In Depth

Adalian Column: Networks Could Use Some Laughs

Now that the U.S. government has gotten into the bailout business in a big way, is it too much to ask that Congress next consider legislation to shore up the small screen’s sorry sitcom industry?

'How I Met your Mother'

PACKING A PUNCH Syndication sales of the Twentieth Television sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” could generate more than $300 million.

OK, as the sentence above suggests, my joke-writing ability clearly poses no danger to Chuck Lorre, Tina Fey or any of the dozen-odd souls still struggling to salvage what’s left of Lucy’s legacy. Likewise, since roughly 700 billion stories have been written in recent years declaring the Death of the Sitcom, devoting 800 more words to TV’s comedy crisis doesn’t exactly place me on the cutting edge of media punditry.

And yet, despite the fact that the networks are well aware of their comedy problem, the folks in power continue to ignore it. How else to explain the fact that, during premiere week last month, the Big Five aired a combined total of just 14 half-hours of comedy—six of them on CBS?

For years now, networks have explained away the comedy crisis by falling back on that old saw that TV “is a cyclical business.” Sitcoms would bounce back, they reasoned, just as soon as viewers tired of procedural dramas or reality shows.

Hasn’t happened. Even John McCain wouldn’t try to call the fundamentals of this sitcom economy strong. We’re in the middle of a comedic Great Depression, and the networks need to adopt a New Deal-style program to get the genre back on its feet.

The need for action has nothing to do with nostalgia for sitcom-friendlier times. I lived through NBC’s year of 18-comedies-per-week, and trust me, the world is a better place without the likes of “Union Square” or “Built to Last.”

What should be driving networks to act is money.

Just a few weeks ago, word leaked out that Twentieth Television could generate more than $300 million by selling “How I Met Your Mother” into syndication. That’s a huge number for a show that’s spent much of its existence on the bubble between cancellation and renewal each spring, and it proves that even a moderately successful multicamera half-hour can still end up a cash machine.

While the Big Five don’t always have a back-end stake in the sitcoms they program—CBS will get nothing from Twentieth’s sale of “HIMYM”—they all have sister studios who benefit from a healthy off-network marketplace. Likewise, though serialized dramas and reality shows might be great for boosting prime-time ratings, most are relatively worthless as long-term profit engines, at least compared to a successful sitcom.

But there’s another reason networks need to act quickly to save the laughter.

As recently as a decade ago, viewers still turned to network TV first when they wanted news, sports or programming for their kids. Now, cable dominates all three genres.

There’s already evidence the wired world is eyeing the sitcom for its next land grab. TBS has done nicely with “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and just began production on a possible new half-hour starring sitcom icon Valerie Bertinelli. FX has stuck by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” recently ordering 39 more episodes of the young-adult hit. Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program” is a buzz magnet.

One senior network executive I talked to last week agreed that network comedy was close to a tipping point.

“The problem is, once you slip below critical mass on something, it’s hard to get back up again,” he said. “It’s hard to just put a new comedy on the air and get people to come. You can do a pretty disastrous number.”

At least one network, CBS, is trying. In addition to fully supporting a four-comedy block on Mondays, the network this fall added two more half-hours on Wednesday. Early Nielsen numbers aren’t pretty, but they’re not horrendous, either.

What all the networks need to do now is plunge back into comedy with an almost reckless abandon.

Try everything, from blue-collar vehicles (remember poor people?) to “Sunny in Philadelphia”-style slacker shows. Hire everyone, from sitcom veterans to YouTube neophytes who’ve never stepped foot on a Hollywood soundstage. Find new economic models to make sitcoms less expensive. There’s no reason it should cost $1.7 million to produce 20 minutes of network-quality laughs.

And yes, executives need to be patient.

From “Cheers” to “Seinfeld,” from “How I Met Your Mother” to “The Office,” most recent sitcom hits have taken time to grow. No sitcom should even be greenlit unless a network is willing to take the time to nurture it. It might even make sense to start duplicating the cable model of producing numerous episodes of a show well in advance of its premiere date, allowing plenty of time for all involved to get it right.

Whatever network brass do, they need to do something. Because unlike the 1980s, Bill Cosby isn’t going to come waltzing in wearing a multicolored sweater and single-handedly save the sitcom.