Cheap Laughs Take Bite Out of Network Comedy's Bottom Line

With Funny Snack-Size Video Served Up 24/7, Who Has Time for a Multi-Course, Crowd-Pleasing Meal?

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A moment of silence, please, for comedy.

(Silence.) (Cough.) (Sniffle.)

Thanks, of course, to the writers strike, we've been suffering a temporary drought of new Letterman, Stewart, Colbert, etc. (Here's hoping that by the time you read this, the national nightmare will have ended.) Though non-topical, scripted shows (with banked episodes) also have been affected by the strike, the immediate blackout of the talk-comedy genre was a reminder that behind every broadcast comedy icon, there's a team of scribes in a backstage sweatshop (with dangerous conditions, such as pencils stuck in the ceiling) handcrafting the humor all the livelong day.
Les Moonves: The cost-structure insanity starts here.
Les Moonves: The cost-structure insanity starts here. Credit: John Paul Filo

The writers strike is about the network and studios not wanting to share the spoils of internet distribution with writers -- because the networks and studios insist they're pretty much making jack shit putting their content online. The real problem, though, is that while other unionized-writer-written big-media products, such as ABC's "Lost," are generally irreplaceable in the pop-cultural ecosystem -- addictive, mass-market drama doesn't tend to bubble up from the grass roots as free, user-generated content -- comedy is cheaper and more ubiquitous (hello, viral videos!) than ever.

Overall, network-TV comedy has an ever-shrinking audience -- and sitcoms have an ever-shrinking share of prime time, thanks to cheaply made reality TV. As USA Today's Bill Keveney recently noted, "The broadcast networks [are airing] fewer than 20 live-action, 30-minute sitcoms, about half as many as five seasons ago. ... No sitcom has finished in the top 10 since 'Everybody Loves Raymond' in 2005."

Sadly, network brass may not be bluffing when they claim to writers that they have no real clue about how to make money in cyberspace. Last week, for instance, NBC announced it'll shutter its dubious DotComedy website. That comes on the heels of the demise of the HBO/AOL co-venture and the endlessly stalled launch of -- which has been touting itself as "a soon-to-launch topical humor website collaboration between IAC/InterActiveCorp and The Huffington Post" since the spring but as of last week was still trolling on Craigslist for full-time editorial interns to help get the site -- "set to launch in November" -- up and running. "Ideal candidates," the ad read, "are smart, funny, and tapped into news and culture."

And therein lies the problem with corporate-created comedy in the new economy: Everybody -- from the wittiest snark-merchant bloggers to the wackiest prat-falling YouTubers -- is doing comedy. Everybody's a comedian! Everybody's a comedian on the cheap, that is, and consumers seem more than happy to take in their daily diet of funny à la carte, in piecemeal bites, rather than sit down for expensively produced, multi-course comedic meals.

Never mind the writers. The unfunniest thing of all is that at the stalwart would-be purveyors of corporate comedy, the cost-structure insanity starts right at the top. A for-instance: CBS chief Les Moonves -- who has presided over not only crap like the Charlie Sheen sitcom "Two and a Half Men" but CBS's stagnating stock price -- just signed a new contract that grants him $3.5 million a year, a one-time stock-option grant to purchase 5 million shares, plus a restricted-shares grant, over the next four years, of $7.6 million a year. And, gee whiz, he's eligible for a "performance-based bonus" as well!

Comedy, as Steve Martin says, is not pretty. But in a disintermediated economy, comedy with that kind of executive-suite overhead is, as a business proposition, not only not pretty, it's hideously ugly.
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