There's Real Business in Funny Business as Nets Pile on Sitcoms

Why Broadcast TV Is Turning to Comedy for Fall Season

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NEW YORK ( -- Here's what the TV networks think we think is funny: fallen corporate executives; nontraditional families; older women looking for love; getting pregnant unexpectedly after a one-night stand; and falling off the career track into a job at a community college.

'HANK': Buyers not keen on ABC show.
'HANK': Buyers not keen on ABC show.
Those are the premises of several of this year's new fall comedies: ABC's "Hank," "Modern Family," and "Cougar Town"; CBS's "Accidentally on Purpose"; and NBC's "Community." And advertisers and networks are eager for the laughs.

When you get right down to it, there's nothing funny about a bumper crop of sitcoms slated to launch in the 2009-2010 TV season; stone-cold worries about the bottom line are driving the networks to look for the next half-hour hit. With networks under more pressure to keep production costs in line, dramas requiring more in the way of spending and advertisers growing less enchanted with the less-expensive reality genre, comedies represent a more durable product than in years past.

"Sitcoms repeat better than dramas, so now that the networks are picking up on the cable methodology of shorter, 'all-original episode' seasons for many of their top dramas, they needed the comedies that could fill in the gaps when they need them," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas' MPG. "Everybody needs a long man out of the bullpen, and comedies are better as a stopgap than dramas."

ABC is virtually rebuilding its Wednesday-night lineup with four new comedies, one of which, "Modern Family," is seen by ad buyers as one of the season's few breakout hits. (Buyers are also positive on "The Middle," a new comedy about a Midwestern clan.) CBS continues to try to extend its success with comedy on Mondays to another hour during early Wednesday prime time. Fox hopes the animated "The Cleveland Show" will extend the franchise established by "Family Guy." And NBC hopes to stoke one of the few proven spots on its prime-time schedule, comedies on Thursday nights, with "Community" as well as a new round of episodes of "Parks & Recreation," a second-season effort featuring comedienne Amy Poehler.

Covering all bases
Broadcast-network executives will be quick to suggest that it's not the economy sparking these maneuvers, but rather a broader programming mission. To bring in the widest audience possible, a broadcast network has to win fans of all genres, and cross promote its programs to fans of all types of shows, said Jeffrey Bader, exec VP-planning, scheduling and distribution, ABC Entertainment. And there are other perks, he said: "Comedies tend to be a little more flexible in where you can schedule them and it's also nice to just have some half-hour pieces in your schedule." Comedies often prove valuable in luring men to the screen, he added.

Despite the fact that programs such as "The Cosby Show," "Seinfeld" and "The Honeymooners" -- comedies all -- rank among TV's best-loved programs, the situation comedy has been on the decline for some time. During the 2006-2007 programming season, just 12.3% of regularly scheduled prime-time programming was devoted to comedy, according to an interpretation of Nielsen data done by Sam Armando, senior VP-director of TV research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. That figure declined to 10.7% for 2007-2008 and 10.6% for 2008-2009.

Competition from other set-top box outposts may be spurring the broadcast networks to dip their toes into comedy again. TBS has seen comedic entries including "House of Payne," "My Boys" and "The Bill Engvall Show" bear fruit, said Mr. Armando, who also noted that reruns of "The George Lopez Show" have helped boost ratings for Nickelodeon's nighttime programming. CBS's "Two and a Half Men," meanwhile, has fared well in syndication.

"I've got to believe that all of [the networks] have seen some success in comedy in other places, and it has led them to believe that it might be a way to increase their ratings," Mr. Armando said. Another reason for the diminished laughs on the broadcast grid: Networks have "tended to ignore" the genre in recent years because they "have been making some cheap reality and have more ratings success with drama," he said.

Comedy isn't always welcome. The 10 p.m. hour has long been reserved for dramas, and ABC and CBS are likely to keep this tradition going to draw attention from NBC's new five-nights-a-week "Jay Leno Show," said Christopher Vollmer, partner and leader of global media and entertainment at Booz & Co.

And of course, not every comedy is a surefire hit. While media buyers are enthusiastic about the prospects for "Modern Family" and "Community," they are decidedly less sanguine about "Hank" on ABC, which stars actor Kelsey Grammer, and "Brothers," a sitcom on Fox that some buyers believe could be ripe to be the first cancellation of the new season.

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