Single Camera Captivates Nets

Mar 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The network single-camera comedy, pioneered by shows such as Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” is back. With a vengeance.

All five broadcast television networks have picked up single-camera comedies or comedies that use single-camera elements, with the hope of trying to tap into the popularity of the genre, which has burgeoned with the success of NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” the season’s highest-rated half-hour among adults 18 to 49.

This development season the four biggest networks have picked up more than 20 single-camera comedy pilots, compared with the dozen single-camera pilots shot last year. Despite the industry interest in single camera, audiences will let network executives know if they’ve mistaken format for good writing.

“Joe America doesn’t look and say, ‘Oh, that’s multicamera,'” said Chris Silbermann, a partner at the literary talent agency Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann. “Joe America says, ‘Is this thing funny?’ and ‘Do I want to invite these characters into my home every week?'”

The success of “Earl” and the U.S. adaptation of “The Office,” aside from ratifying NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly’s strategy of introducing new kinds of sitcoms to the network, has eased fears in the television industry that audience tastes had turned away from scripted comedy.

“We hit rock bottom about a year or so ago,” said Marc Provissiero, a literary agent at William Morris Agency, referring to the state of the sitcom. “It doesn’t feel like it’s in crisis mode any longer. It’s not breaking any more than it’s already broken.”

This season comedy writers are interested in delving more into natural, organic comedy, as opposed to trying to mine laughs from the stylized world of traditional multicamera sitcoms, said Robin Schwartz, president of Regency TV, which is producing three network comedy pilots this development season.

“Writers right now are more driven by reality, and things feeling real,” Ms. Schwartz said. “The visual style is very appealing to them. There’s something to be said for not being constrained by four walls on a stage.”

CBS, which until this season hadn’t tested any single-camera comedies, finally picked up one for pilot. Its comedy lineup is still dominated by traditional set-piece comedies such as “Two and a Half Men,” but this past season CBS saw success with the hybrid comedy “How I Met Your Mother.” The success of CBS’s Monday night comedy block, a regular winner for the night in total viewers and the demo, shows that the demise of the traditional broadcast sitcom has been exaggerated, said David Stapf, president of CBS Paramount Network Television, CBS’s sister studio.

“There’s plenty of successful comedies,” Mr. Stapf said. “They weren’t as sexy or as newsworthy as [UPN’s ‘Everybody Hates Chris’] or ‘Earl,’ but people watched them.”

CBS is also testing other comedy styles, including a U.S. adaptation of a British series by Wallace & Gromit creator Aardman Animation. The animated seven-episode commitment, “Creature Comforts,” takes snippets from interviews with ordinary people and pairs them with images of animated animals.

Aside from an interest in single camera, the networks are taking cues from other genres when selecting next season’s comedy programs, betting on series that start with a bang, such as ABC’s “Lost,” which opened with a plane crash, and “Desperate Housewives,” which started with a suicide.

“There are a lot more concept-driven shows requiring a big incident that is either outrageous or proactive,” said Quan Phung, senior VP of comedy development for 20th Century Fox TV, noting the proliferation of pilots dealing with impending nuptials, emotional reconnections and other life-changing events.

“Everyone wants that one-line sell,” Regency’s Ms. Schwartz said. “You absolutely have to understand what the show is when you hear it. And if you didn’t have that hook, you were screwed.”

Network Comedy Pilots Chart 1

Network Comedy Pilots Chart 2