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'South Park' Creators' Fortunes Head North

Television: Comedy Central orders 40 more episodes of the hit animated show and restructures duo's deal. A movie is also planned.

April 27, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mere nine months after its premiere, "South Park" is graduating from television show to cottage industry, in the process turning its young creators into overworked millionaires.

The animated program, which is seen on cable's Comedy Central network, has given rise to an explosion of related ventures, including a "South Park" movie that could be out as early as next spring.

Paramount Pictures won a jump ball with Warner Bros. (parent companies Viacom and Time Warner, respectively, jointly own Comedy Central) to release the film. Warner Bros., meanwhile, is distributing "South Park" videos and an upcoming soundtrack featuring music from the show.

In addition, Comedy Central has ordered 40 more episodes, bringing the total to 73, which will extend the program into the next millennium. A new round of original episodes (only about 15 have aired thus far) will begin running in three weeks.

Because "South Park" creators Trey Parker, 28, and Matt Stone, 26, signed away most of their rights when they sold the series to Comedy Central, extending the network's order provided an opportunity to renegotiate that contract, increasing their per-episode fee and interest in the program's merchandising.

Comedy Central President Doug Herzog acknowledged restructuring the deal, saying he wanted to keep the duo involved with production and "real happy."

"When the guys signed up here they were unknown, with a garden-variety basic cable deal. Clearly, this has come a long way from that," he said, adding that he's "still trying to figure out where the ceiling on this thing is."

Ratings for "South Park" have more than quintupled Comedy Central's average and continue to grow. The most recent episode, televised last Wednesday, drew 6.2 million viewers, the program's largest audience yet.

The William Morris Agency, which represents Parker and Stone, has pushed for the movie to begin production soon--while public awareness is still peaking--instead of several years into the run, as was done with "Beavis and Butt-head."

"The time to capitalize on the movie is right now, not two years from now," said William Morris' Mike Simpson. "We said we need to seize the moment."

The agency has also parlayed "South Park" into a dizzying series of projects for Parker and Stone, who star in "BASEketball," a comedy from "Airplane!" director David Zucker due out in August; and are writing a prequel to "Dumb and Dumber."

Sources estimate the various deals the pair have signed will earn them roughly $15 million. Simpson wouldn't discuss that figure but noted that Parker and Stone have gone from "a couple of guys with a wacky idea to an industry."

Rising viewership has also fueled some minor backlash due to the show's risque content and popularity with younger viewers, including teenagers and children. "South Park" is the only prime-time series that regularly receives a TV-MA (mature audiences) rating, and the movie will probably be R-rated.

Herzog said the channel has actively sought to discourage kids from watching the program, noting that none of its merchandise is offered in children's sizes.

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