Fall schedule may stock off-net sitcom pipeline

Aug 26, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The pipeline for top-tier off-network sitcoms has been somewhat dry for the past few years, but help from Hollywood studios could be on the way.
Broader family sitcoms that usually sell well in syndication are making a comeback on the broadcast networks’ fall schedules-especially at ABC, which is programming a family hour every night, and Fox, which will air six sitcoms on Sunday night.
Best positioned to exploit the pent-up market demand for broader sitcoms is 20th Century Fox Television, which counts over a half-dozen family-oriented sitcoms out of its roster of 14 comedy series set for the networks’ 2002-03 prime-time schedules. Following 20th is Disney-owned Touchstone’s slate of seven comedies, Paramount’s six sitcoms and Warner Bros.’ five laughers.
“My guess is that it might have been considered unfashionable at the networks to develop family sitcoms for a few years, but the genre seems to have bounced back a bit in the last three years,” said Brad Johnson, 20th Century Fox Television’s senior VP of comedy development. “That could bode well for us in the back-end syndication market, where multigenerational family sitcoms like `The Simpsons’ and `The Cosby Show’ have evergreen appeal.”
While 20th produces the majority of its in-house Fox network sitcoms, the studio also produces for other networks such sitcoms as “Yes, Dear” (in its third season) and rookie “Still Standing” for CBS and “Reba” (in its second season) for The WB.
“When I was asked to oversee the studio and the network, I made it very clear that 20th Century Fox TV would continue to service all six broadcast networks,” said Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group. “We’ve made good on our promise, largely because [20th co-Presidents] Gary [Newman] and Dana [Walden] and their team have continued to embrace the needs of all the networks by developing quality programming from great writers.”
Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group, said the ongoing syndication success of “The Simpsons” and the A-tier draw of “Malcolm in the Middle” will give Twentieth Television “strong companion, set pieces” to sell its other future off-network entries.
“Certainly, 20th has the most extensive future pipeline, but its success will also depend in some part on using shows like `The Simpsons’ and `Malcolm’ as springboards to platform the other future sitcoms,” Mr. Carroll said. “In essence, they are creating shows for the Fox network, thus bringing in shows with the same young male and female adult sensibilities as their affiliate body. It’s the same kind of duality that has made `The Simpsons’ such a long-standing valuable asset for both the network and Fox affiliates in syndication.”
Mr. Carroll said that Buena Vista Television’s future flow of off-network sitcoms could get a big boost if ABC’s “Happy Hour” scheduling strategy pans out this fall. The network will air family-friendly fare, including numerous family sitcoms, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. five days a week. In addition to “According to Jim” returning for a second season, Touchstone has planted the John Ritter-led “8 Simple Rules” and Bonnie Hunt’s “Life With Bonnie” in the “Happy Hour” time slots.
“Even though the networks have been ordering more reality series and dramas, what ABC is doing five nights a week is going to open up time slots to 10 comedies that will potentially make their way to the syndication marketplace,” Mr. Carroll said. “Everything is cyclical when it comes to family comedies, but these sorts of additional opportunities give ABC and Disney greater chances at reaching profitability in the after-markets. But with ABC being in [a] lower competitive baseline position [to the other broadcast networks], there are still a lot of ifs when it comes to these sitcoms sticking on the schedules long enough for syndication entries in fall 2006 or 2007.”
Dedicated comedy nights on UPN and CBS are also beginning to play a major hand in feeding the off-network pipeline with strong all-family sitcoms, such as King World’s currently top-ranked “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Columbia TriStar Domestic Television has “King of Queens” sold in 76 percent of the United States and it is considered an A-list off-network sitcom for fall 2003.
Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for station rep Blair Television, said that UPN’s block of Monday urban comedies has become more entrenched in the ratings, presenting Paramount with potentially strong future off-network sales opportunities for “The Parkers” and “Girlfriends.”
“I would bet the stations in the major urban markets are licking their chops for something like that,” Ms. Losak said.
John Nogawski, president of Paramount Domestic Television, said Paramount is feeling out the market and is considering pushing “The Parkers” up one year for a potential launch in fall 2003, but it may still go out in fall 2004.
“We really see `The Parkers’ having a similar kind of young audience reach like `Malcolm in the Middle,’ but probably having better urban reach in a lot of markets,” Mr. Nogawski said. “I’m really looking forward to selling a show that does great on UPN but also has the possibility to really spread its wings on a wide base of stations” of other affiliate stripes.