In Search of the Comedy Cure

Each of the Big Four broadcasters only renewed one new comedy from the 2013-14 television season. That might look like a bumper crop once 2014-15 has ended.

So far, only one new comedy, ABC’s Black-ish, has established itself. It has averaged a 2.7 liveplus- same-day Nielsen rating among adults 18-49 through Nov. 9—59% more than the next-highest-rated new comedy, NBC’s Marry Me. ABC has already canceled two of its other new comedies, Manhattan Love Story and Selfie, and its fourth, Friday-night family friendly Cristela, is averaging a wan 1.1.

NBC made a tentative commitment to Marry Me, ordering an additional eight episodes, short of a full season order, and has pulled the plug on its other two freshman fall comedies, Bad Judge and A to Z.

CBS’ lone new comedy, The McCarthys averaged a 1.6 over its first 2 episodes—far weaker than the other shows in its Thursday-night comedy block. Fox’s Mulaney had its order cut from 16 episodes to 13, and with a 0.9 is the lowest-rated freshman show still on television.

Broadcasters’ struggles were evident at upfronts in May, where three of the Big Four— ABC being the exception—ordered fewer comedies than they did a year earlier. But the genre remains vital to the television ecosystem.

“Comedies are important because of the money they can make in the off-net market,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at HorizonMedia. “The Big Bang Theory will make Warner Bros. TV billions of dollars. These shows, similar to Seinfeld or I Love Lucy, have a powerful shelf life and are watched over and over again.”

But they are not, save a few outliers such as Black-ish, being watched on current broadcast TV in the same frequency as their genre opposites. Of the top 10 new shows on broadcast this fall, only one (Black-ish, again) is a comedy. The other nine are hour-long dramas.

Tangled Web

Adgate says that viewers are increasingly looking to the Internet and digital platforms for their comedy fix. Mike Royce offers a similar perspective. Royce was executive producer of Enlisted, a comedy from last season that was canceled despite significant critical praise.

“Comedies are the lowest rung of ‘I’ve gotta watch this right now,’” Royce says. “The appetite for comedy is still totally there, once you’ve gathered four seasons for somebody to sit down and watch in a weekend.”

Royce and his Enlisted partner Kevin Biegelare developing an adaptation of the 1988 film Big for Fox. The series, he says, is modeled, “along the lines of American Horror Story or Fargo or True Detective,” with a new story and a new, recognizable star every season. With the massive amount of programming available not only on broadcast and cable, but also the Web and over-the-top digital services, networks, he says, are looking to this development season for ways to stand out.

“You can tell from the amazing amount of things [in development] based on movies that they’re trying to break through the clutter with something that people know,” Royce says of the broadcast networks. He likens the current development landscape to the feature film world and its passion for sequels. “When you say you’re doing an adaptation of Big into a series, people know what that is and hopefully they’ll check it out. That applies to so many other things that have been launched into development this year.”

Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and cocreator of Cougar Town and Spin City, is producing a series for CBS based on the action comedy film Rush Hour. Lawrence says his company is placing an emphasis on developing multi-camera comedies, a format he sees increased appetite for among broadcasters.

“I love the idea of trying to pop a multicamera on a network,” he says. “It does feel like people are going, ‘Hey, is this something, on our brand, that we can make work for us?’”

While Royce says comedies will swing back into fashion, he expects the television landscape to have changed by then.

“The idea that it’s part of life that some comedy is going to come along and take over the world, I don’t think that’s true of any genre,” he says.