Monday, May 14, 2007

Make Me Laugh!

When I need to generate some endorphins, I turn to a rerun of a situation comedy. In today's New York Times, contributing writer David Blum tells us why the t.v. sit com will never die.

Sitcoms Are Dead! Long Live Sitcoms!
By DAVID BLUM
Published: May 14, 2007
NETWORK television isn’t dead.

I don’t care what you hear this week when the executives of CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the CW all come to town for “upfronts,” the presentations where they hawk their fall lineups to dubious advertisers. I don’t care what you read in articles about huge hit counts on YouTube or hot-selling “Sopranos” DVDs or the runaway success of cable shows like “The Closer” on TNT. I don’t care what you think when you watch ABC’s “According to Jim” — yes, that’s still on the air, and yes, millions of Americans recently tuned in for its very special 135th episode, “In Case of Jimergency.”

Network television simply cannot be allowed to die, and not just because that would bring a premature end to the career of Charlie Sheen. Its death would also force Hollywood producers to sell their golfing castles in Scotland, fly business class and order the 2002 Ch√Ęteau Ducru-Beaucaillou instead of the 1995. So let’s not even go there.

Fortunately, network television has a fail-safe option: the situation comedy.
Admittedly, it’s not an obvious solution. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the five networks together have plans to buy as few as five new half-hour comedies to help fill almost 100 hours of prime time each week. That makes the sitcom seem like a long-shot method for a troubled industry to save itself.

But unlike serial dramas like “Lost” and “24,” sitcoms can be repeated again and again, with lots of high-priced commercials, and in no particular order. When producers’ prayers get properly answered, these half-hour shows are then sold for millions of dollars into “off-network syndication,” the magic term to describe television’s 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. time slots. It’s the backbone of local programming, a means for affiliates in, say, Cleveland and Miami to sell advertising and guarantee viewers without breaking a sweat.

At its peak in the mid-‘90s, “Seinfeld” earned NBC $200 million in profit each year, and went on to make more than $1 billion in syndication revenues. Which pays the bills for every network television flop you’ve ever seen, not to mention the cost of maintaining Jerry Seinfeld’s parking garage.

With such huge potential revenue streams, sitcoms remain a viable business plan — as long as the factories keep new high-quality models coming off the assembly line. And so the networks create dozens of sitcom pilots each year, and from them emerge the occasional mega-hit half-hours like “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” — those successes that help justify and finance the networks’ continued existence.

Forget all the endless talk about the death of sitcoms: a recent study showed that the average American television-watching household increased its comedy-watching to four and a half hours a week this season, up from less than four hours in the 1993-4 television season.

The only trouble is that viewers are still mostly watching reruns of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” Instead of producing much-needed new hits, the networks have littered the landscape with money-losing duds like “Courting Alex” and “Emily’s Reasons Why Not.” Anyone hear of “Help Me Help You”? It made its debut last fall on ABC, and will next appear as a write-off on the network’s balance sheet.

But despite the long years since “Friends” and “Raymond” and “Will & Grace,” the networks still do this one thing better than anyone else; for some reason, the cable channels haven’t figured out how to consistently duplicate the formula. Or maybe they don’t want to waste the many millions it costs the networks to develop all the shows that don’t dent the Nielsen Top 10 — or 50 — and die before producing a return on the investment.

HBO may have stumbled onto a syndication hit with “Sex and the City” and will soon have another in “Entourage,” but its occasional other efforts haven’t worked at all; don’t wait up for reruns of “Lucky Louie” or “The Comeback” at 11 p.m. Remember FX’s “Starved”? I didn’t think so.

Going forward, the real problem for the networks will be finding fresh ideas for comedies from the junk heap of pitches and pilots. Even a good “Friends” episode starts to wear thin after the 50th viewing, I happen to know. It speaks to the scarcity of next-big-things that ABC actually produced a pilot based on a handful of 30-second Geico “Cavemen” commercials, despite the lack of a coherent narrative, recognizable stars or even a logical concept.

That “Cavemen” has a good chance to get picked up reflects just how little inspiration drives the network development process. This year’s pilots also include CBS’s “Up All Night,” set in a 24-hour diner (think “Cheers”), NBC’s “I’m With Stupid,” set in a mismatched apartment share (think “The Odd Couple”), and ABC’s “Carpoolers,” set in the world of carpooling (think of changing the channel). Television comedy ruthlessly feeds on its own rich past, finding stale ways to repeat clever premises, fantasizing about the possibility of a windfall.

But even if the ideas aren’t innovative or original, the rewards will register if it works. “The King of Queens” has sold into syndication, and so has “Two and a Half Men.” It’s remarkable that after a half-century, the network sitcom has yet to progress very far beyond the basic lovable-losers blueprint of “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy,” but maybe that’s part of the reason network sitcoms remain necessary. They fulfill our need for group experience — all of us laughing along with a studio audience at the comforting cadence of sitcom humor.

That’s why this fall’s network schedules will try again to capitalize on the half-hour format, and will for years, maybe decades to come. They may be endangered species, but networks and sitcoms still feed off each other; as long as comedy writers can squeeze a chuckle out of a rim shot, the networks will survive.

David Blum is the critic at large of The New York Sun.

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