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Networks burn through sitcoms

Apr 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

More than half the lead-out sitcoms on the broadcast networks are failing to retain a decent portion of their lead-in audience.
Add to that a weak midseason lineup, with the majority of new sitcoms failing to generate audiences, and it spells trouble for the networks next season as they look for new comedy springboards to take the place of aging sitcoms.
In his midseason report from Zenith Media Services, Roy Rothstein said, “Midseason is traditionally known as a period in which new shows are launched on the back of established hits in hopes of filling holes in the network schedules. [But] this year in particular, the midseason has been extremely disappointing.”
“More than half of the series that joined the schedule since January have been canceled, many without fulfilling their total midseason commitments,” wrote Mr. Rothstein, who is VP and director of national broadcast research for Zenith, a New York-based media buying company.
So far, there have been only a few glimmers of hope for midseason comedies:
* CBS’s “Baby Bob,” though getting a mixed reception from TV critics, has seen its 4.8 rating among adults 18 to 49 hold 98 percent of its 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. (ET) Monday lead-ins (4.9 rating).
* “George Lopez” (3.7 rating) has scored 97 percent retention coming out of repeats and original episodes of “My Wife and Kids” (3.8) in ABC’s opening 8 p.m. hour.
* Fox’s midseason entries “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” (4.0 rating) and “Greg the Bunny” (3.7), while showing some week-to-week erosion, have retained 87 percent and 97 percent, respectively, of their established lead-in’s adults 18 to 49 ratings.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about audience retention, especially when network researchers look at how these sitcoms perform relative to previous time-period averages, but there are a number of freshman comedies that failed on both counts. For example, ABC’s recent cancellation of “Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central),” a spoof of the TV network business, saw its 2.7 rating/7 share in adults 18 to 49 drop 25 percent (in just two telecasts) from its “Drew Carey” lead-in (3.6/9) and 16 percent from what “The Job” (3.2/8) had earned in the time slot this season.
Improved audience retention, though, isn’t the only factor in bringing back a series. By airing repeats of “Frasier” episodes at 8 p.m. Tuesday (averaging a 3.9 rating), midseason sitcom “Watching Ellie” (4.6 rating) was actually able to brag about a 18 percent improvement from its lead-in. But that still couldn’t mask the fact that “Ellie” suffered 51 percent ratings erosion in adults 18 to 49 over its first six episodes, dropping from a 7.1 rating for its Feb. 26 premiere to a 3.5 rating on April 9. After “Ellie’s” season finale on April 23, NBC still has plans to hold three original episodes of the show-possibly to make a return next fall.
And NBC is still struggling with its high-profile post-“Friends” slot. Midseason entry “Leap of Faith,” with 71 percent audience retention, is not doing much better than previous occupant “Inside Schwartz,” which held 68 percent of the “Friends” audience.
While they have continued to feed off a three-year cycle of increased audience demand for dramas, the networks have still been forced to place a premium on launching new sitcoms. As the studio source noted, the networks that have planted the most hit sitcom blocks in the 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. hours have typically won the season (NBC last season) or finished second in adults 18 to 49 (Fox last season).
NBC, with eight sitcoms currently on its schedule, has set the goal of having at least 10 sitcoms on its schedule next season. Fox currently has 10 sitcoms on its schedule but is said to be interested in adding at least a pair of comedies-largely depending on how it decides to tackle its transient Thursday lineup next fall.
With “Friends” entering its final season next fall, Fox could be tempted to move one or more established comedies, such as “Malcolm in the Middle,” to Thursday to challenge NBC for its younger adult demos after the 2002-03 season. Similarly, Fox could also choose to go after NBC’s mixed Tuesday schedule. And there is ongoing speculation that “Titus” will be moved back into the 8:30 p.m. Tuesday slot of tentpole “That ’70s Show,” where “Titus” had scored 88 percent retention of “That ’70s”’adults 18 to 49 demo ratings last season. A spokesman for Fox said it was too early to comment on scheduling moves for next season.
Of the 66 comedies in consideration for next season, ABC has 16 sitcoms pilots in production-the most of the six major broadcast networks, according to Mr. Rothstein. He said ABC could be the “most severely challenged” to plant new sitcoms, since it currently has only two “legitimate” launch pads in “My Wife and Kids” at 8 p.m. Wednesday and “The Drew Carey Show” at 9 p.m. that same night.
ABC executives have told ad buyers they plan to re-insert the network’s TGIF-branded sitcom lineup on Friday, which has led to speculation on whether “According to Jim” or “George Lopez” could hammock a pair of new sitcoms that evening.
CBS could be in the not altogether unenviable position of having to choose where to plant “Baby Bob” after this season, since its Monday comedy lineup is largely expected to remain intact next season. Still, some industry watchers are wondering if CBS could be tempted to move “Baby Bob” and another established player into its 8 p.m. hours either Wednesday or Friday, where the network has previously had trouble establishing a second night of comedy.
ABC’s abandonment of TGIF two years ago left an opening for The WB to get in the comedy game with “Reba,” which has become a 9 p.m. tentpole. However, finding a lead-out that works has been somewhat more problematic, since “Maybe It’s Me” dropped to 69 percent retention (compared with “Raising Dad’s” 81 percent retention). The Frog faces a similar dilemma with its Sunday lineup, where “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment” (1.2 rating in adults 18 to 34) and “Off Centre” (1.2 rating) are two moderately rated tentpoles that may come back next fall.
Nevertheless, the network source, who requested anonymity, said the networks and studios are under “incredible pressure” to keep the emphasis on launching new sitcom franchises in “constant recognition” of the lucrative back-end syndication revenues for such shows.