Fans of South Park can sleep easy for a few more years. In a deal signed Friday, Comedy Central’s most lucrative and most enduring (11 seasons and counting) franchise, the irreverent comedy cartoon, will see at least three more years of new episodes. The program (and its creators) will also take the reigns of its online destiny as part of a joint venture that creates a web destination at South Park Studios.
To date, South Park and its legions of fans have languished in the absence of a legitimate, authorized, Internet distribution platform for anything and everything that is South Park. For certain, there has been availability of content – offerings on Comedy Central’s home site, legions of fan sites – but with Viacom (parent of Comedy Central) embroiled in a billion dollar suit with YouTube over copyright violations, legal video clips, outtakes and other stock haven’t been widely available. Even Joost which has a partnership deal with Viacom has not had the ability to broadcast South Park.
The situation is complex, and a lot of revenue has been left ungathered. As South Park co-creator Matt Stone noted in a New York Times article, “If I’m overseas and have to get an episode … you literally have to go to an illegal download site.”
To address that, Friday’s deal not only extended the show and its creator’s wallets with raises, it created a new website called SouthParkStudios.com that aims to be the show’s digital hub. The site will be home for Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny. South Park Studios site will offer games, interactive content, and of course, video shorts. The site will also provide a forum (or digital focus group) to test and incubate new ideas or characters that could make it onto the program or into shows of their own. The site will be housed from the show’s Culver City animation Studio.
The financial structure for the joint venture is apparently lucrative, somewhere in the neighborhood of $75m over four years. In addition, in an unprecedented move, Viacom will share fifty percent of advertising revenue, along with DVD income with the founders. That could make the deal notably larger.
South Park has been one of Comedy Channels biggest benefactors. New episodes still average three million viewers. The program has also generated hundreds of millions in syndication and DVD sales. Airing before recent hits like the Daily Show with John Stewart (1999 though the show premiered in 1996 with Craig Kilborn) or the Colbert Report, South Park was a large factor in establishing the network’s audience. “It put us on the map,” as Doug Herzog, President of MTV Networks Entertainment told the New York Times.
Compared against the kinds of payments put on the table for big earners at major networks the numbers here aren’t outrageous. Charlie Sheen and Mariska Hargitay, for example, each earn $350k per episode (on Two and a Half Men and L&O SVU). Ray Romano earned a reported $2m per episode for the final season of Everybody Loves Raymond. And it’s not just per episode fees: Judge Judy makes $30m a year. Simon Cowel makes $45m a year from American Idol. (all salaries from TV Guide survey). Less than $20m a year for South Park, given its history and success, isn’t that shocking.
In many ways, the new deal can be viewed as a large back-end payment for everything the show has done for Comedy Channel. Parker and Stone are getting payback for the show they sold. Viacom is getting a deeper contribution into the future. Fans are getting a destination.
The deal might well be best summed up by Matt Stone on the South Park Studios website:
“Three more years of South Park gives us the opportunity to offend that many more people. And since Trey and I are in charge of the digital side of South Park for the first time, now we can offend people on their cell phones, game consoles and computers too.”
The new website is live. New episodes of the program are scheduled to run in October.