Road to NATPE: That’s Rich

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The comedy genre has had a rough couple of years on broadcast. That has been a challenge for the networks, which for most of the 1980s and 1990s relied on the half-hours to fill their schedules. Resurgent dramas and the blossoming of reality helped plug the prime-time holes, but for stations that rely on hit network comedies to fuel their lucrative off-network prime access blocks, the lack of new comedies has meant an increased

reliance on aging product.

Take Sony Pictures Television’s “Seinfeld,” still a top draw as a syndicated strip and a very valuable property but old: It premiered on NBC halfway through the George H. W. Bush Administration and new episode production stopped seven years ago.

To a certain extent stations are bracing themselves for the day that “Seinfeld,” along with current off-net syndicated stalwarts “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and even “The Simpsons,” eventually will begin to show wear in their ratings and consequently in their ability to generate ad revenue.

Contrary to characterizations of stations in recent years, however, off-net buyers are not as stymied by the dearth of comedy as they once seemed.

Despite the lack of new sitcoms coming stations’ way, insiders say stations will-and can-rely on comedies for a long time to come. The reasons are clear. Comedy is a durable genre; it can often be counted on to appeal to the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic; it is generally considered advertiser-friendly; and the station and syndication businesses have weathered comedy droughts before.

The most attractive quality of the sitcom is its repeatability, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of television for Katz Television Group.

“Unlike any other genre, it seems to have the ability to play again and again and again,” Mr. Carroll said. “If you know how they solve the crime, there is not a reason to go back and visit it more than once or twice. But if the joke is funny or the premise is goofy, you’ll go back and laugh at it.”

Original fans of “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H” will attest to the timelessness of their favorite shows’ humor, but another reason stations find sitcoms so appealing is their ability to attract young audiences that were not yet born when the comedies were first produced, Mr. Carroll said.

“That unique aspect is what allows stations to schedule comedy blocks that appeal to a broad audience and in particular young people,” he said. “It doesn’t alienate the older audience, but it has a special appeal to young people. There’s a timelessness and appeal to the younger audience in the key revenue-generating time periods.”

That makes it easier for stations to stick with what is currently on the air, one station’s programming executive said.

“They are kind of waiting to see what’s going to happen over the next couple of years,” the executive said. “They don’t have anything else to go to. What else are you going to replace it with if you don’t have news? You have to stick with what you have.”

Sticking with comedies helps rein in adults 18 to 49, an audience that has shown a particular interest in the genre. The value of sitcoms is clear when drawing a cost-per-spot comparison of shows. The top three programs are all off-network comedies, which outperform first-run stalwarts “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” And even the queen of television, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” is not immune, since nine sitcoms outrank the top talker on a cost-per-spot basis.

For nontraditional affiliates, sitcoms are essential because they perform well across the day in access and late fringe, Mr. Carroll said.

“They can be the most aggressive in counterprogramming,” he said. “Traditional affiliates will be running news, magazine strips and game shows, and in late-night [the Big 3] networks are going to be running ‘[Tonight Show With Jay] Leno,’ ‘[Late Show With David] Letterman’ and [‘The Jimmy Kimmel Show’].”

Another factor is price. “Comedies will always be an important part of the mix of local television as long as the business model stays the way it is,” he said. “It’s always based on the market conditions, the stations’ health.”

This isn’t the first time there has been a drought in new off-network comedies, Mr. Carroll said, noting that before NBC premiered “The Cosby Show” in the early 1980s, network executives were bemoaning the death of comedy as a genre, and the slim pickings for stations included NBC’s “Gimme a Break” and CBS’s “Kate & Allie.”

“If history tells us anything, at some point in the future there will be a renaissance of comedies and we will all look back and say, ‘Oh my, that was the blip on the radar,'” he said. “We survived that and we will survive what we have now.”

Fall 2006 Show Chart