In Depth

Is Comedy Better on Broadcast Than Cable?

Supporting Actor Contest May Offer Answer

“Broadcast still owns comedy,” said Jill Rosengard Hill, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “People love Jon Cryer [on CBS’ ‘Two and a Half Men’] and Neil Patrick Harris [CBS’ ‘How I Met Your Mother’].”

Not everybody agrees with Ms. Rosengard Hill. Horizon Media Senior VP Brad Adgate is leaning toward Jeremy Piven in HBO’s “Entourage,” and the fact that he plays a role in a pay cable show is part of why he thinks Mr. Piven has a good chance to win.

“It’s not a level playing field,” said Mr. Adgate. “He can get away with a lot more and not worry about FCC and advertiser backlash. It’s harder to find a break-through comedy in broadcast TV. They can only go so far.”

Katz TV Group VP Bill Carroll agreed with Mr. Adgate, saying broadcast comedy shows have an uphill battle. “I think when you’re in an ensemble show like ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ that becomes more difficult,” he said. “And they always underrate the pure, traditional sitcom like ‘Two and a Half Men.’”

Mr. Cryer noted many people assume the broadcast sitcom is “glib,” but “Two and a Half Men” doesn’t fall into that category. “Clearly our writers are coming from a place with nuance,” he said. “We have to be a little bit more coy [than cable], but sometimes some limits are good. I think any artist finds it’s the limits that force you to be creative. And people don’t seem to notice we’re not on cable. Although we don’t use bad words, our show has some tremendous sexual content. But because we don’t curse, we get a pass, which is just the way I like it.”

“What people don’t realize is that the writers set out to do a show about divorce and fractured families,” he added. “It’s not ‘The Odd Couple.’ People don’t readily perceive the layers.”

Although many critics are rooting for Mr. Piven, based on the continued popularity of “Entourage” and its HBO pedigree, Ari Gold has competition this year—and from a broadcast comedy. “Rainn Wilson could be the surprise winner,” said Ms. Rosengard Hill. “He’s not as universally known, but his character is beloved. Whereas you don’t really necessarily like Ari Gold from ‘Entourage’ but you embrace Piven’s approach and stinging portrayal.”

Ms. Rosengard Hill is not alone in her belief that Mr. Wilson may walk away with the Emmy for his work on NBC’s “The Office.” Mr. Adgate admitted he’s “torn between Rainn Wilson and Jeremy Piven.”

“Both are really such well-written shows,” he said. “They really resonate. ‘The Office’ is a very funny show and Rainn Wilson is really funny.”

Mr. Carroll agreed. “They’re going to reward the break-through show, which is ‘The Office,’” he said. “This may be the year for Rainn Wilson.”