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CNN signs Jon Stewart for late-night international network

By David Bauder, The Associated Press
Saturday July 13, 2002

NEW YORK — CNN is entering the comedy business, although you’ll have to travel overseas and stay up very late to notice. 

The news company has signed Jon Stewart of Comedy Central to make a weekly version of his satirical news program, “The Daily Show,” to air late at night on its international network. 

There are no plans to air it domestically, and the program will be stripped out of the CNN International feed that reaches a select few American homes. 

Yet despite obstacles, it’s not hard to imagine something like Stewart’s show appearing on CNN’s flagship domestic network — certainly a lot easier than it would have been five or 10 years ago. 

In an era in which many Americans find out about current events through Jay Leno or David Letterman, the idea of comedy on CNN isn’t shocking, said Charles Bierbauer, former CNN correspondent and dean of the University of South Carolina’s communications school. Larry King frequently sprinkles entertainers among newsmakers on his show. 

Indeed, “The Daily Show” would seem in line with Turner chief Jamie Kellner’s drive to bring more glitz and glamour to the formerly staid, now often slick, CNN. 

“Jon is smart, he’s witty, he’s relevant,” said Rena Golden, general manager of CNN International. “We think our audience is just going to eat this up. He’s got a wry sense of humor that I think will really translate abroad.” 

Stewart will tape a CNN version of his “headlines” segment for the international audience, but the rest of the half hour will have highlights of his Comedy Central program. It will air post-midnight on the weekends. 

“I always knew how much it would help our show to be seen in sub-Saharan Africa,” Stewart cracked. 

Comedy Central is using the deal to raise its international profile, spokesman Tony Fox said. The network, owned in part by CNN parent AOL Time Warner, licenses “South Park” for use in many countries, but that’s about it. 

The arrangement also brings in cash, of course. Comedy Central will get a portion of CNN’s advertising revenue for the show. 

CNN executives say privately there’s been no talk of airing Stewart’s show domestically. The comedian is signed at Comedy Central through the 2004 presidential election, and the comedy network — used to having talent poached by bigger companies — is fanatical about enforcing its contracts. Even if Stewart were to leave, Comedy Central owns the rights to his show’s format. 

If Stewart were to become available, people at CNN doubt they would be able to afford him, anyway. 

On CNN International, Stewart’s show won’t seem as jarring as if it were slotted in the United States between, say, “Moneyline” and “Crossfire.” 

Particularly on weekends, the international network often mixes entertainment programming with news, Golden said. It has a music show and fashion programming. The CNN International audience is generally much younger than the domestic one, she said. 

“If this can work internationally, it would be much easier to work domestically,” said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. “It would be almost impossible to resist bringing a success abroad back home.” 

News is still king at CNN, but the hiring and promotion of Connie Chung, Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown reflect a belief that viewers are drawn to personalities as much as a desire to find out what’s going on. 

Stewart and CNN have flirted before, if awkwardly. 

The comedian appeared on the premiere of Chung’s new prime-time show last month, although its host didn’t seem to know what to do with him. And CNN White House correspondent John King appeared on “The Daily Show” last week, with clips later shown on CNN. 

Stewart says his show “supposedly exists as a counterpunch” to CNN’s serious news programming, which he thinks has “slightly more bombast” than before. He has a hard time seeing himself on CNN domestic, however, joining forces with the people he makes fun of. 

On the other hand, “It’s probably just a ridiculous philosophical argument that in the thousand-channel universe we live in probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows,” he said. 

Stewart’s got more practical immediate concerns, like how his jokes are going to span the globe. 

“It’s strange enough to think we’re going to be on in Bahrain,” he said, “let alone what network we’re going to be on.”