Why Broadcast's Dearth of Comedy Is No Laughing Matter for Cable

Sitcom Syndication Pipeline Is All But Tapped Out

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'The Last Man Standing'
'The Last Man Standing'

Cable networks that specialize in comedy will have to make their own stuff from scratch for the foreseeable future, as the syndication pipeline is dryer than a Bob Newhart monologue.

At present, only one broadcast comedy is available for syndication on ad-supported cable, and its older-skewing audience makes it a tough sell for the likes of TBS and FX/FXX. Now in its fourth year on ABC, 20th Century Fox Television's "Last Man Standing" delivers an audience with a median age of 58 years, making it one of the greyest comedies on TV.

Nick at Nite or TV Land would appear to be the best fit for "Last Man Standing," although recent remarks made by Viacom President & CEO Philippe Dauman suggest that the company is moving away from the practice of supplementing its original fare with off-net acquisitions.

"We need to have fresh programming of different kinds working across multiple screens," Mr. Dauman said earlier this week at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet & Telecom Conference. "Some of the programming that we acquired years ago just doesn't work anymore—particularly when you have off-broadcast programming that is ubiquitously on [video on demand], it's just not playing. So we're going to abandon some of that programming as we go forward and continue to invest in what works."

For all that, "Last Man" will certainly land somewhere, as it's literally the only available broadcast comedy with a syndication-friendly episode load. Through Friday, Feb. 27, ABC has aired 87 installments of "Last Man;" while the traditional "magic number" is 100, most shows now get shopped once they close in on the 88-episode mark.

With an average draw of 6.92 million viewers, "Last Man" isn't expected to put up the sort of numbers "The Big Bang Theory" draws on TBS. But the very nature of the format largely dictates its relative desirability. As comedies run in 30-minute blocks, a network has to have at least two stacked together to fill a given hour. An off-network acquisition can serve as a reasonably-priced bit of spackle, especially when you consider the cost of producing an original comedy. (The average is around $1.6 million per episode, or north of $35 million for a full season.)

The only other network comedy that is anywhere near the 88-episode mark is Universal Television's "The Mindy Project." Now in its third season on Fox, "Mindy" has 67 episodes in the can and will almost certainly be renewed for at least a limited run in 2015-16. (It's practically axiomatic that broadcast sitcoms simply do not get canceled after three seasons. In the DVR era, ABC's "Suburgatory" and Fox's "Arrested Development" are the rare exceptions that prove the rule.)

'The Mindy Project'
'The Mindy Project'

"Mindy" is even more of a niche offering than "Last Man," averaging just 2.34 million viewers in its Tuesday 9:30 p.m. time slot. That said, it also reaches a much younger, wealthier cohort than does Tim Allen's show.

Not helping matters is a trend toward reducing broadcast comedy hours across the board. CBS this fall eliminated two of four sitcom slots on Monday nights, a move prefigured by Fox doing much the same to its Tuesday roster in February 2014. And in a bid to revitalize its Thursday nights, NBC scrubbed the former "Must-See TV" launch pad of all scripted comedy.

If cable programming execs are patient, a wave of opportunities should present itself in the latter half of 2017. At least three broadcast comedies (Sony Pictures TV's "The Goldbergs," Universal TV's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and Warner Bros. Television's "Mom") seem to have the necessary legs for eventual syndication, and the latter two already have been renewed for a third season.

As much as original material is the source of any given cable network's buzz -- FX wouldn't be FX without "American Horror Story" and "Justified" and "Archer" -- the ratings tell another story altogether. According to MoffetNathanson research, acquired sitcoms like "The Big Bang Theory," "Friends" and "Seinfeld" account for 59% of TBS's total gross ratings points in the 18-49 demo, while USA Network leans heavily on "Law & Order SVU" and "NCIS" repeats. All told, off-net shows account for 70% of USA's GRPs, with "SVU" responsible for a staggering 42% of the net's total demo deliveries.

Comedy Central is far less beholden to off-net broadcast content; of the three syndicated shows it carries, two ("Archer" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") were developed by FX. TBS is also in a position where it doesn't necessarily have to pounce on the next broadcast comedy that becomes available. In fact, its roster is so crowded with reliable syndicated performers that when it launches 20th Century TV's "New Girl" this fall, Zooey Deschanel and the gang will be remanded to early fringe, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Unlike most of its cable rivals, the secret sauce at FX is its movie library. Licensed popcorn flicks such as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and comedies like "This Is 40" account for 58% of FX's GRPs, while the aforementioned original series together represent 6% of the network's demo deliveries. A trio of syndicated comedies ("How I Met Your Mother," "Mike & Molly" and "Two and a Half Men") account for 9% of the network's GRPs.

With just 10 full weeks left in the current broadcast season, nine comedies have been canceled or pulled from the schedule and two have concluded their series run. Four are odds-on favorites to be renewed for the fall.

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