Broadcast television networks are determined to make you laugh.
The resurgence of situation comedies is the clearest trend to emerge from TV’s helter-skelter week of fall schedule announcements that recently concluded. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will have 30 half-hour comedies on the air at the beginning of next season – 32 by November – compared to 17 at the opening of a new season five years ago.
Tuesday alone is a comic festival. The top networks will air eight sitcoms that night alone, with ABC promising two more in January.
“The audience is really open to comedy right now,” said Robert Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chief. The network made comedy its development priority, and is opening Tuesday and Friday to sitcoms next fall. NBC is also keeping four comedies on Thursday night, despite abysmal ratings.
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The explanation is as much financial as cultural, and there’s a clear starting point.
Much as “The Cosby Show” was responsible for resurrecting sitcoms in the 1980s, ABC’s “Modern Family” played the same role this time. It was an instant critical hit when it premiered in 2009 and has grown to become ABC’s most popular scripted program. ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee called it “the defining comedy of our time.”
“I don’t think the networks gave up on (comedy),” said Brad Adgate, television analyst for Horizon Media. “There’s too much of a financial incentive to go with comedies. They were always trying. But they weren’t that good.”
The lesson for Fox coming out of this season was clear. The charming “New Girl” with Zooey Deschanel did well and was invited back for a new season; the special-effects laden drama “Terra Nova” was an expensive bust. Fox is building a four-sitcom night on Tuesdays led by “New Girl.”
It also can’t be lost on struggling NBC that it can invest in a complex drama like “Awake,” get good reviews and virtually no viewers. NBC’s fall schedule shows its drought in developing solid dramas: There’s no show that premiered between 1999 (“Law & Order: SVU”) and 2010 (“Parenthood”).
Many fans express on social media that they’re reluctant to commit to new dramas on broadcast networks for fear they will be quickly canceled, said Sean Reckwerdt, TV analyst and cultural anthropologist for Networked Insights. CBS is the exception, he said.
Comedies, meanwhile, generally require less investment both personally and financially and the upside in success can be huge.
The slump in new comedy development during the mid-2000s meant there were fewer sitcoms available on the syndication market at precisely the time there was more interest in buying them. “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” commanded prices at or near $1.5 million an episode for their makers when they were sold in syndication less than two years ago.
Reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” have been such a big success for TBS since they started last fall that the network’s viewership is up more than 11 percent over last year, the Nielsen company said.
Demand is such that “2 Broke Girls” and “Mike & Molly” will soon hit the syndication market, even though CBS has made nowhere near the 100 episodes of the shows that is generally considered a benchmark for running repeats, said Bill Carroll, an expert on the syndication market for Katz Media. A classic sitcom can generate money for a long time; somewhere “I Love Lucy” and “M-A-S-H” episodes are still being shown.
“Not every show is like that, but certainly the blue chip players last forever,” Carroll said. “They’ll be running when we watch TV on our watches or watch on our glasses.”
USA won the rights to begin airing “Modern Family” reruns next year and the network, which has made its fortune in large part through successful original dramas, made the upcoming comedy repeats a centerpiece of its presentation to advertisers last month.
Syndication success also creates an interesting boomerang effect for networks. Ratings for original episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother” on CBS went up this year – unusual for series that have been on the air so long – because more viewers became familiar with the characters through reruns.
It was instantly evident when ABC previewed “Modern Family” for advertisers three years ago that the comedy was something special. None of this year’s crop jumps out in the same way. Fox is getting some buzz for a sitcom created by and starring Mindy Kaling of “The Office,” and the network’s “Ben and Kate” seems sweet. NBC has high hopes for Matthew Perry’s “Go On” because of the way he channels Chandler from “Friends.”
Among the most promising dramas is ABC’s “Nashville,” with Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights” in a career and love triangle. There are a handful of creepy dramas, often with supernatural elements, with the best looking like Fox’s “The Following,” with Kevin Bacon trying to track down a serial killer. That doesn’t start until midseason, however.
As it has for a few years now, CBS appears in a different league than its rivals. Its margin of victory as the first-place network was the widest it has been in 23 years, and the network has no intention of messing with a successful formula. Its three new fall dramas are each criminal or legal procedurals.
CBS may eventually pay for taking “thinner and thinner slices of the same stuff,” Reckwerdt noted. Judging by the warm response by advertisers to its new shows, that day of reckoning doesn’t appear imminent.
Jimmy Kimmel, who has appeared for 10 straight years at ABC’s presentation to lob some verbal grenades at network executives, neatly summed up the leap of faith that TV executives are asking of advertisers.
“We’re going to show you some shows that either we’re excited about or pretending to be excited about,” he said.
“It’s up to you to figure out which is which.”