Season Preview: Fallow Year Foreseen for Off-Net Comedy

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Carrie Bradshaw and Eric Cartman will finally make it to broadcast this fall, but the new cable kids on the block aren’t likely to goose the overall off-network comedy game anytime soon.

For several seasons now stations and syndicators have bemoaned the lack of big, new hit off-network sitcoms to drive the access and late-fringe comedy blocks that many local stations across the country depend on to attract young viewers. While longtime genre leaders such as “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” continue to lead off-net ratings, no shows are poised to replace them once they start to run their course with viewers.

With the lack of a true breakout comedy hit in the past several years from the broadcasters, two of the more high-profile syndicated half-hours available this fall are off-cable offerings: Telepictures’ “Sex and the City” from HBO and Debmar/Mercury’s “South Park” from Comedy Central.

Both have the appeal of being fresh to many potential viewers who have not seen the shows on cable, but neither is expected to fill the shoes of the likes of “Friends,” “Raymond” or even “Seinfeld,” which has been out of production since 1998. “There are no new comedies that are blue-chip,” said John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television.

To help fill in those comedy slots in stations’ schedules, Sony is offering a barter-only deal this fall for its mid-1990s sitcoms “Mad About You” and “The Nanny” as a block.

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group, said that in the right time periods, the foul-mouthed animated “South Park” could find a sizable audience. He called it his “dark horse” for the year.

“A show that has a large younger male audience, and has the potential of having a younger audience period, can make a huge difference in late fringe,” he said.

Even though they aren’t huge ratings winners in prime time, two off-network sitcoms coming into syndication this fall may help each other. Buena Vista’s “My Wife and Kids” and Twentieth’s “The Bernie Mac Show,” both urban-skewing family comedies, are seen as compatible half-hours debuting this fall.

In some markets, the two shows are expected to run together in a block, said Joanne Burns, executive VP of sales marketing, research and new media for Twentieth Television.

“The two are playing off each other,” Ms. Burns said. “One plus one can equal three.”