Referring, somewhat tongue in cheek, to Twitter as “a very particular dark place,” Viacom President Doug Herzog gave his perspective on the recent furor surrounding the announcement that departing-Daily Show host Jon Stewart would be replaced by South African comic Trevor Noah. Describing it more than once as “an unpleasant experience,” Herzog insisted that there never were plans to replace Noah once his hiring became controversial.
The story came during the one of the keynote discussions held today to kick off The Conference, PromaxBDA’s annual convention for entertainment marketing professionals. Moderated by CNN’s Bill Weir, the conversation touched on the highlights of Herzog’s career, going back to CNN and including MTV, Comedy Central, Fox and now atop Viacom. It also was an occasion for Herzog to speak somewhat candidly about The Daily Show‘s history and the Noah controversy.
Noah, you might recall, became the center of enormous controversy when, soon after Comedy Central hired him to fill Stewart’s shoes, a number of off-color jokes he had tweeted between 2009 and 2014 came to light. While some arguably were taken out of context and others arguably were half-formed material that landed poorly, the fact is that they treaded into territory that seemed at turns sexist, homophobic and, in a couple of instances, potentially anti-Semitic. Vociferous outrage ensued, with many viewers taking to social media to demand that Noah be sacked. However, Stewart stuck by the kid, as did Comedy Central, and the furor died down. But it was still a huge headache for the network.
“I think they’ll be teaching that someday, in the college courses they’ll teach on Twitter,” Herzog said, relating that the whole thing happened while he was on vacation. “I was sitting there alone, not in the office. … I’m just sitting back and watching my Twitter explode. It was unpleasant. But that’s a very particular dark place.”
Herzog admitted that they didn’t vet Noah’s Twitter history before the hire. But he didn’t think they needed to — and still doesn’t. Explaining how Noah came to be a Daily Show contributor and adding that, from the start of that relationship, Noah was a contender to replace Stewart, he said “we’re not in the business of censoring people.” While the network has standards for what airs, “in terms of jokes people do in their stand up routine or on Twitter, no.”
Herzog also defended Noah’s jokes, arguing that some were out of context, some “just weren’t funny enough,” but insisted that he wouldn’t have done anything differently. He admits they probably shouldn’t have been as surprised by the controversy as they ended up being, however. By the time Stewart made the news of his departure public, Comedy Central had known for months. But when the news went public, “it was overwhelming.” Herzog said, “I should have been more prepared for how people might react.” But, he insisted, “there was never ever any moment where we weren’t behind this guy.”
That’s in keeping with Herzog’s approach to television, at least as he tells it. Repeatedly stating that marketing is nothing without good content, he explained that while “information and data is an incredibly useful tool … ultimately you’ve gotta go with your gut.”