With Few Hit Sitcoms, Stations Hope for Sleepers

This fall, only one off-network sitcom is coming to broadcast syndication: Twentieth’s Last Man Standing.

The multicamera comedy starring Tim Allen and now in its fifth season, is a moderate performer, averaging a 1.2 rating/5 share among adults 18-49 and 6.9 million viewers in its Friday 8 p.m. time slot on ABC. That Last Man Standing is the only choice TV stations have demonstrates how few sitcom options station buyers have these days.

The show is sold for cash-plus-barter on TV stations covering more than 90% of the country, says Paul Franklin, executive VP/general sales manager, Twentieth Television.

“We’re pretty confident that it can be a nice little sleeper hit,” says Franklin.

Tribune has picked up Last Man Standing for its stations in top markets: WPIX New York, KTLA Los Angeles and WGN Chicago, although the group hasn’t yet determined in which time slots the show will air. Other groups that have acquired the show are Sinclair, Hearst, CBS and Media General.

Illustrating a truth of the current sales environment, Last Man Standing already airs on basic cable—Hallmark, CMT and Freeform—and on streaming platforms, including Hulu and Netflix. While broadcast stations like to have series exclusively, that notion is almost entirely a relic now that studios can start monetizing series much sooner across more platforms and broadcast groups can’t afford to pay enough to keep series out of other buyers’ hands.

Mom-Com Next

Coming next to market is Warner Bros.’ Mom, which is yet another series from multicamera maven Chuck Lorre, who is being inducted into the NAB Television Hall of Fame this April. The show is coming to market during the first half of this year, says Ken Werner, president, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Mom stars Anna Faris and multiple Emmy-winner Allison Janney (who won a statue for Mom in 2015) as a daughter and mother who both struggle with addiction, a premise that doesn’t sound funny but manages to play out that way.

Werner expects Mom to fit in nicely with two other off-net sitcoms the studio has recently sold: Mike & Molly, starring Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell; and 2 Broke Girls, starring Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs.

“[Mom is] a show that will work well alongside shows like Mike & Molly, 2 Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Friends and so forth,” Werner says. “This show will refresh stations’ sitcom lineups, extending the life of existing shows while keeping audiences satisfied.”

Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls averaged a respective 2.3 and a 2.2 live-plus-same-day household rating in the week ended Jan. 24, ranking them fourth and fifth among all off-net sitcoms.

Also in the market is Sony Pictures Television’s The Goldbergs, which debuted on Hulu last August. Thus far, SPT hasn’t reported any broadcast sales for the show, which airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., leading into Modern Family.

Next up will be shows such as Disney-ABC’s Black-ish, Twentieth’s Fresh Off the Boat and potentially NBCUniversal’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, all likely for 2018 or ’19 debuts.

Stations are making do with this slim trickle of shows, but they are “concerned,” says Bill Carroll, senior VP, content strategy, Katz Broadcast Group. “The perennials continue to work but the last huge breakout that’s continuing to be successful is The Big Bang Theory. The last few to come out have been decent performers but not blue-chip performers.

I don’t think anyone is counting on their being another breakout hit.” “I do wish we had more multicamera, laugh track options,” says Sean Compton, president of strategic programming and acquisitions, Tribune Broadcasting. “We buy sitcoms market by market, we don’t do one-size-fits-all. We have Mike & Molly in a few markets and Modern Family in a few markets. And in many markets, older shows such as Friends, Seinfeld and Two and a Half Men still do very well for us.

“If there’s ever a Big Bang or Two and a Half Mensized sitcom coming out again, we would probably make a stronger push for it. If you have a show of that scale, you have to go for it,” adds Compton.

To fill the gaps, stations are doing things such as expanding their local news offerings; trying new things in access, such as game shows; and just generally taking shots at new programs.

All About Steve

One show that’s worked very well in access is Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud, which just hit a new series high 7.5 in the week ending Jan. 24. Family Feud, produced by FremantleMedia North America, has been on a continuing growth trajectory ever since adding Steve Harvey as host in 2010. It’s a formula studios would like to duplicate, but haven’t yet been able to.

Meanwhile, it’s been helpful for studios that streaming services are acquiring sitcoms, especially single-camera shows such as Twentieth’s New Girl or The Mindy Project that tend to be too niche for broadcasters but work well in subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) environments.

“At the end of the day, when people said SVOD services would destroy the ecosystem, they didn’t. They are making the ecosystem healthier,” says Werner. “What you are finding is that [SVOD providers are] willing to spend a certain amount of money to have those shows available on their platforms, and those shows satisfy their strategic needs in ways that don’t apply to broadcast or cable platforms.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.