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Laugh War Produces the Comedy Network : Television: Merger ends a costly and fractious battle waged by two cable-TV giants, HBO and Viacom, to control the 24-hour-a-day comedy field.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Viacom and HBO, bitter rivals in the cable TV business, are now getting together for a laugh. They call it CTV: The Comedy Network.

The new channel brings to an end a costly and fractious battle that the two cable-TV giants had waged over the video franchise on 24-hour comedy. HBO, a subsidiary of Time-Warner Inc., launched the Comedy Channel in November, 1989, and Viacom followed with HA! last April 1, making the channel the fifth member of Viacom’s MTV Networks.

Monday, a year after the two channels started competing on-air, with neither one ultimately able to knock the other out of the picture, CTV made its debut in 12.5 million homes around the country.

Given the intensity of the comedy-TV war (each side lost more than $50 million) and the fact that Viacom has filed a $2.4-billion antitrust suit against HBO in another matter, CTV seems an unusually congenial venture.

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Its president, who had nothing to do with either of the failed channels, reports to a board equally divided between Viacom and HBO representatives. The CTV schedule draws equally from the HA! and Comedy Channel lineups. There are two chief programmers, one from each of the former competitors. And there are two transponders, one from each company, which allows CTV to provide the same schedule on both on East Coast and a West Coast feed.

The truce has brought relief to the cable-system operators who distribute programming and were reluctant to align themselves with either competitor and end up on the losing side. “They were forced into a no-win situation and forced to choose between their two largest suppliers,” said Larry Gerbrandt, vice president for Paul Kagan Associates, an industry analyst. “So they solved the problem by choosing neither.”

With only one channel, will cable operators unhesitatingly jump on board? “There are no guarantees,” said Gerbrandt. “But just the economics of scale and the fact that CTV can choose the best of two networks suggests that the sum here is greater than the parts.”

One trick will be convincing skeptics of CTV’s worth when already the dial is crowded with sitcoms, reruns and comedy shows. CTV will have a lot of the same sort of programming: reruns of “Love American Style” and “That Girl,” old episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” movies and TV classics like “The Jack Benny Show.”

The distinguishing factor, the network’s executives hope, will be CTV’s own programs, which will account for one-third of the schedule at the outset and half of it eventually--a configuration deemed crucial to CTV’s success.

“We’re out there fighting for distribution,” said Mike Klinghoffer, one of CTV’s two chief programmers (formerly of HA!), “and the cable operator is always going to lean toward the channel with the fresh, new programming.”

The same could be said for the channel’s viewers, who generate “buzz,” or word-of-mouth. “The only way we’re going to break out of that clutter is to surprise viewers,” said Robert Kreek, who was hired from Fox Television to run CTV. “I would like to have people talk about us the next day.”

Kreek holds out a number of potential tone-setters for CTV. He’s high on “Short Attention Span Theater,” a fast-paced hour that mixes news from the comedy scene with humorous clips from films, TV shows and club acts.

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On weeknights, it will be followed at 7 p.m. by “Clash,” a game show developed for HA! that pits teams of opposites--nudists vs. fashion designers, or butchers vs. vegetarians--in a Q-and-A format.

As part of a strategy to build allegiance to CTV among tomorrow’s Jay Lenos and Arsenio Halls, the channel will give rising comedians a lot of opportunity to perform on shows like “Comics Only,” a prime-time talk show, and “The Unnaturals,” a sketch show.

“Right now it would be difficult for us to get Robin Williams or Billy Crystal or Steve Martin on our channel,” Klinghoffer said. “The only way to do that is to get these people on the air when they are starting out and grow with them . . . give them a home.”

Allan Havey, a Comedy Channel alumnus, has cornered the late-night slot. His offbeat talk-show, “Night After Night,” has the makings of CTV’s signature program, Kreek said, although Kreek doesn’t quite know what to make of the hard-edged Havey. “Sometimes I think he’s as funny as all get-out, and sometimes he’s dark,” Kreek said. “I asked him what he was going to do with the show. He said, ‘Wait and see,’ so I’ll just wait and see.”

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A talk show with a different tack is “Alan King: Inside the Comedy Mind,” an interview show in which King and his guests--Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg and Dennis Miller have already committed--chat about the nature of comedy.

CTV is trying to mine as many veins of comedy as possible. One of the most unusual spots on its schedule is “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a goofy sendup of cheap sci-fi movies that was well-received on the Comedy Channel. The show’s premise involves a lab technician who is marooned in space as part of an experiment to determine the effects of low-budget films like “Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster” on humans.

“For us to be successful, we have to present a wide spectrum of comedy,” Klinghoffer said. “We’ll try to do a couple of game shows. We’ll try to do some more reality-based programs like ‘Access America’ (humorous clips from public-access TV). . . . Two or three years down the road, I think we’d try to establish a sitcom.”

Cable operators seem open to the concept of a 24-hour comedy channel.

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“The cable industry didn’t get where it is today by not taking risks. This may well be one of those worthwhile risks,” said Bob Thomson, vice president of Tele-Communications Inc., the country’s largest cable operator. TCI declined to sign up either HA! or the Comedy Channel, but last week agreed to make CTV available to its local systems, which number more than 500. The deal gives CTV contracts with six of the 10 largest multiple-systems cable operators in the country.

Kreek plans to have CTV in 50 million homes three years from now. And if he doesn’t, how long are Viacom and HBO willing to wait for all-comedy TV to take off?

“There’s a sense of urgency because of the substantial amount of money lost,” Kreek said. “On the other hand, they’ve been through the war, so they know it’s not easy.”


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