Sitcoms: TV doesn't know whether to laugh or cry

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It's a scenario that plays itself out dozens of times on any given night during network TV sitcoms. It goes like this: setup, setup, joke, laugh. Then, on the really elaborate goofs, it's setup, setup, joke, laugh, plus wacky reaction shots from each of the characters. Bonus points if there's an adorable and precocious kid who can roll his eyes at just the right moment.

So how come no one at home is guffawing nearly as hard as the (heavily sweetened) laugh track?

Network executives, as they head into this year's upfront ad-selling spree, have been asking the same question, along with deeper ones about the once-brilliant-but-now-struggling genre. What in the world has happened to the situation comedy, and can it be fixed?

With two of the most successful, long-running half-hour comedies-"Friends" and "Frasier," both fixtures on General Electric Co.'s NBC-leaving the air this season, there's no heir apparent to draw a broad advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old audience and feed the money-making syndication pipeline. "Everybody Loves Raymond" may return next fall for a ninth outing on Viacom's CBS but likely just for one shortened season.

shock treatment

Whether the workplace comedies, single moms or dads raising a brood of kids stories, animation or star-driven sitcoms in the works for next season are the answer has yet to be determined. But there seems to be universal agreement that the genre is in need of shock treatment.

"The sitcom will never die-it's a basic unit of television," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It serves too important an appetite to go away."

However, the genre is ailing, Mr. Thompson says, and there are a number of reasons for that. There are fewer chances for a hit because of fewer available slots on the networks' schedules. Where sitcoms once proliferated, news magazines and unscripted fare like reality shows now rule. Fewer slots translates to fewer sitcoms developed, meaning there's less of a chance, odds-wise, for a success.

"Shelf space is a problem and so is promotion," says Steve McPherson, who as president of Touchstone Television oversaw a Walt Disney Co. unit that produces shows including "My Wife & Kids," the Damon Wayons sitcom on Disney's ABC. "Networks are very interested in those instant gratification shows [namely reality] that come on, explode and change a night," says Mr. McPherson, who late last month was named president of ABC Primetime Entertainment.

It's not that there's no desire for solid sitcom fare among TV executives. Producers and the media buying community continue to sweat over the networks' reliance on unscripted programming, saying it's not a good long-term business practice.

"Our concern overall is that networks need to find quality scripted programming that consumers want to see again and again," says Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat USA, New York, "so we'll have good opportunities to showcase our clients' products."

Before the 500-channel universe, sitcoms were "expected to be amusing, but they didn't really have to be that good," Mr. Thompson says. The bar has been raised in the last decade with shows like "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," "Cheers" and "Friends."

"It's a delicate art form that's very difficult to do well," Mr. Thompson says. "The days when `Gimme a Break' was a huge hit are well behind us."

Audiences seem to be getting their comedy from a variety of new places including such sociopolitical parodies as Viacom-owned Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "South Park"; sketch shows like "Punk'd" on Viacom's MTV; and even network reality shows, from "The Simple Life" on News Corp.'s Fox to "Average Joe" on NBC.

There are business reasons for the malaise as well. The current climate in which TV shows are quickly pulled if they aren't out-of-the-gate ratings grabbers is working against many new programs including sitcoms. Networks often exercise too much control over the product, squeezing out risk and creativity, some industry mavens say.

fear of being trampled

"People are hired to be professional second-guessers," says Caryn Mandabach, a partner in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, the only independent TV production house left in Hollywood, whose current programs include "That `70s Show" on Fox and "Whoopi" on NBC. "It's very difficult for voices that are unique and extraordinary to pop through without being trampled."

Many of the good sitcoms of the last decade were based on talent from the comedy club circuit. Cases in point range from Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano to Roseanne Barr and Tim Allen. Current alums of the Laugh Factory world include Kevin James (CBS' "King of Queens"), George Lopez (ABC's "George Lopez") and Tom Papa, whose "Come to Papa" is headed to NBC this summer.

The fall development slates include shows built around comedians Andrew Kennedy, Louis C.K. ("Saint Louie"), Earthquake ("Earthquake") and Jeff Foxworthy ("Blue Collar TV"). But no one knows if the next great sitcom will come from that pool.

"We think the comedy clubs have been kind of strip-mined," says Craig Erwich, exec VP-programming at Fox Broadcasting Co. "We're looking at a new type of talent and a new way of thinking about this format."

urban gone suburban

That's led to a half-hour starring hip-hoppers Method Man and Redman as, well, hip-hoppers who move to the all-white 'burbs after striking it rich in music. The fish-out-of-water comedy, titled "Method & Red," hits Fox this summer.

"We're looking for the strong breakout character with a strong point of view," Mr. Erwich says.

In a tried-and-not-so-true form, spinoffs and retreads populate the development slates. An American version of Britain's "The Office" is a candidate for NBC's schedule; a remake of "Mr. Ed," with Sherman Hemsley as the voice of the horse with attitude, is a potential for Fox; and "Furst Family," a remake of the U.K.'s "Royle Family," could land on ABC.

Perhaps the closest-watched new sitcom, from a business perspective, will be "Joey," the "Friends" spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc. Successful spinoffs have been few and far between, and nothing of note has emerged since "Frasier" rose from the ashes of "Cheers."

"Seinfeld" alumnus Jason Alexander will give sitcoms another try after his ill-fated "Bob Patterson" lasted only five episodes on ABC a few seasons back. His still-unnamed show, based on the life of sports journalist Tony Kornheiser, is in development for CBS.

Well-known TV and film stars are part of the networks' development slates, with heavy-hitting names such as John Goodman, Chris O'Donnell, Ricki Lake, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, Jeff Goldblum and Macaulay Culkin. Those shows often draw advertiser interest because of the stars' built-in followings, but the recent past is littered with big-name-star failures.

Longtime TV critic Jonathan Storm, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, says he finds network sitcoms to be either too dumb or too cerebral these days. "It's hard to find a sitcom that's both original and accessible," Mr. Storm says. "The focus is on other types of shows, and there's no momentum behind sitcoms right now."

Some people in the business wonder if the genre is played out, but at the same time they insist it can revive.

"There's something very artificial about the three-camera sitcom that gives you pause and makes you wonder if that's the best format right now," says Fox's Mr. Erwich. "But the next great show could just as easily be the most basic sitcom anyone's ever seen. There's no formula or science to these creative endeavors."

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