Sked hits laffer low

Nets to launch only 10 comedies in fall

The sitcom is still dead — at least, for this fall.

Heading into last month’s upfront presentations, some industry observers had hoped that development season would yield a bumper crop of new laffers or at least enough prospects to get the faded genre back on its feet.

It didn’t happen.

Indeed, the comedy drought that’s plagued network TV for the past five years shows no sign of letting up:

  • The six networks are planning to unveil just 10 comedies come fall, one of the lowest tallies ever.

  • Had it not been for Fox’s decision to renew aging shows such as “Bernie Mac” and “Malcolm in the Middle” — and thus program 12 comedies overall — the total number of half-hour laffers on network TV would have fallen to an all-time low.

  • NBC will again start the fall season with just four comedies, way down from a historic high of 18 barely a decade ago. Other nets are cutting back, too: ABC is reducing its laffer load to six (from eight last fall), while the WB is down to just four half-hour comedies (plus sketch skein “Blue Collar TV”).

Peacock entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly says his net is determined to add more laughs to its lineup — but not in the fall. “Getting comedy on our schedule is a top priority. I would love to see a two-hour comedy block on Tuesday night.”

But it doesn’t make sense to throw too many comedies on in the fall “because frankly, it’s not going to work. It didn’t work last year, it didn’t work five years ago. These shows don’t self-start,” cautions Reilly.

That’s not the philosophy at Fox, which is opting to keep most reality shows off its fall sked in favor of a dozen comedies, the most of any net.

Fox exec VP Craig Erwich says the network has tried to use its best timeslots (Sundays after “The Simpsons” and Wednesday after “American Idol”) to introduce viewers to new sitcoms. It also has practiced patience, gi’ing low-rated critics’ darling “Arrested De’elopment” a shot at a third season.

“There’s a danger of things becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Erwich says of nets that don’t take a gamble on comedy. “The fewer successful comedies there are on the air, the fewer places there are to launch them.”

Fox typically tries to de’elop a broad spectrum of comedy fare each winter and spring in order to gi’e its execs a range of choices when deciding which shows to pick up. The result: Fox’s fall comedy slate includes both the producer Darren Star’s edgy half-hour “Kitchen Confidential” and the “Married … With Children”-esque family laffer “The War at Home.”

“I don’t think anyone here is arrogant enough to say we know the one specific direction of comedy, and that’s the road we’re going down,” Erwich says. “We try to get in business with the best writers and see where the inspiration takes us.”

There are reasons to be optimistic about next season’s new class of comedies. For one thing, although nets might be programming fewer laffers, they are taking more chances.

NBC not only brought back “The Office,” a show unlike any other on net T’, it paired it with “My Name Is Earl,” a sweet single-camera comedy that mines genuine laughs from unique characters rather than easy punchlines.

O’er at CBS, neither one of the Eye’s frosh comedies features the net’s standard-issue chubby dude/hot wife formula. Instead, there’s a promising effort from the exec producers of “Frasier” and the Gen X-targeted “How I Met Your Mother.”

ABC’s pair of fall laffers (“Freddie” and “Hot Properties”) seem unlikely to break much ground. But come January, the Alphabet is planning to roll the dice on a couple of promising single-camera efforts. Femme-focused “Emily Reason’s Why Not” drew genuine laughs when pre’iewed at the net’s May upfront, while the buzz also has been good for the semi-impro’ised “Sons and Daughters.”

Finally, there’s “E’erybody Hates Chris,” a Chris Rock-produced half-hour based on the comic’s childhood. No other show, comedy or drama, drew a better response from ad’ertisers – a fact made e’en more impressi’e by which net is airing the show: UPN.

“Chris” will air Thursdays at 8 – one of T”s toughest timeslots, but also one of the medium’s best launching pads for comedy success. After all, it’s the slot that ga’e birth to “The Cosby Show” – the skein that helped the small screen get o’er its last major comedy drought.

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