret. I cheated a little when we were doing our research around the country. Because we were talking to people about how they use television, which was a great education for me. You know just generally what do you watch and how do you watch it, what do you like. And I would always throw in the what kind of channels would you like to see out there, would you like a comedy channel? And so a lot of people said yes that’s a good idea you know maybe a comedy channel. So, I just wanted to have a little bit of ammunition in my back pocket in case I ever needed it. Festival went down, sadly, and I was without a job as was the best of the department, yeah.
SCHLEY: So was there a point where you finally just breached the perimeter and started talking to people internally about the idea seriously?
BELL: I did. Just before Festival went down, I saw what was coming and I said you know what, one last shot here. I made an appointment with Bridget Potter who was the head of programming at HBO, very formidable and very well-regarded programmer. And I walked in there and you know I’m kind of a junior guy and I walked in there and I said I just want to tell you about an idea I’ve been thinking about and working on, a 24-hour comedy channel. And she said, “Stop right there, that’s a terrible idea. No one would watch a 24-hour comedy channel. Why would any comedian want to be on a 24-hour comedy channel? And why would HBO risk their reputation on doing a basic cable channel?”
SCHLEY: Yikes, okay.
BELL: Yeah, she pretty much took it apart piece by piece. I didn’t get to say a whole lot more other than thank you and I walked out.
SCHLEY: Well here, Art, a question. There was comedy on television and there was comedy on HBO, Robert Kline did some stuff and later on I think Larry Sanders. HBO was a good place for comedy wasn’t it?
BELL: Absolutely, actually they were the leader in comedy, they were the leader in so much in television. The only other place you could find comedy on a regular basis was A&E because they ran a strip series called A&E at the Improv. Which was basically you know a mic, a brick wall, and young comedians flying through there for seven minutes a piece. It was very successful because it was always on, everybody knew it was there. And HBO went the other way. When they did stand-up specials they were very highly produced. You talked about the Robert Kline special, you know, they did Whoopi, they did Robin Williams, they did, you know, they did all the great, the high end comedians in a very high production way. And they did it uncut and uncensored, so suddenly you’ve got great comedians doing their acts, that you could only previously see in a club. And most people couldn’t get to that club to see Robin Williams so there, you know, that really was a big calling card for HBO as they were looking for new subscribers.
SCHLEY: Well we, I think most of us who have worked for a while have been in a situation where an idea gets just shot down, and it’s not fun. Why didn’t you just give it up and say eh, end of the story?
BELL: Well, I think I had been talking to myself about the channel and to friends of mine and other people just casually. Then I really kind of developed a vision for the channel, I know what it was going to look like when it was successful and I just, when I walked out of Bridget’s office, I just said to myself she’s wrong. You know I felt bad, but I said I really think she’s wrong, I really think all the people who say it’s not going to work are wrong. And that’s what kind of kept me going. I know that’s not a lot to keep me going but that was it.
SCHLEY: Where did you go next though, because I’m really interested in the formation of an idea, you know. What was next?
BELL: Well, as I said, Festival went down and I was without a job in that they weren’t going to pursue any other new businesses which I know sounds kind of odd, but they just said okay, you’re kind of benched. In those days they didn’t fire you they said, “Stay put, we’ll find some things for you to do and hopefully something will come up.” So I thought I am going to end up getting thrown out of here sooner or later unless they find me a job, so I started looking for another job. I had the time, and I was writing up my idea for a comedy network in glowing detail because I thought that would be my calling card, you know, I attached my resume, sent it over to Viacom, sent it over to CBS, NBC, you know, just send it around and see if anybody said hey yeah this sounds interesting why don’t you come and interview.
So in the midst of that my boss’s boss, Larry Carlson, who is you know one of the all-time greats in the business, right. He was walking by and he just poked in and said, “What are you doing?” because he knew I wasn’t working. And I said, “Oh I’m working on this idea I had.” I didn’t tell him I was trying to get a new job, but he said, “What is it?” And I showed it to him, and he said, wow, he says, “This is kind of cool.” He said, “I think Michael should see this, right now.” Michael Fuchs, the chairman of HBO. I said, “Okay, right now?” He said, “Yeah let’s go.” And he walked me into Michael’s office, which for me was you know basically like walking into the Queen of England and suggesting you have tea. You know it was just something, it was so far outside the realm of possibility for me. So I’m in there, no presentation materials, no preparation, except for the minute I had walking down the hall to the elevator. And I pitched it, and I pitched it based on what I said this could be. I said, “This could be the center of the comedy universe, this could be the greatest comedy entity ever. This could be a place where comedians want to hang out. This could be a place that attracts innovative comedy.” I said all that stuff. And Michael said, “It’s too expensive.” And I said, “I got a way we can start this inexpensively.” And he said, “How?” And I told him. And the way was to use clips, short form comedy, on a promotional basis and that was really, at that point I had taken a page out of some other channels who were doing that MTV and some other channels tried to do that as a matter of fact. And I said, “We’ll just cut, we’ll just take the funny, you know, the funny scenes out of movies, television, comedy specials, sketch shows, anything we can find.” And I said, “We can do long form as we get bigger and we pull in some movies and pull in some series and everything else. But if we start that way, we can get all that stuff on a promotional basis from the studios and from the– And he said, “Well that’s a great idea but are the studios going to go for it?” I said, “I assume so, but I haven’t checked.” “And you may have union problems.” I said, “Possibly, haven’t checked.” He said, “Why don’t you, you know, it sounds like a great idea, why don’t you go check all this out, take a couple of months, do a demo tape, do a sweep of the studios and unions and then come back and tell me what it looks like.”
SCHLEY: But that had to be heartening because for those– I had the chance to talk to Michael Fuchs a couple of times in my career as a journalist. He was always the smarter of the two guys in the room. I mean how do you describe Michael Fuchs, what was his persona like at that time in the mid-1980s at HBO?
BELL: Well let me just say this the New York Times Magazine had a cover story on Michael around that time and they had a picture of him on the cover with the headline, “Is this the most powerful man in Hollywood.” So I think if you have an article like that written about you in the New York Times you feel like the most powerful man in Hollywood, and that’s how Michael was. I mean you walked into the room with 15 people and he was the alpha male, you know, he was the guy who everybody turned to look at when he walked in the room, he was really–
SCHLEY: But here you have the alpha male sort of saying yeah maybe this is a good idea. So that had to feel cool right?
BELL: It was kind of a lightning bolt through me I have to say. Certainly not something I expected that day. So then I realized almost immediately as I’m walking out that I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. So the good news is they put me together with somebody from the comedy department, that was Stu Smiley, the head of comedy programming, and Fran Shea who was the head of — not the head, she was director in on air promotion who ultimately went to E! and became president of E! the Entertainment Network. And they were great, and we put together a demo tape, we talked about the channel, what it was going to be, and what it was going to be called, we named it The Comedy Channel which is like what else are you going to name it right. And, but you know we officially named it and got a logo together and everything, and we did a demo tape and at that point Dick Beahrs got involved. Dick Beahrs came in because he was just, he had been working on a project at Cinemax I believe and he was sort of in the same boat, he was kind of benched and looking for some stuff and he got interested in the comedy project and we talked about it and he said, “I want to help.” So he and I got together, and it was good because he was senior, much more senior than me and we did the presentation together to Michael and the rest of the executive team. And there must have been about 25 people in the room, top guys at the company, all the departments and they were mostly hearing this for the first time, but Michael knew what was coming. I gave the presentation and at the end of the presentation Michael said, “I like it, but you know, do you like it?” And he pointed to somebody else in the room, you know he went to Larry he said, “Do you like it?” He said to Bridget, “Do you like it?” He went around the room and asked everybody if they thought it was good and everybody said yes Michael, we think it’s great. And I always think about that moment because it wasn’t like Michael saying okay, I’m the boss and I’m going to say yes. He wanted buy-in from everybody on the record in front of their peers if they thought this was a good idea and that they would end up supporting it.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting, Art, because it seems like a fairly entrepreneurial thing to do and yet this was a big part of a big media company and it’s hard to move the ship sometimes, so that’s a pretty big commitment from HBO to invest in this thing, right?
BELL: It was a big commitment, and even more than the commitment was the fact that they were really kind of jumping outside the wheelhouse. Remember their first foray into a line extension was well actually really Cinemax, but then after that it was Festival, and then they pulled back from Festival. One thing I skipped is that they put a task force together to decide if they should go into the basic cable business.
SCHLEY: Basic cable meaning what?
BELL: Basic cable meaning advertiser-supported cable, HBO was a subscriber pay service. So the subscriber got to renew every month and they paid ten bucks a month or whatever it was. And that’s how HBO made money. But the cable services did not get money directly from the subscriber, they got money from the cable operator who paid them to be on their cable system, and they got revenue from advertisers. So when they got a big enough audience and they sold advertising and made a lot of money.
SCHLEY: This is another concept that is very germane to The Cable Center which runs an Intrapreneurship Academy and program. The basic design is that innovation and entrepreneurialism sometimes can spring from within an organization. It is not always the outside disrupter who makes something new and interesting happen. You probably didn’t use that terminology in your day but you were a bit of a rabble-rouser and a getter-of-things-done within an organization, right?
BELL: Yeah, that is true. And I think it is very important for all organizations to have people like that around. Those people are usually not at the top levels. Those people can be at the lower and mid-level, and one of the lessons I learned from that is that ideas that bubble up should be grabbed by top management and really examined as opposed to just batted away, where top management doesn’t take it seriously enough to consider the situation. The other thing I learned about and thought about subsequently is what helped me get through that period — the initial pitch to people, to Michael, the initial visualization of the whole thing — were the passion I had for comedy, which gave me a real strong sense that a comedy channel was inevitable and we were going to do it, and the second thing was vision. And vision is a little bit over-used, but it was important because vision is not what happens on the first day at the channel. Vision is what happens ten years later when the thing is a monstrous success. And you have to think of that, and I did. I said center of the comedy universe, place where comedians like to hang out, innovative, developer of talent, and the first thing you think of, I used to say this, the first thing you think of when you think of comedy is Comedy Central. That’s what I was heading for and that’s what I sold people on. I figured it would hard to put together but you have to keep you eye on that vision and the way to articulate the vision because you are going to called on to articulate the vision.
SCHLEY: And you know I use this cliché “the golden age of programming,” but there were a lot of channels cropping up, it was an interesting time in television, and to your point, comedy seems like a place to be, a niche to be in, but nothing ever happens the way you plan it and I want you to talk about, you mentioned the company Viacom a little bit ago. You’re planning this channel, you’re working the studio deals, you’ve got buy in from Michael Fuchs and the lieutenants. What then happened that maybe you didn’t anticipate as you were getting ready to launch?
BELL: Well, it was actually the day after we announced that HBO was going to do a 24-hour comedy channel, MTV networks put out a press release that said we’re going to do a comedy network too and we’re going to call it HA! the Comedy Network and we are going to to launch it in April. And there’s that never underestimate the competition. Now interestingly MTV Networks had a history of doing that, Turner tried to start a music channel.
SCHLEY: I remember.
BELL: When he announced the music channel a day later they came, MTV came out with a press release saying we’re launching another music channel it’s called Video Hits One. And they you know again, the idea that all the work we did get to, you know, what we were going to do on the Comedy Channel, and all the work we did to get it to launch and for them to just throw a press release together and sort of get the same impact.
SCHLEY: But was a dispiriting moment or did it, you know, rally the troops. How did you react to that?
BELL: It was one of those moments where you thought first, are they serious,? Are they seriously going to do this? And then when you saw pretty quickly that yes, they were seriously going to do this. You know I just, I just did one of these, as if we didn’t have enough problems. Because one of the reasons, you know you mentioned my book, the subtitle of the book is “How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.” And the reason I use that subtitle is because I wanted people to know that Comedy Central did not emerge fully formed as a hugely successful comedy network on day one. The first year as we were doing it, after we launched, certainly the first six months were terrifying, because we were doing so badly and on top of that we were anticipating the launch of our competition and we wanted to get a head start which we had in time, before HA! came out so that we could, you know, prevail. But we weren’t doing very well.
SCHLEY: What do you mean you were doing badly; you were having trouble with the programming deals or what was not going well?
BELL: Well just before we launched– Remember I said we were going to cut, we were going to do clips from movies and television. And as it turns out we got buy-in from all the studios and all the television companies and everybody, production companies, they loved the idea because they wanted the promotion, sometimes for movies and TV programs that have been out of circulation.
SCHLEY: Good point, right.
BELL: Then we went to the unions and they were a little more skeptical, but you know the Director’s Guild, the Writer’s Guild they all said, “Okay, if you keep them short, within our limits, then go ahead.” So we started cutting clips like crazy because we needed a lot of programming. We got some guys together some producers we called the Cliptomaniacs. And the Cliptomaniacs they just watched movies, found the funny part, cut it out, made sure it was the right length and you know put that into production. And about I think it was seven or eight weeks before, I can’t remember exactly when, but you know just before we launched we got a call from the Director’s Guild and the Director’s Guild said, “We had a board meeting yesterday and the board changed their minds, they don’t want you to do this. So we’re rescinding our permission.” You can imagine my disappointment. We had this huge pile of programming and we couldn’t use it, and we had to launch.
SCHLEY: Because there’s a great line I’m pretty sure it’s in your book because it’s in my head and I’ve just been reading your book that said, “Somebody said once you launch a 24/7, once you hit the button to go, it never stops, you literally you’ve got to feed the beast all the time.”
BELL: You are shoveling comedy in there for the rest of your life, that was the concept. And you know again I didn’t — you don’t, it’s good that you brought that up because you don’t realize the extent to which that’s true until the day you launch and you’re walking out of the building realizing you’ve got to come back tomorrow and make it better and more of it.
SCHLEY: Even allowing for some repeats right, you’re going to repeat a lot of the clips.
BELL: Well we repeated a heck of a lot because we didn’t have that much programming at that point.
SCHLEY: Right, in the trade press of which I was part, from day one, from the day that MTV press release came out everybody thinking they’re a savant says, “Well these two channels are going to merge someday.” You know that was the common thinking, but was it really the common thinking within HBO at the time?
BELL: Well it certainly wasn’t the common thinking among the people working on the Comedy Channel. We thought we had a great concept, we thought we had superior comedy people working on it, a better plan, had HBO behind us, I mean we thought we were going to win. They called it the comedy wars you probably remember that, it was the comedy wars and we were going head to head we were doing all kinds of things to subvert the other guy, they were trying to subvert us. We’d show up at presentations that they were making at cable systems and they’d show up at ours, and you know it was really a head to head competition. The cable operators hated it, because remember they had to pay for, they were paying ten cents a sub, five cents a sub, I don’t remember what it was, but they had to pay to carry it and we were both asking for carriage. And they didn’t want to carry both, and they couldn’t figure out which one was going to actually prevail. So they were like please can you guys just get together on this. Think of the irony a few months earlier there were no comedy channels and everybody thought it was a bad idea, a few months later there’s two and everybody thinks it’s a swell idea. So that was just the craziest time.
SCHLEY: But you know I’ve been looking forward to asking you this because you do you have the funny subtitle, “How I lost my sense of humor.” But it’s kind of your idea, it’s being brought to bear, it’s probably pretty exciting, but it sounds like you weren’t having that much fun at the time, I mean were you or how was it psychologically working on this thing?
BELL: Well I talk a lot about that in the book actually. I mean from my point of view I was exhilarated by the challenge of the whole thing and I was very excited to do it. One thing I hadn’t counted on was when I got into the comedy business, which I found myself in instantly, I didn’t know anything about the comedy business. And I was working with, for example, Stu Smiley who had you know ten years of experience in the comedy business, he knew all the agents, all the talent, he knew how it worked, he knew how to produce it, and I didn’t know any of that. And pretty early on everybody around, including Stu and I don’t hold it against him would say, “What do you know about comedy?” And I didn’t have a good answer for a long, long time. So that was kind of hard on me truthfully but I hung in there, I did what I was supposed to, you know, I was in charge of the clip programming. Stu was in charge of getting the talent, and by the end of the year I thought we were really kind of winning. We had done some early ratings tests in Philadelphia I believe, and we came in ahead of them by a substantial amount, ahead of the competition. And that was it, I thought that was the ticket. I thought okay so we’re done we’re going to do it and that was exactly the time somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said they’re merging, they’re merging the channels. And that was a devastating moment for me because
BELL: Yes, it was very hard that first year and there were some lows, and it was, you’re kind of fighting for your life every day. But I couldn’t imagine a better place to be for me, I was really watching this dream of mine come true and all these people working on it despite the fact that I knew if it failed, I was going to be in some deep trouble somehow.
SCHLEY: I understand but it must have been like was in 1990 where the merger finally came together.
BELL: The merger comes together and my boss, who was Dick Beahrs who was the president of the channel, was taken off the case and so was the boss I believe it was Debbie Beece at MTV and that left me and my opposite number Mike Klinghoffer the head of programming there standing. They introduced us the next day and said, “Okay good luck, you know, you guys figure out what this new network is. You can launch it, figure out which programming you’re using, name it. You can’t call it Comedy Channel, you can’t call it HA! And, you know, write if you get work.” It was kind of that thing.
SCHLEY: Was HBO still the majority owner or was it a true joint venture?
BELL: No it went in as a 50/50 joint production, 50/50.
SCHLEY: So we think of Comedy Central today we think of the progression, we think of Jon Stewart and Amy Schumer, and Trevor Noah, and it’s a cultural iconic presence in the world. What was it like for you sort of watching that happen, you know, kind of really seeing what you built catch fire if you will?
BELL: Great, it was great, it was great. I left the channel in 1996. You’re talking about after that.
SCHLEY: I am.
BELL: So I was not at the channel after 1996, I felt I had contributed a lot to building the channel and getting it to that point where it was obviously going to be successful. And then new management came in and I went out. So, it was hard for me, it was devastating to leave, however I got another job, you know, I got back in the business. And looking back, looking in your rearview mirror and seeing this giant thing standing there that I know I had a hand in starting, you know.
SCHLEY: It’s incredible, you got another job I don’t know if this is the job you were alluding to, but you became president at some point of Court TV that’s not what I would call just another job necessarily.
BELL: No, no that was another good job. Actually in between I did some consulting, I kind of ran around to a lot of television networks and did some consulting for them which was a good, it was a good sort of finishing school after comedy, you know, I learned a lot about the television business. I learned about how to put them together and programming, and then I went around and talked to people about their problems with their networks and that was very interesting. Finally, not finally, eventually I got a job offer from a few of them and from Court TV. Henry Schleiff was brought in.
SCHLEY: I wanted to talk to you about that because to me that’s an interesting period. We were still launching some new channels, the digital revolution was beginning to happen so there was an even bigger appetite for — Remember how many MTVs there used to be, 17 versions of MTV? But was it still, was the market and the economics around television still favorable at that point for linear television?
BELL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the beauty of linear television especially in those days is you could put a channel on, and it would be somewhere on the dial and people would go by it, they’d scroll through it and then notice it and then stop. That’s how you got attention for your channel, that’s not something that goes on today in the same as the digital. But in those days, you know you’re flipping through channels and you stop on the stand-up comedy and you say hey this is a comedy network cool. Or you stop on you know any of the channels and say oh sci fi cool. So that’s how channels got built in those days. It was helpful because you know the infrastructure required to start a channel in those days was huge. I mean you needed an uplink facility, you needed, you know, the finance department, the legal department, all the other stuff. You know by the mid-2005, 2006 I always said you could start a channel out of your garage at this point because the technology’s there, and that’s exactly what happened you know, with YouTube and kids doing their own channels.
SCHLEY: Well we absolutely eliminated the scarcity part of the equation but then it was really hard to get noticed. You could launch a channel in 2007 but you lost that whole neighborhood concept that you talked about.
BELL: Yeah, I think again by 2007 was around when I left Court TV it was getting a lot harder to launch a channel, it was just there were so many out there.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting what did you learn about the advertising side of running a television network? Did you have any exposure to the sponsors and the brands and the deals and the ratings, and did you have to worry about all that stuff?
BELL: Yeah, we sure did. When we went into advertising, when HBO went into advertising, they obviously had no in-house expertise on it, so we hired Larry Divney who was the head of ad sales at A&E I think, and he was a very seasoned sales guy. And that’s what they needed because they wanted to bring a lot of know-how in. The advertising business depends on size of the audience so very early on you know you start clinging to your daily ratings because that’s going to determine how much money you make, and that’s going to determine whether you stay in business. So yes, the programmers and I was on the programming side of marketing, and we had to stay very much in touch with the ad sales guys, see how they were doing, and we had to design the audience that they were going to sell. When I say that I mean you know certainly there was a wide swathe of people you know, male, female, young, old, watching. But where was the sweet spot, you know was it young males, was it middle-aged males? Pretty early on we found the sweet spot and that was like an 18-34 male looking for edgy comedy. That’s who we were appealing to in a big way, and that turned out to be great for ad sales because it was very hard to get that kind of viewer unless you were doing sports.
SCHLEY: Was that consistent with what your own gut told you when you first had the idea that it would be kind of a young male audience or was it sort of surprising to realize that?
BELL: Well I was a young male; we were trying to do comedy that appealed to us. I think I mean we were doing crazy things at Comedy Central and at Comedy Channel. I remember the first thing we got at Comedy Channel, the first thing that came in the door was Mystery Science Theater 3000, which as you recall or may recall was a pretty nutty show. You know, a guy and two robots watching bad movies making funny remarks about it. And it became pretty quickly a cult hit for Comedy Channel. It was one of our, you know, one of the things that we really relied on in that first year. But we went on to do stuff like that, we attracted a lot of innovative comedy ideas and so we weren’t doing standard sitcoms at that point that were kind of middle of the road network style. We were doing more the fringe stuff and that was what was attracting a bigger audience.
SCHLEY: But I’m glad you mentioned it because to me I don’t want to overstate it that really was a signature show. For me, in my life, that’s how I found you right was Mystery Science Theater and it was probably not expected at the outset that that would be the case, right.
BELL: Well not only was it not expected at the outset that that would be case, it wasn’t expected at all, it came in the mail and it surprised all of us. Yeah, I know it’s a crazy story. These guys, these three guys or whatever it was five guys were doing it for fun at an independent television station in Minneapolis and when they heard that we were starting a comedy network they said hey let’s send this to them and see if they like it. And that was one of the early indicators that we were on the right track, I thought, because we were tracking innovative comedy, so that was good.
SCHLEY: Because in that era that we’re talking about it seemed like you could identify a show like that that really gave a heart to some of these channels. Now Court TV–
BELL: And direction.
SCHLEY: And direction, right. And I wanted to talk a little bit about Court TV, we have some academics and some historians who watch these interviews. What was Court TV and why did it have a place on the dial?
BELL: Court TV was the brainchild of Stephen Brill who was a journalist and a lawyer and was publishing something called American Lawyer I believe. He came in and he wanted to start a channel that focused on courtroom trials. And in those days, there were a lot of courtroom trials, and he convinced some investors and I believe it was NBC, Cablevision, Liberty Media, and Time Inc., or Time Warner I can’t remember what they were at that time. But he convinced them that this was a good idea and they put some money behind it and he put it together and it didn’t do very well, but you ask how did it get distribution, that’s how it got distribution. It had great parents and they insisted on some distribution, cable distributed it, and that was a leg up. But when I got there it had I believe 28 million subscribers and that was going south. They were losing subscribers because cable operators said look this isn’t really much of a channel, people don’t like it. And that scared the heck out of the investors obviously. So when they started losing subscribers and nothing was really changing about the approach to the channel they said okay we’ll take one more shot at this, they fired Steve Brill, and they hired Henry Schleiff who was a senior guy at Viacom, he had gone to Viacom from HBO, they hired him and he almost immediately hired me and said “I don’t know that much about cable television but you do, so I need you to help.” And we ended up being a terrific team at that channel, I think.
SCHLEY: You were able to grow the base after a certain period of time?
BELL: We grew the base very quickly, we grew the audience very quickly, the way we did it was we changed the focus of the channel, but we ended up at the end of it we left in 2006 the channel was sold to Turner for like $1.6 billion or something.
SCHLEY: I forgot that.
BELL: Yes it was a real success story, and you can credit Henry and I’ll take some credit as well. We really revamped that channel in a way that got the audience’s attention.
SCHLEY: And you know it’s interesting because you talked about the advertising contribution to making these businesses work. In the day, and I know this has changed, but in the day what was the role of the cable company, the cable operator, even at a promotional kind of helper level if you will?
BELL: Well, if you — to the extent that you had to rely on a cable operator for promotion you weren’t in a great place. Because their business was really distributing cable as a technology business.
SCHLEY: Down the pipes yes.
BELL: They just wanted more subscribers. So what they would do is they would try and attract more subscribers with whatever either new channel they had, whatever deal they could get, and mostly that was on the pay services. Because you can go in and say okay, we’ve got HBO and Showtime we’re going to give you the first month free. And that was a draw. But at the same time they were giving the rest of cable with it and that’s how all the cable companies got distribution. But it was hard for cable operators to give individual cable channels a lot of promotional attention, unless the cable channel was doing something spectacular and caught the eye of the cable operators marketing guys and said hey we can use this in some way you know, or the cable channel would go and try and partner with a cable operator on an event or something.
SCHLEY: Because it seemed like it was at least a little more symbiotic back in the day than it sort of ended up being with maybe different agendas down the road after your time sort of.
BELL: I think you can say that. Certainly, HBO set the standard for working with the cable operator on attracting more subscribers for the operator.
SCHLEY: Do you ever allow yourself to think about that day you see Larry Carlson I think in the hallway and then you go meet with the boss and ultimately a year and a half later a channel is born. But do you ever allow yourself to imagine what if that hallway conversation didn’t occur, is there still a Comedy Central today? I mean how do you see, was that idea inevitable or did it take the oomph of one guy which would be you basically? It’s a big question.
BELL: It’s not that hard of a question. I think it was inevitable. I mean that was my going in assumption that if somebody was going to do it it might as well be HBO and on top of that I might as well be involved. Remember I wasn’t assured a job in the thing. I had to sort of, you know, make sure I had a job with the new job, but I think it was inevitable. I think somebody would have said “let’s try it.”
SCHLEY: Okay. And then related to that is did your adoration and kind of love for comedy, for stand-up or for sketch comedy increase or fade because you were in the business?
BELL: I think it probably kind of wavered around a little bit. I mean you know it’s like anything else, when you see comedy a lot you start, you know, you stop thinking it’s as funny, or you stop laughing the same way. I mean one of my first lessons in comedy was when I went to a comedy club with Stu and some of the other comedy businesspeople and we were standing at the back of the club and there was a comic there and I’m laughing like crazy, I think he’s funny, you know, beyond funny. And Stu and everybody else, they’re just standing there. And at best they would say, “That’s funny, that guy’s funny.” But that was pretty much it, they weren’t cracking up.
SCHLEY: They were humorless, were they humorless?
BELL: No, no they weren’t humorless, certainly they weren’t humorless. I mean it was just more of an analytical framework. It’s like when you’re a musician and you go to a concert you’re listening to it in a different way than somebody who is not a musician, you’re processing it in a different way. So I eventually got to that point at one point where it was, you know, although I had the comedians I loved, and we’d get pictures from some guys and I’d be laughing so hard I’d fall off my chair. Wasn’t real professional I have to say.
SCHLEY: I mentioned at the outset the very first film that HBO ever televised was Sometimes a Great Notion and do you remember the first bit you ever played out on Comedy Channel?
BELL: I had it in the book, and I don’t remember.
SCHLEY: Was it a clip though, was it a short?
BELL: It was a clip, no it was a, give me a second, that’s a great question.
SCHLEY: Well you’re fine my real question was was it true to the original vision that you saw this as a place for pretty rapid fire you know shorter form comedy stuff?
BELL: Yes, that’s how I originally saw it, that people would enjoy seeing comedy presented in that fashion. And it turned out to be true especially if you had, if you mixed in a lot of stand-up comedy. I mean you could take stand-up, we actually did a show called Stand-up Stand-up where we just had a half hour of stand-up clips that became one of our you know it was our second most popular show after MST 3000.
SCHLEY: Well I mean it’s interesting even television has changed so much, you mentioned streaming and on demand and all that, but even today for the premiere streaming services, Netflix, has a ton of comedy, I mean they’ve seen what you saw, they realized the importance of that to a different business model I guess, you know, going forward.
BELL: Comedy is important, stand-up comedians are great because they, they give you a perspective on the world that you wouldn’t otherwise have and that’s, you know, that’s, I think that’s what keeps stand-up being you know so vital through hard times and good times.
SCHLEY: I agree. So from the early days of HBO for you to the Court TV odyssey, besides the paycheck, what was fun, what was rewarding about that career?
BELL: Well the first part of the career obviously what was rewarding was building a channel that was going to last forever, you know, Comedy. When I got to Court TV the challenge was completely different, and it was in a completely different field. And it had an aspect to it that I knew absolutely nothing about which was journalism. The idea that you had cameras in the courtroom, you were covering this as journalists. We were trying to convey the truth of what was going on and analyze it. And the people working in this were bona fide journalists you know, I mean people who had worked in network television or worked at the New York Times, and they were serious about this.
SCHLEY: It was serious.
BELL: You know talk about serious these guys didn’t laugh much and they, you know– I was the guy who walked in from the Comedy Network and it’s like here we go again. “What does that guy know about journalism.” And Henry had, Henry Schleiff had pretty much the same welcome from the journalists, like what do these guys know about what we do. We really had to figure out how to make a channel with journalists, with documentarians, documentary filmmakers, and what we had on hand and to make it commercial.
SCHLEY: Well it’s not entirely dissimilar from comedy, genre aside, because you had to find an audience, you had to find a network, and you had to work the business angle too obviously. So I see some parallels.
BELL: Yeah, absolutely and we had to do something that we didn’t talk about with Comedy. But you know Comedy the first year, the second year, even through the fourth and fifth year, what you’re doing is you’re constantly finding your footing, you’re constantly finding what works and trying to do more of that and figuring out what’s not working and getting that off the channel as fast as you can. So you know in the early days of Comedy Channel we figured out that stand-up comedy was really helpful. So we started upping the volume of that and that really helped us bring in an audience for everything we were doing. Similarly at Court TV we had to figure out what worked and do more of that and what wasn’t working and do less of that.
SCHLEY: Sure, a similar motif. The book is Constant Comedy, How I started Comedy Central and Lost my Sense of Humor Happily. We think that’s a little exaggerated. You still seem to have sense of humor. But I love the word “constant” and what you said about starting a 24/7 linear network. You turn it on, and it never ends. It’s been a great hour reminiscing and talking about the business with you Art. Thank you so much.
BELL: I enjoyed it.
SCHLEY: Arthur Bell for the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series. I’m Stewart Schley. Thanks for tuning in.