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Everyone's Smiling: Sitcoms Show Life

While the new definition of a successful comedy is often more about staying on the air than putting up Seinfeld-like numbers, the broadcast networks are seeing some bright spots in the 30-minute comedy world. And it's not just the networks that are smiling, as ad buyers and their clients are also glad to see laughers gaining some traction.

“Advertisers are happy that comedy is back,” says Jackie Kulesza, senior VP and broadcast activation director at Starcom. “It's a diversity of programming that was needed and almost missing.”

Comedy mojo has been in short supply on broadcast, and nowhere has the tap been drier than at ABC. But this season, the network finally has some good news with three relatively successful comedies on Wednesday night: The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town.

Modern Family wins its time slot in the 18-49 demographic, averaging a 4.3 rating this season. Cougar Town is averaging a respectable 3.9 demo rating and 9.2 million viewers, good enough for the No. 2 and 3 spots in the time slot, respectively. Meanwhile, The Middle leads veteran CBS comedy Gary Unmarried in head-to-head competition this season, with a 2.4 rating/7.5 million viewers to Gary's 2.3 rating/7 million viewers.

That ABC may finally have a comedy block of its own to compete with established franchises at CBS, NBC and Fox is significant at a time when the broadcast business model is in severe contraction. “To be missing a whole genre just isn't good for a broadcaster,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at ABC.

CBS has made a run at a second night of comedy on Wednesday. Fox this season launched one of the most successful new laughers in Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show, which is the second-highest-rated new comedy of the season behind Modern Family, with a 4.2 rating/8.3 million viewers. Cleveland has already earned a two-season commitment from Fox.

A bright spot for beleaguered NBC continues to be its Thursday-night comedies, anchored by The Office and 30 Rock. While none of the programs are pulling in the game-changing ratings that NBC needs, 30 Rock is an awards show favorite and The Office is a DVR sensation, climbing 59% in playback, Nielsen says.

But comedy also offers bang for the buck in lower production costs compared to drama, as well as rerun potential and back-end profits. Despite cash troubles at the station level (see p. 16), the right show could still print money. Family Guy and Two and a Half Men, which is TV's most-watched comedy (averaging 14.5 million viewers this season), were the last sitcoms to make huge marks in syndication. But The Big Bang Theory, which has emerged as the No. 1 comedy in the demo (5.4 rating), is likely to be the next sitcom to reap rich syndication profits.

ABC in particular has been hamstrung by its lack of repeat potential. Unlike crime procedurals at CBS and NBC, ABC's serialized dramas are anemic in reruns. Modern Family, however, has proved repeat-worthy, besting the canceled Hank in the Wednesday leadoff slot. “Finally, we have something that repeats,” Bader adds.

Comedy is a notoriously subjective medium that takes patience and nurturing. Tina Fey, creator and star of NBC's 30 Rock, jokes about her show's modest ratings. But Angela Bromstad, president of primetime entertainment at NBC Universal, takes it very seriously.

“Until you have something that you think can compete with Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, you're really so much better off supporting that show and leaving it where it is than replacing it with something that may not be as good,” Bromstad says.

Community launched big (3.7 rating) behind The Office, but it's taken a hit since moving to the leadoff spot on Thursday, where it averages a 2.1 rating. Bromstad concedes that the network's lack of eyeballs has hurt its efforts to launch new programs.

“It's been an obstacle,” she says. “The overall ratings of the network are something that we have to struggle with every day.”

NBC will put marketing muscle behind Community during February's Winter Olympics and may give the show extra airtime by stunt-running it. But digging out of that fourth-place ditch will take time and money.

Bromstad, who also heads Universal Media Studios, has several comedies in development including projects from Reno 911 creator/star Tom Lennon, Office writer/star Mindy Kaling, and Gary Janetti, who was a writer/producer on Will & Grace.

“In any business, you manage to margins,” Bromstad says. “But I think we are going to have to spend our way out of this.”

NBC isn't the only network doubling down on comedy. Fox is developing separate projects from Mark Brazil, late of That '70s Show, and My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia, who also has a comedy at ABC.

The team behind iconic ABC sitcom Home Improvement is working on a comedy for the net about a stay-at-home dad. CBS has tapped Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl) and Matt Miller (Chuck) as well as Matt Tarses (Worst Week) for separate projects.

While networks have migrated toward producing programs through in-house studios to be better positioned on the back end, the economics of development remain daunting. And that includes cable networks.

FX President John Landgraf says the cost of the network's signature dramas (Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy) necessitated a different business model for comedy. It started with owning the shows by creating FX Productions.

But it also meant producing comedy on the cheap by eliminating the bureaucracy in monetizing the back end (DVD, international and syndie sales) and severely streamlining production schedules. The entire six-episode order for The League was shot in 21 days. Comedian Louis C.K. says he shot his FX pilot with $250,000 from the network.

“People don't tune in to a comedy to watch cinematography,” Landgraf says. “It doesn't matter what a comedy looks like, it matters if it's funny.”

For Landgraf, the success of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with its thrifty production values, is validation. In its fifth season, Sunny has jumped 55% in 18-49 and 31% in viewers. It is the No. 3 scripted program on ad-supported cable among men 18-34 behind South Park on Comedy Central and Sons of Anarchy. And it sold to Comedy Central in a first-run syndication deal valued at around $700,000 per episode, almost as much as the deal for 30 Rock, estimated at $800,000 per episode with barter.

Sunny creators Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day “came to us as non-pros, with no writing credits, no producing credits, no directing credits, no experience whatsoever in this business other than work as guest actors,” Landgraf points out. “And they have created and run a show that's now sold for nearly the same value as 30 Rock. I think we've revolutionized the business.”