Bucking convention: Networks scour for new talent to save the sitcom

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Joe Roth, best known in Hollywood for the feature films he's made at Disney and now his own Revolution Studios, has comedy on his mind, but this time it's the small-screen variety. Mr. Roth, whose "Christmas With the Kranks" just opened in theaters, recently signed a deal to develop CBS sitcoms.

The agreement, one of the first major deals by Viacom Co-President Les Moonves since taking control of the conglomerate's production division Paramount Network Television, could have new shows on the air as soon as September.

The move is indicative of the lengths to which networks will go these days in looking for new comedy hits. After two decades of such successes as "Home Improvement," and "Friends," the genre is in a slump this decade, according to the ratings and executives in the TV industry. The challenge now is to revive it, with production companies, talent agencies and the networks themselves using numerous tactics to try to make that happen. Among the approaches: tapping hit filmmakers and cable series mavericks, scouring outside Hollywood for undiscovered writing talent and looking to source material like how-to books for sitcom ideas.

`new voices'

"They're looking under every rock, and they should be," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration at media buyer Initiative. "They need to challenge the formula."

Network executives agree, saying the traditional system for churning out half-hours seems staid and predictable. "Look how much dramas have evolved, but sitcoms don't look that different than they did years ago," said Kevin Reilly, president, NBC Entertainment. "It's really time for new voices." Stephen McPherson, ABC prime-time entertainment president, said "You can't paint by the numbers and be successful."

Filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer, who's become a player in drama and reality TV, is breaking into serial comedy, with pilots in the works for the WB network and CBS. Mr. Bruckheimer has network hits "CSI," "Without a Trace," "Cold Case" and "Amazing Race" already under his belt, but is a relative comedy novice. Mr. Roth, meanwhile, has "My Cousin Vinny," "Daddy Day Care" and "Anger Management" on his resume, along with stellar talent contacts, making him a prime catch for network TV.

William Morris Agency plans to host a TV festival, mirroring the established film festivals, to screen pilots made by students and independent producers next year in New York with a goal of finding new talent. The Fox network, also searching for fresh talent, recently set up a project called Naked TV that produces plays from the ideas of first-time writers.

Freemantle Media, which produces "American Idol," set up an in-house division to come up with half-hour comedy ideas and quickly make them into mini-pilot presentations. By doing so, the company has condensed the months-long development process into as little as a week.

Talent agency CAA is developing a sitcom based on a recently published how-to book by trend analyst Jane Buckingham. Tapping its store of writers, CAA will turn "A Modern Girl's Guide to Life" into a comedy planned for UPN. It's rare for a book, especially an instructional one, to be the source of a fictional show, though ABC's "8 Simple Rules" was book-based.

"It's intended to be a modern girl's version of the `Mary Tyler Moore Show,"' said Ms. Buckingham, whose trend firm Youth Intelligence is now owned by CAA.

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