In Depth

CBS Sitcoms Thrive, Fueling Studios, Syndie

Blockbuster comedies such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld” left prime time years ago, but Must-See TV is alive and well. It just moved to CBS.

While many in the industry have been wringing their hands (and flapping their jaws) about the supposed death of the sitcom, the network that introduced Americans to half-hour comedy through “I Love Lucy” has once again asserted its dominance over the genre. From both a cultural and commercial perspective, no other network—including former comedy champ NBC—comes close in the genre to matching CBS’s Monday night lineup of laughs.

“The ‘C’ in CBS stands not just for crime but comedy now,” CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler told TelevisionWeek recently during an interview at her office in Studio City, Calif.
There’s data to suggest that CBS’s mastery of the sitcom has begun to rival its signature success with blood-soaked procedural dramas.

It’s an important achievement, both for CBS and for the TV industry as a whole.

Virtuous Cycle

CBS, of course, benefits from having hit shows in a genre that advertisers of all stripes covet.

“Comedies on CBS have always commanded a premium,” said Jo Ann Ross, head of sales for the network. “Clients love them. Every category that advertises goes into our Monday night. I can’t think of anyone who stays away from comedy.”

The network’s parent, CBS Corp., could use a boost at its television unit, which posted declines in revenue and operating profit in 2008. And all of TV, from studios to station groups, stands to benefit from CBS’s successful resurrection of the sitcom.

That’s because the business of broadcasting relies on profits from off-network syndication of shows recouping the millions of dollars lost to a system where 80% of new programs fail. Historically, comedies have been the genre best able to generate that backend revenue.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the king of comedy was unquestionably NBC, where successes such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Will & Grace” ended up earning literally billions in profit for studios, networks and stations that aired reruns.

These days, network TV’s comedy engine is becoming CBS:

-The network boasts TV’s No. 1 comedy, the six-year-old “Two and a Half Men.” The Chuck Lorre-created series dominates in both overall audience (15.12 million viewers on average) and adults 18-49 (5.1 rating). Impressively, it’s experiencing double-digit ratings growth this season—something almost unheard of for a show this far along in its life cycle.

-CBS has four of the five most-watched live-action comedies, with “How I Met Your Mother” and “Big Bang Theory” ranking No. 3 and No. 5 among all network half-hours. Among adults 18-49, the network has five of the top 10 half-hours, with “HIMYM” and “Big Bang Theory” both outdrawing NBC’s much-touted “30 Rock.”

-While there’s been endless talk about audience erosion this season—everything from “American Idol” to “CSI” is down—the CBS Monday comedy block is defying gravity. It has gained 14% in overall viewership and its adults 18-49 numbers have increased by 11%.

-Contributing to the network’s rise has been the growth of its Monday 8-9 p.m. half-hours. “Big Bang” has boosted viewership 21% in its sophomore season, while “HIMYM” is up 33% in season four.

-To the surprise of many industry doubters, CBS’s move to launch a new hourlong comedy block on Wednesdays this fall didn’t flop—and has actually yielded modest ratings gains for the network. “The New Adventures of Old Christine” has boosted the network’s 8 p.m. Wednesday ratings by 12% in viewers, while newcomer “Gary Unmarried” is up 5%.

Just Like Lucy

What these stats translate into is this: CBS, almost single-handedly, is keeping the off-network comedy pipeline supplied with fresh product.

Warner Bros. TV’s “Men” is one of the biggest half-hours to hit syndication in years, and many executives expect it to get renewed for three more seasons. Meanwhile, Twentieth Television’s “HIMYM” will fetch an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million per episode when it hits the off-net market this fall.

With CBS also deep in conversations about a two-year pickup for Warner Bros.’ “Big Bang,” that show now seems assured of a syndication payday by 2012. And, assuming the studio’s “Old Christine” gets renewed for one more season—a pretty good bet—it will hit syndication soon as well.

So why has CBS succeeded with comedy at a time when so many of its peers have struggled?

Industry insiders suggest it’s because of the same principles that have guided the operation of the network throughout the Leslie Moonves era: stability, balance, populism and a stubborn refusal to hop on bandwagons.

CBS executives, however, say it’s hard to pinpoint a specific formula beyond simply “make funny shows.”

“We don’t approach our development [saying], ‘Let’s do this kind of show or that kind of show,’” said Wendi Trilling, who has overseen comedy development for CBS since 2000. “We really approach it from ... which scripts work the best, and then which pilots are the best.”

So while most of its rivals have spent the past decade focusing their energies on indulging the creative whims of writers in love with the notion of comedies that resemble feature films—so-called single-camera half-hours—CBS has kept pumping out sitcoms that are filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Just like Lucy did it.

CBS comedies are designed to appeal to a very broad audience, Ms. Trilling said. “For them to work on our air, they have to reach a big audience. It’s not enough to just be quirky and Emmy-bait.”

Indeed, CBS struck out this season with “Worst Week,” a serialized single-camera half-hour that drew positive reviews but lackluster ratings. Its failure may help explain why the network is developing exactly zero single-camera half-hours this spring.

“If a show can work as a multicamera show, we’d rather do it that way,” Ms. Trilling said. “As we do fewer pilots, we want to make fewer risky decisions, and it does feel less risky for us.”

Critics sometimes accuse CBS comedies of being too traditional, but Ms. Tassler argues the network isn’t looking to simply serve up the familiar. Otherwise, it probably would have never attempted “Worst Week” or the much more successful (yet still plenty quirky) “HIMYM.”

“There’s got to be something relatable [in a show],” Ms. Tassler said. “In every one of [our] shows—from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ to ‘Two and a Half Men” to ‘Old Christine’—there’s something in there that people could say, ‘OK, I get that, I understand it,’ or, ‘That’s like my life,’ or, ‘That’s like someone I know.’”

Chuck Lorre, the man behind “Two and a Half Men” and “Big Bang,” suggests that CBS has made comedy work in part by trusting creators such as himself to do their jobs.

“They also seem to have a corporate mentality that I love, which is, if it ain’t broke, they leave you alone,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for executives [in Hollywood] to want to pee on every tree and say, ‘This is my turf.’ CBS’s attitude is … we don’t have to put our thumbprint on every page.’”

Writers and their representatives consistently cite creative interference from network executives as a chief reason for the dearth of comedy hits at the networks.

Revival

Ms. Tassler said CBS tries to be very blunt about its desires—but gives showrunners the space they need to execute their vision.

“I think that so many times we hear from [writers who have worked at] other places that they get mixed messages, they’re not being given clear direction, they’re getting confusing signals,” Ms. Tassler said. “I think that here, we try to create the right atmosphere. You have to create the environment so that writers can do their best work.”

Ms. Trilling added that she has heard stories of “people in my job sort of pitching really detailed fixes to material, or dictating to the writers what to do. That’s something I wouldn’t do. ... I feel it’s our job to react to the writer’s work and give them the benefit of our experience, of what it takes to get a show on the air at CBS, but not try to do their job for them.”

CBS’s continued ability to develop successful new comedies, and its foray into Wednesdays this fall, has helped contribute to a noticeable thawing in the comedy deep freeze that has plagued Hollywood for several years now.

ABC, which lately has been unable to match its stunning success in serialized dramas with a similar triumph in the sitcom genre, is moving forward with nearly a dozen comedy pilots this spring. Fox recently struck a deal to keep Sony’s “’Til Death” alive for another season (ensuring a syndication future) and is working on a number of promising live-action projects.

Ms. Trilling and Ms. Tassler don’t take credit for what’s going on at rival networks. But they do agree that their network’s comedy resurgence is starting to have a positive impact on the rest of Hollywood.

“I think when writers felt like, ‘There’s nowhere for my show to go on television, there’s no chance for a new show to succeed,’ it was sort of this sad, depressed state,” Ms. Trilling said. “But I do think as they see new shows go on, a new night open ... they are very excited and very happy about what we’re doing. They thank us for keeping comedy alive.”

Ms. Tassler added that her network’s comedy success creates a residual effect.

“It stimulates the entire community,” she said.