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Big 4 Seeking the Divine Comedy

Mar 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The long, arduous search for the next hit network sitcom is still on.

At the March network development meetings last week in Los Angeles, senior programming executives and sales staff rolled out the first glimpses of their 2005-06 development slates for advertisers and their buyers. Across all networks, the message couldn’t have been more clear: Despite years of failure and millions of dollars spent on unsuccessful development, the industry is still hunting for a breakout prime-time comedy.

Four networks-Fox, ABC, The WB and NBC-made presentations for ad buyers last week, while CBS and UPN are scheduled to make similar presentations this week in New York. Though NBC’s presentation was open to the press, the other three networks closed their meetings to the outside world. But conversations with some attendees gave a glimpse into what the networks have in mind for their audiences and, even more important to the bottom line, for their advertising clients.

“Everyone wants to address the fact that comedy has not had any traction in the last several years,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration for Initiative Media. “Even those networks that aren’t focusing predominantly on comedy are addressing the issue.”

Ms. Koerner said it is too soon to tell whether the networks are on to something funny this year, since most comedy pilots have not even finished the casting process yet, let alone completed production. But with so many people focused on creating a hit, something should eventually give.

“Whenever anyone is spending a lot of energy trying to investigate an idea from multiple angles, you’re bound to find something that works,” she said.

Both Fox and NBC spent time promoting comedies that are scheduled to launch this season. On Tuesday Fox showed a clip of “Stacked” and brought out star Pamela Anderson to promote the sitcom, which stars Ms. Anderson as a woman with a penchant for bad boys but works in a bookstore to meet a different class of men. On Thursday on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” set, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly showed clips of his network’s version of the BBC hit “The Office.” Mr. Reilly, sitting in host Jay Leno’s chair, chatted with “Office” series regular Steve Carell, who so got into the comedic spirit of things he unbuttoned his shirt twice to show the assembled ad sales community his recently shaved chest.

John Rash, senior VP of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, said the hunt for the new hit comedy goes beyond a single network securing a new series success.

“There is universal acknowledgement that the industry, let alone individual networks, are in need of a seminal sitcom in order to reverse their declining fortunes,” he said. “The degree of exploration is more advanced than it has been in previous years, which should be encouraging for audiences and advertisers.”

For The WB, which held its meeting last Wednesday afternoon on the Warner Bros. lot and had a cocktail reception afterward on the set of “Gilmore Girls,” the emphasis on comedies came in the form of creative auspices. The network not only had comedy pilot stars including Rebecca Romijn and Camryn Manheim come out and personally talk about their respective projects but also presented high-profile producers-“Will & Grace’s” Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, “Friends”‘ Marta Kauffman-who in the past wouldn’t necessarily have been considered WB material.

In addition, The WB showed extended footage from its reality-comedy hybrid “Nobody’s Watching.”

Fred Dubin, managing partner of entertainment marketing and promotions for Mediaedge:cia, was pleased to see so many established producers on board.

“The auspices they have working on their shows seem to be very, very strong,” he said of The WB. “They bring people with very good track records.”

For Fox, part of the message to advertisers was that the network is staying the course with its “52-week season” strategy, and will launch more new shows this summer.

“We think this works,” said Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox. “We had a couple of rough spots last year [fall 2004], but we have a better chance for success in the fall.”

Mr. Nesvig said this summer, which will not include Olympics coverage on rival NBC, makes it easier for the network to get some traction on its to-be-determined summer premieres.

“Now we’ll be able to premiere in August and September and hopefully get more scripted assets going after baseball,” he said.

Besides “Stacked,” Mr. Nesvig said the network showed footage from a number of drama pilots, including “Reunion,” which in one season will profile 20 years in the lives of six high school friends. Fox also had video interviews with pilot stars including Ashley Williams, who plays the title role in the drama “Amy Coyne.”

“We did a fair amount of production,” Mr. Nesvig said, pointing out that there was more than just a speech from the network’s Entertainment President Gail Berman. “If a lot of our best customers are going to pay their own dime to come out here, we should put on a show for them.”

For ABC, which presented Wednesday morning, a more low-key approach was pursued, with President of Sales and Marketing Mike Shaw in a Q&A on ABC’s development with the network’s Entertainment President Stephen McPherson. ABC showed clips from two upcoming reality series, which Mr. Rash said fit with the network’s existing “wish fulfillment reality brand.”

One of the reality series, “Miracles,” features a man with Tourette’s syndrome who was so racked with tics he was unable to hold his infant son. The show then sent the man a team of experts and therapists that revealed a new procedure that might help him. By the end of the segment the procedure is completed successfully and the man is no longer exhibiting the behavior.

The second series, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” pits five families against one another in a competition for a new home.