LOS ANGELES — Comedy Central might be the first TV network to make money from the Internet.
The cable television network’s newest hit, “Tosh.0,” attracts 4 million viewers an episode, even more than who watch Comedy Central’s signature programs “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.”
“Tosh.0’s” premise is simple: Stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh and a small team that works out of a Culver City, Calif., studio cull the Internet for amateur video clips. Then, each week, Tosh offers up caustic commentary before a live audience about the hapless victims caught on camera. The show’s cornerstone is a novel segment called “Web Redemption” in which the subjects of clips made infamous on the Web relive their embarrassing moment — but this time with a happy ending.
Now in its third season, “Tosh.0” has become the first television show to turn raw material from the Internet into successful television programming. It appeals to young male viewers — an elusive audience for advertisers — making “Tosh.0” and its website a must-buy for video game makers, movie studios and auto companies.
Mindful that so many of the 20-somethings who relish Tosh’s brand of hijinks spend as much, if not more, time glued to computers and mobile devices than watching TV, the show’s producers have made it a priority to have a robust presence online. Even the show’s name — “Tosh.0” — invokes the language of the Web.
Before the show launched in 2009, executives did something unusual for a TV production. Web producers, adept at writing code and uploading videos, were hired to work alongside show producers and writers. The geeks were even allowed into the hallowed “writers room,” where they could join the back-and-forth wisecracking that goes into preparing Tosh’s on-air jokes.
“The show had to live online. It’s a blog at its core,” said Erik Flannigan, executive vice president of digital media for MTV Networks Entertainment, which includes Comedy Central. “This is a show about the Web. And we had to make sure that whatever we posted had instant credibility on the Web.”
Producers update the show’s website and blog throughout the day, even when the series is on hiatus. Traffic to the site, which is averaging 3.2 million monthly visitors this season, is on track to more than double from last season. The show’s ratings are up nearly 50 percent since last season. During each Tuesday night broadcast, Tosh and producers crowd into a conference room and tweet up a storm along with fans. The show’s Facebook page is continually updated. The result: more than 4 million users have given it a thumbs-up.
Tosh’s snarky comments and willingness to perform “Jackass”-like stunts endear him to young males, who make up two-thirds of “Tosh.0’s” audience. He recently caught a bowling ball speeding down a water slide between his legs, leaving a cantaloupe-sized bruise.
“There are a million videos where someone gets kicked in the groin; this is the type of comedy that resonates well with young men,” said Brent Poer, managing director of ad-buying agency MediaVest. Tosh’s tone and sketches, he said, “stay true to the format of the Internet.”
In fact, it was the Web that tipped off Comedy Central executives to the show’s future ratings success. Early in its first season, traffic on “Tosh.0’s” website and references in the blogosphere were disproportionately high compared to the show’s ratings, Flannigan said. Producers quickly noticed a correlation: Viewership spiked following weeks of the intense, online buzz.
“It all came together kind of by accident,” said Charlie Siskel, the show’s executive producer. “The show’s success was not ordained nor devised through some corporate goal setting. People liked the show and they would chime in about the videos, and we started looking for more ways to connect them back to the show.”
Ever since YouTube exploded onto the scene in 2005, with its gusher of amateur clips of sneezing pandas and cats playing the piano, TV network executives have searched for ways to make material from the Internet work on TV. NBC bombed trying to bring a Web series about young artists called “Quarterlife” to television. The CW and VH1 misfired with video clip shows “Online Nation” and “Web Junk.” The CBS sit-com “$#(ASTERISK)! My Dad Says,” based on a blog and starring William Shatner, has left advertisers cursing.
“Most people have been trying to tame the Web,” Poer said. Instead of watering down the content, he said, Comedy Central took the approach: “Here it is; we are going to embrace the content and tone, and curate it in a way that’s topical.”
“Tosh.0” has done so well that it has been attracting more men in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic as the most successful comedy on NBC, “The Office.” Still, all young male audiences do not appeal to advertisers equally. Despite its success, Comedy Central has been unable to charge the same premium ad rates as NBC does because, despite the show’s popularity, it lacks prestige and is frequently full of bathroom humor.
But that’s what fans like.
“After the first episode, I was hooked,” said Ed Gunther, a 17-year-old high school senior from North Carolina. His favorite Tosh segment is “I’m Better Than You, Na-Na-Na Boo, Stick Your Head in Doo Doo.”
“Nearly everything that Daniel Tosh says or does makes me and my family laugh,” Gunther said.
Comedy Central, owned by Viacom Inc., is smiling too. The show costs less than $400,000 per episode to produce, about one-fifth the cost of a network sitcom.
Tosh, 35, who shuns most media interviews and declined to comment for this story, is becoming one of Comedy Central’s “franchise players” along with Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
Sunday, the network ran an hour-long special of his stand-up act called “Daniel Tosh: Happy Thoughts” and plans to pick up the show for additional seasons. The special attracted 3.2 million viewers, making it the network’s highest-rated premiere for a stand-up act among young men.
Neal Tiles, president of rival network G4, which has a video clip show called “Web Soup,” acknowledged the format is not original. Amateurs caught in embarrassing circumstances have been fodder for TV shows including “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “Real People” and “People Do the Craziest Things,” to name a few.
To make the concept resonate with the Facebook and Twitter crowd, including video game players, producers lubricated “Tosh.0” with the oil of the Internet: sarcasm and ridicule.
“Today’s gamers are a slightly cynical, seen-it-all-before generation,” Tiles said. Unlike their parents, TV is not their medium of choice. “We really have to go out of our way to get these guys to come to the TV set. We are doing more than asking them to simply change the channel. We are asking them to change their behavior.”
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