Comedy Central and HA! -- The two networks merge to create a round-the-clock laff riot

How many comedy networks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Just one, now that the Comedy Channel and HA! The TV Comedy Network have decided to merge. The two feuding cable services will stop fussing and join forces in March to form Comedy TV, the biggest new basic cable channel to arrive on the dial since TNT premiered in 1988. What will the new round-the-clock laff riot look like?

”We’re in the middle of forming programming,” says Comedy TV’s new president and CEO, former Fox exec Robert Kreek. ”We’re brainstorming.” Two shows have been given the green light: the Comedy Channel’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 (an outer space drive-in with cheesy movies from the ’50s and ’60s) and HA!’s irreverent game show Clash. Both were their network’s biggest — correction, only — hits.

The two channels have been serving up 24-hour programming for about a year: The Comedy Channel (owned by Home Box Office) began by offering a fast-paced menu of short comedy clips, while Viacom’s HA! started with old sitcoms. Neither attracted much attention, stalling at about 7 million subscribers.

An earlier proposal for a merger was scuttled last summer due to ”creative differences” (and bad blood between Viacom’s Frank Biondi and HBO president Michael Fuchs), but the channels have been losing so much money — reportedly $40 million each — that the urge to merge became irresistible. ”Both were moving closer together in terms of programming,” says Kreek. ”So the merger made sense creatively.”

And economically: The 50-50 marriage will give Comedy TV a subscription pool of 15 million. That’s almost double the base of most start-ups, and in striking distance of the 20 million mark that usually means profitability. If it gets numbers like that, Comedy TV will be laughing all the way to the bank.