NBC’s ‘Earl’ Opens Door for Sitcoms

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Thanks to the success of NBC’s Tuesday night single-camera series “My Name Is Earl,” the embattled sitcom genre may finally be on the comeback trail.

For this season’s comedy development cycle, which will ultimately result in next fall’s slate of debuting sitcoms, the broadcast networks are looking at what is making “Earl” work with viewers and trying to build on that success.

Though networks always leave an opening for that one great idea that might still be out there, the bulk of comedy pitch buying for the 2006-07 season ended last week. As in years past, the networks have said yes to plenty of blended-family ideas, dating-couple concepts and workplace ensembles.

But this year the success of “Earl” has sparked renewed interest in the single-camera format, as opposed to the in-studio live audience, multicamera format pioneered on “I Love Lucy” and most recently exemplified by the networks’ last great comedy hit, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

The revived interest is so strong that networks that in the past would have shied away from single-camera concepts are now much more interested in considering them as part of their development, said Angela Bromstad, president of NBC Universal Television Studio.

“It’s not ‘This is what we want,’ but there is much more openness to single-camera,” Ms. Bromstad said of the networks’ interest in the format.

ABC is considering at least four single-camera comedy projects, including a semi-autobiographical project from executive producer Elton John, while NBC and Fox are fully invested in single-camera development. CBS, which has not embraced the format recently, is developing a single-camera project about a neurotic food critic with Warner Bros. and producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen.

“There is a lot of single-camera, because they are trying to emulate what ‘Earl’ is doing,” one talent agent said of the broadcasters’ comedy development slates. That doesn’t mean networks have lost interest in multicamera sitcoms, but it does mean “Earl’s” unique point of view is something to be studied, the agent noted.

“There are traditional sitcoms, but it is always the same dialogue [from the networks]: ‘We want a fresh take,'” he said. “And by the way, they are trying, because fear is a tremendous motivator.”

Besides “Earl’s” success, other debuting comedies have received a vote of confidence with full-season pickups, including “Out of Practice” and “How I Met Your Mother” on CBS and ABC’s “Freddie.” But fear is still an issue, because networks have a long way to go when it comes to making comedies the dominant force they were on prime-time schedules a decade ago, said Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox.

“Network comedy hasn’t fully rebounded yet,” Mr. Erwich said, noting that “Earl” is still the sole new comedic hit of the season.

This development season networks were slower to buy comedy pitches, since many executives wanted to wait and see what the crop of new fall comedies-particularly highly anticipated series like “Earl” and UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris”-would do ratingswise once they hit the air, Ms. Bromstad said.

“There was a lag time before people started saying, ‘This is what we want,’ because people didn’t know what was working,” she said.

Besides an interest in single camera, Ms. Bromstad also noticed a move toward picking up more female-driven comedy. Fox is developing a comedy with Margaret Cho centered around the comedian’s portrayal of her mother. ABC is developing a series for “Raymond” star Patricia Heaton. NBC is working with Tina Fey on a comedy she will write exploring the backstage of a “Saturday Night Live”-type sketch show. And “America’s Next Top Model” creator Tyra Banks sold to UPN a comedy project that she will produce about the post-series life of a woman who came in second on a “Model”-like reality show.

Ms. Bromstad said a sitcom developed around a specific character with a strong point of view is of interest to the networks, as much for marketing reasons as creative reasons.

“That character, that person on the poster, is the way people want to sell comedy,” she said.

At Fox, where the comedy tends to be broad and more male-skewing, the feature film “The Wedding Crashers” helped shaped many pitches coming through the door, Mr. Erwich said.

“Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson got everyone to think about where the great buddy comedies are, from ‘The Odd Couple’ to Abbott and Costello to ‘The Honeymooners,'” he said.

Projects exploring changing relationships have also been popular this season, said Carolyn Finger, VP of the development tracking firm TVTracker.com. ABC, NBC and Fox all have projects about the lead-up to a couple’s wedding, while several pitches have dealt with groups of friends in their 30s looking ahead to their 40s.

The openness to explore new formats and ideas is a good thing, said Robin Schwartz, president of Regency Television, which is developing a number of comedies for the networks, including Ms. Cho’s Fox project.

“I feel-not as an executive [but] just as a viewer-we need more comedy,” she said. “We are still really unbalanced right now in terms of comedies and dramas. It should be more even.”