Nets on Quest for Next Hit Comedy

Apr 11, 2005  •  Post A Comment

With the Big 4 broadcast networks in a tight race for the season’s top ratings spot, a new report found the search for the next comedy hit is still a key concern for broadcasters, along with the need to be more creative in terms of scheduling.

Last week the Hollywood-based development tracking firm TVTracker.com released its inaugural Fall Season Report, which profiles the corporate history of each of the major networks, covers what worked last season, discusses how the 2004-05 season is playing out and explores network prospects for next season.

While the report also includes United Kingdom-based C21 Media’s profiles of four foreign territories, TVTracker.com’s focus is purely domestic.

Carolyn Finger, VP of TVTracker.com and the author of the U.S. segment of the report, said that despite years of failure, the networks remain committed to finding that elusive sitcom success story that will revive the genre.

“People thought the networks were going to give up on sitcoms, and the opposite is really true,” she said, noting that more ethically nuanced characters and less traditional set-ups can be found in the 2005-06 development slates.

In addition, networks are turning to more established talent as opposed to relying on unknowns when it comes to casting comedy pilots. Ms. Finger said networks are looking at comedy less as a “medium of creating stars” and more as a place for “talent that already has an established face.”

Though all the networks are on the sitcom hunt, Ms. Finger said NBC in particular “will try to make a strong statement in comedy.”

While NBC has had recent success with “Medium” and “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” she said, the network has “really had trouble growing comedies.”

“Look at `Scrubs,”‘ Ms. Finger added. “It has never become what they really wanted it to be.”

Even the current No. 1 network in adults 18 to 49, Fox, has development challenges, Ms. Finger said.

“They have been cognizant of the fact that `American Idol’ has done a lot of heavy lifting, but there really needs to be new focus on scripted shows,” she said. “They have been a nonentity in the fall.”

Though Ms. Finger said she didn’t see a “unified storytelling theme” in terms of creative choices, she did note a difference in the way networks project a show’s business viability.

“There was a time when it used to be a network looked at a pilot and asked how story arcs could be played over 100 episodes,” she said. “Now it feels like people look at a pilot and think how long can they sustain the business model under which it was produced.”

That is particularly true of reality programming, where Ms. Finger sees a continuing shift for next season.

“There is a trend moving away from mean-spiritedness,” she said. “`Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ is where things are moving. The line between prime-time and daytime reality is becoming a little more blurry.”

Ms. Finger also said the networks’ competitive nature is apparent in terms of scheduling, with broadcasters capitalizing on time periods in ways that wouldn’t have been considered just a few years ago.

“It seems as if every week there is a new schedule,” she said. “All the networks have gotten very particular on how to schedule shows.”

She pointed to ABC’s recent successful launch of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is pre-empting the rookie drama “Boston Legal” in the highly desirable post-“Desperate Housewives” time slot.

“They are more flexible with a time period like 10 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, and using it as needed,” she said of ABC.