Just weeks into his appointment as president-CEO of Comedy Central, Mr. Divney ate half his toast and took only a swig of coffee before rushing off from his favorite southern California getaway -- the beachfront Shutters in Santa Monica, Calif. -- to check out a new TV show he was considering putting on the schedule.
"I'd just settled into my seat at this small theater on Melrose to see the run-through," Mr. Divney recalled. "It's this wild game show called 'Versus.' There are two teams. That day it was Deadheads vs. Female Impersonators. The emcee is asking them a bunch of questions whose answers are either Jerry Mathers, Jerry Garcia or Jerry Lewis, and my cell phone rings."
The caller presents Mr. Divney's first public relations crisis since being named CEO. He's told that Variety is working on a story that would say ratings for one of the network's signature programs, "The Daily Show," are down since Jon Stewart took over as host after Craig Kilborn defected to CBS.
"My guys were upset," Mr. Divney continued. "They wanted to respond right away. I told them, 'Look, figures lie and liar's figure. We don't want to get into a pissing match with these guys.'"
He hung up the phone as the Female Impersonators were asked, "What is RuPaul's real name?" The phone rang again.
"They tell me Variety won't back off," Mr. Divney said. " 'Don't we want to respond?' I ask them if we really need to. Advertisers have guarantees for the show, so it's either going to hit its number or not. Whatever the story is going to say is not going to hurt our revenues or our bookings for the show. I suggest we wait and release numbers when we want to tell our story."
The cell phone rang again. The executives back at the office had "decided not to do anything," Mr. Divney said. "I told them I thought they were doing a great job and had made the right decision."
Mr. Divney is only the second person to rise through the ad sales ranks to head a major TV network. He joined what was then called the Comedy Channel in 1989, rising to exec VP-ad sales before his latest promotion. Doug McCormick was the first ad executive to head a network, Lifetime Television, but he first had to win a fierce internal battle over whether a woman should head the network. (Those forces finally prevailed; Mr. McCormick, who left at yearend, was replaced by Carole Black in March.)
The difference for Mr. Divney is that everyone at Comedy Central -- and everyone who knows him -- is pulling for his success.
"You can't not," said Chuck Bachrach, exec VP-director of media resources and programming at Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica. "I would be leery of anyone who did not like Larry Divney. Yes, I would absolutely be leery of that individual."
Another friend and former colleague calls Mr. Divney "the most naturally likable person I've ever met," which he credits in part to his Irish heritage: "He comes from a large family, mostly boys. He went to Notre Dame . . . He's very open. What you see is what you get."
'TWINKLE OF HUMOR'
Consider this as a description: A "salesman's winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. His eyes have the twinkle of humor which delights in kidding others but can also enjoy equally a joke on himself. He exudes a friendly, generous personality that makes everyone like him on sight. You get the impression, too, that he must have real ability in his line."
That fits the lanky Mr. Divney, 56, who once sported a full beard but now keeps his gray facial hair closely cropped. But the description wasn't written about him; it was penned four years before he was born by another Irishman, Eugene O'Neill, to describe Hickey, the protagonist in the epic barroom drama "The Iceman Cometh."
Mr. Divney has been in ad sales almost from the moment he graduated from Notre Dame in 1965. He was at NBC in New York for about 5 minutes, and spent much of the 1970s at radio stations in Chicago and the Big Apple. But it was while working for Ted Turner and his fledgling CNN in the early '80s that Mr. Divney cut his teeth.
"Ted's absolutely wild and absolutely the best," Mr. Divney said, launching into a quintessential Turner sales story.
"We're up in the office of David Popofsky, who had an ad agency in the Empire State Building. He handled Mylanta, among other accounts, and, as was typical back then, we weren't getting any business. It's a hot, humid day, and Ted's late for the meeting, so we're killing time. Next thing we know, there's a big commotion. We hear Ted's voice, and he's moaning and groaning, really loudly. Then we see him, and he's clutching his stomach, almost doubled over. He stumbles into Popofsky's office, sprawls out on his desk, and David says, 'Oh my god, what's wrong?' Ted looks up at him, grins that grin of his and says, 'I need Mylanta. I need Mylanta.' "
"One day I asked Ted the secret to his success," Mr. Divney said. "And Ted said, 'Swift.' I'll never forget it. And I've tried to take it to heart."
Mr. Turner honed Mr. Divney. "Turner never gave up. Divney never gives up," said another former colleague. "When you think about how cable grew up, it was never a must buy. For years you had to rely on relationships. That's what Larry's good at. You sell either by the book or by personality. He's always done it by personality. And people tend to trust Larry because he's not slick. He's the anti-slick."
Mr. Divney's lifelong love affair with New York began when he was 6 years old, and his father, the head ticket agent for the New York Central Railroad, took the third-born of his four sons to Grand Central Station.
"I can still remember how amazed I was," Mr. Divney says now.
That same year, 1949, E.B. White wrote about the city: "It can destroy an individual or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."
Mr. Divney would be the first to admit luck has factored into his success. For example, as luck would have it, he's known Tom Freston, chairman-CEO of Viacom's MTV Networks, for about 18 years. It was Mr. Freston and Jeff Bewkes, chairman-CEO of Time Warner's Home Box Office, who picked Mr. Divney to lead Comedy Central.
Why pick a sales executive? Wouldn't a programmer be a better choice?
"You're right," said Mr. Freston. "It's increasingly a programming game. That's where you're going to make it."
But after interviewing a lot of candidates from that field and others, the search turned back to the top internal candidate.
"We figured since the programming staff was very good, and leadership was the issue to take Comedy Central to the next step without missing a beat, Larry seemed to be the optimal choice," Mr. Freston said. "Even though he's spent most of his time in sales, he's a great leader."
Echoed Mr. Bewkes, "We looked around to see if there was some mythic figure out there to lead the channel, and the mythic figure turned out to be Larry."
Another executive known for his keen eye for comedy -- as both entertainment and as business -- also thinks Mr. Divney is the right choice to lead Comedy Central.
"He's got great spirit. He'll be great for morale," said Michael Fuchs, former chairman of HBO. "He's a terrific people person, so I think he's someone who'll be good with talent. He's either got to have or find the right people to keep the ball rolling on their programming -- or find out he's got a great funny bone."
Great spirit, indeed. On the joie de vie scale, Mr. Divney takes a back seat to few.
As Mr. Freston put it, "Larry has quite a wild and unusual lifestyle. He's got amazing stamina and energy and curiosity about life." (See related story at right.)
These days, Mr. Divney is more grounded, married again and not quite the wild man of his past.
Said Doug Herzog, his predecessor at Comedy Central and now president-entertainment of Fox Broadcasting, "Larry has such a huge reputation for all these crazy things that when I took over the channel, I was actually sort of disappointed he turned out not to be the wild Divney that had been advertised to me."
'KID IN A CANDY STORE'
A more focused Mr. Divney gets most of his kicks on-the-job.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store," he said in wide-eyed wonder.
His focus, his task, is to take Comedy Central to the next level. In about 57 million homes with revenues of about $158 million in 1998, it compares favorably with E! Entertainment TV, in 55 million homes and with revenues of $96.7 million. But, looking up, toward Comedy Central's potential: A&E is in almost 74 million homes and collected about $291 million in revenues last year.
"We always wanted one thing to put the channel on the map, and it turned out to be 'South Park,' " said Mr. Fuchs. "But there's a lot more potential with the channel. I've always thought half its programming should be live."
Mr. Freston said going to the next level "requires doing some strategic thinking about where our emphasis goes -- how to tie the channel better together and how to make sure there's a long line of the Matt Stones and Trey Parkers [co-creators of "South Park"] of tomorrow beating a path to Comedy Central's door as a first stop with new ideas."
'THE VISION THING'
Mr. Divney's critics, even some who say they like him and are pulling for him, have their reservations. They wonder about what one called "the vision thing." Does he have the right comedy chops to get the job done? And, is he just too nice a guy for what can be a cutthroat job?
As one executive related, "Larry goes up to one of his sales guys one time and tells him that he's not renewing his contract. The guys says, 'So, Larry, I guess that means you're firing me.' And Larry says, 'No, I'm just not renewing your contract.' And the guy says, 'It's OK, Larry. Just say you're firing me.' And Larry couldn't do it."
But he can make the tough call. Recently, Mr. Divney hired Hank Close away from Fox Broadcasting to fill his old post as head of ad sales.
"That was hard," said one Comedy Central insider. "There was a lot of feeling here that since Larry was an inside guy who was tapped to head the network, he should have picked one of his lieutenants . . . And he didn't do it."
What will ultimately make or break him in his job will be his decisions about