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Laughs Untracked

This year's network upfront presentations sometimes resembled an episode of Cold Case. The victim: the half-hour sitcom. Just looking at the cold, hard facts can be chilling for station programmers and syndicators.

A new research report lays out the gory details—gloomy enough that the studio behind the report requested to go unnamed. The study points out that the Big Four broadcast networks as a group introduced nine top-tier sitcoms in the 1970s and 1980s, only five in the 1990s and, strikingly, none by the midpoint of this decade.

Since 2000, the broadcast networks have collectively rolled out 228 comedies. While the report fails to mention it, only one of those, Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men, now stands a chance to be a breakout success based on its network-ratings performance. That has left only “B” and “C” sitcom product available to stations and cable; these sitcoms get “little to no license fees and inferior time periods that ultimately hurt barter,” according to the report.

So stations have been forced to pay top dollar for renewals of the four aging top off-network sitcoms: Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons and Seinfeld. The fab four have occupied the top tier for the past four years and have been hit the hardest by ratings erosion in local markets.

Complicating the unfunny matters, over the past decade, networks have sacrificed sitcoms more than any other program genre to make room for a rising number of reality shows. As non-scripted fare climbed from a handful, network sitcoms collapsed from a high of 87 in 1997 to 36 in 2004. That rises slightly to 40 next season, because Fox has a dozen sitcoms on its schedule.

With fewer off-net sitcoms available to stations (three this past season, four in 2005-06) and those now airing getting lower ratings, interest in new product has decreased. That forces syndicators to stall sales or enter into concurrent cable deals to make up the lost fees.

Help could be on the way with Men, however. Warner Bros. is betting big that the comedy will prove its manliness this fall at 9 p.m. without lead-in help it once got from Raymond. That would qualify it as an “A”-list sitcom that can generate billions in its syndication and DVD afterlife. The studio wouldn't likely launch it off-net prior to 2007-08.

On May 23, CBS aired a new episode of Men in the old 9 p.m. Raymond slot and a repeat episode a half-hour later, in its old time slot. The rerun at 9:30 did better than the original at 9, but the sitcoms ruled the hour with 14.6 million viewers. So Men may have nice legs.