Sitcom slip no laughing matter for nets

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The 1999-00 season will be remembered for the resurgence of the hour drama and the triumphant return of game shows and wrestling to broadcast prime time. It will also be recalled as a down time for the situation comedy.

Of the 11 new comedies that debuted on the six broadcast networks last fall, only four remain on the air. Of those four, only one, UPN's "The Parkers," can be considered a success. The other three, CBS' "Ladies Man," NBC's "Stark Raving Mad" and UPN's "Grown Ups," are on the verge of cancellation.

Fox's edgy "Action," praised by critics and advertisers alike as the best new comedy of the season, was roundly rejected by viewers last fall and died an early death.


Midseason has been somewhat kinder to the genre. Launched in January, Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" is widely acknowledged as the only breakout sitcom hit this season. Fox's "Titus," which premiered in March, is a modest success.

What's behind the sorry state of the sitcom? As the number of network and Internet outlets for comedy writers continues to grow, studio executives insist that there are too few humor scribes to meet the increasing demand.

Advertisers point to the cyclical nature of broadcast TV programming, which routinely drives various genres to the brink of extinction, only to see them bounce back. The hour drama, for example, was pronounced dead in the early '90s. Agency buyers also note that, in recent seasons, there were simply too many sitcoms on network schedules.

A disproportionate number of new sitcoms were "Friends" and "Seinfeld" wannabes, revolving around the misadventures of urban adults. It is no coincidence, advertisers say, that "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Titus" are contemporary family-centered series in the tradition of such one-time genre leaders as "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties" and "Roseanne."


Indeed, the late '90s glut of one-note sitcoms hurt not only the genre, but broadcast TV overall, says Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP-broadcast research at TN Media, New York.

"The big networks had two-hour comedy blocks two or three nights a week, pitted against each other," she recalls, adding that "too many of them focused on yuppie singles, particularly on NBC. They had a stable of shows built around the same ideas."

This sitcom monotony, Ms. Koerner says, "was driving network erosion. Bringing dramas back has actually increased usage."

She notes that NBC has learned from its mistake. "NBC executives have made it known that they are concentrating on bringing back family comedies next season," she says.

Sitcoms may be down, but they shouldn't be counted out. "Situation comedies are still a great cornerstone for the networks," says Tom DeCabia, exec VP of Schulman/Advanswers, New York. "They repeat much better than dramas. They're not a dying breed at all."

Mr. DeCabia says the problem rests largely with the writing of these shows, especially in this era of aggressive youth-targeting at the networks. "It is easier to target a drama such as `Dawson's Creek' . . . toward teens than to write a comedy for them," he explains, adding that most comedies geared toward young viewers "tend to be dumb and stupid."


Mr. DeCabia is not alone in citing writing as a major reason for the sitcom's decline. The proliferation of networks has strained the talent pool, says Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Initiative Media, Los Angeles. "There are too many teams, and not enough pitchers. This leads to fewer well-written comedies."

Mr. Spengler, nevertheless, believes the sitcom will endure and that the networks are on top of the problem. He says he was "more impressed than usual" with some of the sitcoms previewed during the networks' development presentations last month.

"There is definitely an opportunity for a well done, different looking sitcom to revive the genre," says Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research for Optimum Media Direction USA.


Mr. Greco recalls that when such sitcom legends as "The Cosby Show" and "Seinfeld" premiered, "there was nothing like them on television at the time." It is for this reason, he says, that "Malcolm in the Middle" "has done so well this year. Maybe it will lead a revival of the family sitcom."

It's all a matter of perspective, says David Marans, senior partner, media research director at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York. "Every couple of years one of the key genres is declared dead. This occurs because viewers demonstrate that they are disinterested in the programs that are on the air. Yes, there seems to be a problem with sitcoms, but it isn't due to the genre. The problem is with specific shows.

"There is no such thing as a genre itself getting stale," Mr. Marans concludes. "Put the right program in the right time period, and the problem is over."

Ed Martin is editor of The Myers Programming Report.

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