For nets, the sitcom is harder than ever, but it ain't dead

Every 20 years, the sitcom dies. Only a few million viewers tune in. Newspapers run obits.

Networks panic. They produce fewer and fewer comedies, even as they clamor for “unique voices” or root for “four-camera tradition.” They assemble frat-boy test audiences in Las Vegas, and prepare for unemployment.

Then a slam-dunk — a “Cosby Show” or “Friends” — falls from the heavens. Newspaper headlines scream: “Revival!”

Viewers laugh again for free; network execs keep their jobs.

Since CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” said goodbye last month, no network sitcom finds itself in the top 10. The Eye net’s “Two and a Half Men” is the only sitcom in the top 20.

On cue, everybody’s writing the bad news. Execs caution: expect a turnaround next season. Look at TV history. But they worry — is the postmillennium drought different?

“The fact that my parents have 150 channels has created an environment that … is just harder now,” says “Scrubs” creator and exec producer Bill Lawrence. “Coming up with just a competently made show creates this burden for (network execs). They go, ‘In this climate, with cable and sports and DirecTV, it’s going to take us over a year to get people to start watching.’ “

Sitcoms of long ago often required a season or two to hit their stride. In 1961-62, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — which helped TV out of its first comedy drought — performed poorly and almost got canceled. So did “Cheers,” which helped usher comedy out of its early-’80s drought.

What can developers of today learn from comedy crises past?

Wendi Trilling, senior VP of comedy series development at CBS, picks the brand-new buzzword of her peers: patience. “(We’ve learned) if we believe in something to stick with it for as long as we can,” she says. “It worked out for ‘Seinfeld,’ it worked out for ‘Murphy Brown’ and for ‘Cheers’ and for ‘Raymond,’ and I think it’s just a lesson we have to keep reminding ourselves of.”

Ghen Maynard, exec VP of primetime development at NBC, holds up the modestly rated mockumentary sitcom “The Office” as a quality show that deserves a second chance. “It’s not just passive watching,” Maynard says. “They’re talking about (‘The Office’) the next day. That’s huge.”

Fox’s strong schedule has enabled it to hold on to Emmy-winning sleeper “Arrested Development,” according to Craig Erwich, exec VP of development. “We think there’s a precedent for ‘Arrested’ having room to catch fire. I don’t think we could look each other in the eyes feeling like we walked away.”

Chuck Lorre, creator and exec producer of “Two and a Half Men,” doesn’t acknowledge a drought. He suggests that stellar writing and acting always win viewers. “The bar has to be high. And it has to stay high. The audience doesn’t have four choices anymore.”

Do cable’s edgy comedies threaten network sitcom ratings?

Yes, but traditional sitcoms don’t play on cable, according to Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse U. Therefore, networks have cornered an enduring market.

“Put the brilliant ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ on networks, there’s no way it could get the numbers to stay there,” Thompson explains. “The great thing about a sitcom — and this was true of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ — you could have missed half the episode, you could have been answering the phone. I defy anybody to watch three minutes of ‘Friends’ and remain confused. You can’t.”

“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal expects the sitcom curse will end with the cooling of the reality trend. “It seems like with the glut of reality shows, people have to get tired of watching other people eat bugs,” he says.

In the late ’50s, Westerns like “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun Will Travel” shot down “I Love Lucy” and “December Bride” in the ratings.

The recent explosion of reality shows has posed a somewhat similar problem. Reality is cheaper to produce. Who needs incremental sitcom development when you’ve got spur-of-the-moment spouse-swapping?

Development heads say they hope the reality genre might inspire comedy writers to create scripted characters who feel more real, more accessible.

“Reality brought back not only fresh, but very real people to the viewing public,” says Maynard, who helped develop “Survivor” when he worked at CBS. “It’s the idea of taking people from different worlds and mixing them together and seeing what happens.”

NBC’s new sitcom “My Name Is Earl,” introduces a low-rent crook who’s the definition of real. “If we met a real person like Earl, we would have killed to put him on ‘Survivor,’ ” Maynard adds.

“From ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Friends,’ it goes back to a character that you want to bring into your home every week,” says Francie Calfo, exec VP of entertainment at ABC. “The first time I read ‘Desperate Housewives,’ not only was it entertaining, but it tapped into some kernel of truth.”

With execs shooting for truth, where’s the snag? “When a bunch of network presidents are saying the sitcom’s broken, you aren’t going to go in and pitch your traditional sitcom because it’s not going to get on,” Lawrence says. “It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Maxine Lapiduss and Stan Zimmerman, exec producers of the reality series “Situation Comedy,” premiering on Bravo in the fall, suggest that, as times have changed politically, network writers and execs have become increasingly restrained.

“In today’s political climate, people are so scared, between the FCC and Howard Stern to really push the envelope,” Zimmerman says.

“The sitcom will rule again,” Lapiduss adds. “But I think it’s going to come from a deep, dark, interesting, twisted corner.”

What’s Thompson’s best brainy advice for sitcom creators? “You look at some of the great successes, like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ which were done by stubborn producers who were willing to go in there and do what they wanted and fight with the networks and the rest of it.

“In the end, you’ve got to find funny people who can write funny stuff — funny by the standards of contemporary times.”

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