Comedies Face New Realities

Aug 30, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In a world where network audiences are eroding and the once golden sitcom has become more of a scheduling liability than a programming asset, it may be no surprise that broadcast networks are paring down the lengths of shows to accommodate more ads and promos.

Twenty years ago, sitcoms ran as long as 25 minutes. Today most sitcoms run between 20 and 22 minutes.

But in an atmosphere where reality is considered king and comedy is on the decline, shorter running times for sitcoms accelerate the descent of the traditional network television half-hour, said Jeff Astrof, an executive producer on The WB’s family comedy “Grounded for Life” and one of the sitcom’s showrunners.

“It is one of the reasons sitcoms are suffering,” Mr. Astrof told TelevisionWeek. “Ironically, they are trying to squeeze more commercial time from them and giving us less time to tell a story.”

“Grounded” has been on the air for four years and gets solid but hardly eye-popping ratings. Last year it was the second-highest-rated comedy on The WB among adults 18 to 34 and ranked 110th of 132 prime-time shows in the demo. This season’s third episode of the Carsey-Werner-Mandabach-produced “Grounded” ran 20 minutes, 33 seconds.

“Networks are asking viewers to watch 10 minutes of commercials every half-hour,” Mr. Astrof’s “Grounded” partner Mike Sikowitz said. “There are more and more options where you don’t have to do that.”

How quickly things have changed.

Mr. Astrof and Mr. Sikowitz began their careers when comedies were the networks’ hottest commodities. After a stint on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” and two seasons on “Friends,” the pair developed pilots at DreamWorks before getting a deal at Warner Bros., where they ran “Veronica’s Closet” and shot a pilot. This led to the pair’s writing for NBC’s “The In-Laws” before joining the staff of “Grounded.” This season the pair took over showrunning responsibilities.

“When we started in the business 12 years ago, you got a chance to choose what show to be on,” Mr. Astrof said. “We’re definitely grateful to be working. Unfortunately, the reaction we get from people about the show is, `We’ve never heard of it,’ or, `I’m sorry it got canceled.”‘

Those reactions are understandable. “Grounded,” the story of young working-class parents (Donal Logue and Megyn Price) with a teenage daughter and two sons, debuted in February 2001 on Fox as a single-camera hybrid. Called “hysterical” by The New York Times, the show ran 15 of its initial 20 episodes during its first season, while five were held over. “Grounded” got a 17-episode order in its second season.

In the third season things got rocky. Running for three episodes from September to December before moving to The WB in February, the show became less serialized and was forced to reshoot to ease the transition between networks. It wasn’t until last season-its fourth-that “Grounded for Life” launched in the fall and had an entire 22-episode run.

For 2004-05 “Grounded” has a 13-episode order, but its license fees have been cut by a third. This means no studio audience, and a smaller writing staff.

“If we get a back nine we get to 100 [episodes],” Mr. Astrof said of how close the show is to being eligible for a syndication run.

Chris Sanagustin, senior VP, current programming, at The WB, said because the direction and voice of “Grounded” is so clear, it can survive financial challenges and a short running time.

“I don’t really worry about them accomplishing good storytelling,” she said. “The actors and the writers, they know these characters so well.”

But Ms. Sanagustin faces her own challenges as the chief promoter for the show at The WB.

“It’s not just about what the competition is on the network, it’s about the schedule at large,” she said. “It’s also about finding stories and things that are promotable for us, not just for ‘Grounded’ but for other shows. We’re all fighting for eyeballs and [trying to give] something to our promo department.”

The duo said Ms. Sanagustin is an advocate for the show who stays out of the writers’ way, an attribute that makes her and her network rare. The pair are used to heavy network intervention from their pilot days. “You can get notes from a dozen people,” Mr. Sikowitz said, explaining that the proliferation of studio co-productions and network involvement makes producing something fresh very tough.

CWM co-founder Tom Werner said he has seen comedies face tough times before, specifically right before his company came out with “The Cosby Show” in 1984. Mr. Werner, who said he looks at reality shows like “The Simple Life” as comedies, explained that the family comedy has been well mined in television, making it harder to come up with something unique.

“Everybody is trying to do something original because there is no point in doing the fourth version of `Everybody Loves Raymond,”‘ Mr. Werner said. “But we all know the real estate is scarce, and there’s the real challenge. But people still want to laugh. I think it would be folly for a network to abandon their desire to have a schedule of shows that are comedic.”

Mr. Sikowitz, who will be looking for a new job next year if “Grounded” doesn’t get picked up for a sixth season, agrees with Mr. Werner.

“I have to be optimistic or I’d huddle up in a ball and cry,” he said.