Cablers Target Laughs, Authenticity, Geeks

With the new year having begun on a continued economic down note, cable programmers are still offering escapism for relief—with comedy at the forefront.

Broadcasters struggled to find their comedy footing the last several years, and cablers attempted to pick up the torch; 2010 will see a number of cable networks that have had only a small presence in the genre expand their output many times over. And other networks with a big comedy presence will try out new formats and business models.

“I think [ABC's] Modern Family is great, but in general there is still a real dearth of comedy [on the networks],” says Nick Grad, executive VP of original programming at FX. “And more and more places are taking advantage.”

FX has been trying to find a companion to the long-running It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While The League performed well enough in its late 2009 inaugural season to earn a second go-round, 2010 will see at least two new comedies debut on the network: the animated Archer on Jan. 14 and Louie, from comedian Louis C.K., later in the year.

MTV is no stranger to comedy, being the network of Beavis and Butt-head and more recently Human Giant; however, it has spent much of the last few years focusing on reality programming and meta-scripted shows such as The Hills. But 2010 will see the network's biggest push into scripted comedy in years, including a comedy night anchored by Hard Times and Warren the Ape. Tony DiSanto, MTV's president of programming, describes Hard Times as “The Wonder Years meets Superbad,” and Warren the Ape as like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with a puppet ape instead of Larry David.

“We really think there is a niche here to make scripted comedies for our audience, a niche we can fill,” DiSanto says.

While Comedy Central owns the genre, it is making a push for more traditional sitcoms in 2010 to complement its current eclectic lineup. As part of that push, it will premiere a sitcom from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, starring Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder. If season one does well, the network has the option to order an additional 90 episodes from producers Debmar-Mercury, taking a business model Debmar pioneered with Tyler Perry's House of Payne.


A number of executives polled by B&C also say that viewers are tiring of forced, trite reality shows and will start gravitating toward programs that feel more “real.”

“I don't know that every nonfiction show is going to be authentic; clearly there is room for wonderfully inauthentic reality TV that we all watch and wink and nod and know is contrived,” says Animal Planet President and General Manager Marjorie Kaplan. “But there is also an attraction to things that are real and have a real quality to them.”

“Whether it is something scripted or something reality, our audience is moving away from shows where they can see the formulations or the puppet strings,” DiSanto adds.

Post-True Blood, the premium cable networks suddenly have a thirst for geek-friendly fare, exploring genres that otherwise may have been left to Syfy. HBO is producing a 60-minute pilot for Game of Thrones, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels of George R.R. Martin. The expensive pilot garnered buzz at Comic-Con and online, with many industry observers expecting a series pickup shortly after the pilot gets delivered early this year.

Starz is set to debut its own fantasy series, Spartacus, on Jan. 22. The network is confident enough that it has already greenlit a second season.

Meanwhile, a number of networks are rethinking their programming strategies for the new year. While the formal rebrand of Discovery Health to OWN won't take place until January 2011, OWN's programming lineup and voice will begin to take shape well before then, possibly by Discovery's upfront presentation. Discovery and Hasbro are set to debut their new rebrand of Discovery Kids in late 2010. And News Corp.'s Fox Reality Channel will become National Geographic Wild before the end of March, and hopes to give Animal Planet a run for its money as the year moves on.

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