TV networks playing for laughs in a big way in the fall

May 20 2012 - 7:42am


Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler and Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in a scene from the season finale of “The Big Bang Theory.” 
Michael Yarish/CBS
Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler and Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in a scene from the season finale of “The Big Bang Theory.” 
Michael Yarish/CBS

LOS ANGELES -- What's so funny about the TV networks' new fall schedules? Everything -- or at least that's the hope of programmers who unveiled their new lineups to advertisers this week in New York and have gone cuckoo for comedy in a way not seen in at least 15 years.

Reversing their lament from a few seasons ago that sitcoms were suffering from a creative and ratings drought, the networks are now whipping up a cloudburst of hoped-for laughs that will rain across flat screens, laptops and tablets come September.

Desperately seeking hits, NBC alone will have 10 comedies this fall, four of them new.

In a funny-bone pileup during the prime-time Tuesday block, three of the Big Four broadcasters will be airing sitcoms, with No. 1-ranked CBS the lone exception. During a breakfast session with reporters, CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl predicted that rivals were headed for a "comedy Sig-Alert."

"Everyone seems to believe that sitcoms are the bedrock of big-time success for the networks," said Bill Carroll, vice president at New York-based Katz Media Group, which helps advise local TV stations, earlier this week.

What's behind the joke rush? Partly it's the success of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" and ABC's "Modern Family," two smash hits that have proved the appetite for sitcoms -- or at least well-made ones -- still exists.

Of course, this isn't the first time network executives have tried to laugh their troubles away. Back in the 1990s, when "Friends" became a surprise hit among young affluent adults, NBC and its rivals spent tens of millions of dollars trying to make lightning strike twice.

By the fall of 1997, NBC had an astonishing 18 comedies on its schedule and ABC and CBS had 12 apiece, according to ad firm Horizon Media.

That statistic makes this coming season's laugh track seem subtle in comparison. But at a time when broadcasters are losing their grip on young viewers -- the ratings this spring have been especially tough -- the thinking is that comedies can help lure them back.

Fox's freshman sitcom "New Girl" with Zooey Deschanel has a median viewer age of 35 -- at least 10 years younger than the typical prime-time show, according to Nielsen.

An increase in the number of young viewers means a hike in the prices networks can charge advertisers, which are willing to pay more for young adult audiences than for middle-aged or senior ones.

Also, viewers tend to show up more often for repeats of sitcoms than they do for encore reality shows and serialized dramas. That means networks can squeeze more value out of the tens of millions of dollars in license fees paid to studios.

"Half-hour comedy shows are easier and cheaper to gear up than dramas, so there is less overall investment and risk than (in) developing new dramas," said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University.

But everyone realizes the networks' best weapon will be what it's always been: a new hit show. Whether the comedy-centric fall schedules will deliver on that score, however, remains to be seen.

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