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Comedies doing well with audiences

ABC's 'Who' is network's first hit sitcom in years

Comedy is still a struggling genre in primetime, but there are flickers of life.

Fox’s animated vets are up vs. last year, a couple of new half-hours are gaining traction, and NBC’s “The Office” has clocked in with impressive ratings despite stepping up in class on Thursday.

But the surest sign of all: We’re about to get the first head-to-head matchup of hit comedies in years, when ABC rookie “Samantha Who” takes on CBS vet “Two and a Half Men” in Monday’s 9 o’clock half-hour beginning Nov. 26.

Such matchups were commonplace in the 1980s and early ’90s — headlined by “The Simpsons” battling “The Cosby Show” and “Frasier” taking on “Home Improvement” — but they have pretty much disappeared as the overall number of comedies declined over the past five years.

At the height of the half-hour comedy in the mid-’90s, every weeknight between 8 and 10 p.m. had at least two comedies going head-to-head on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

And when NBC aired a record 18 half-hour comedies in the fall of 1997, only two of them — the Thursday 9-10 p.m. combo of “Seinfeld” and “Veronica’s Closet” — ran unopposed by half-hour competition on the Big Four.

All of which makes the head-to-head battle of “Samantha Who” and “Two and a Half Men” worth keeping an eye on. The only other comedy contests in recent years have been rather lopsided ones(NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” over Fox’s “Til Death” on Thursdays a year ago and CBS’ “King of Queens” over Fox’s “Arrested Development” in 2005).

It would be even more interesting, of course, if there weren’t a writers strike, which means “Men” likely will run out of new segs before long. “Samantha” is said to have enough episodes to run into the new year.

“Two and a Half Men,” just a bit behind “The Office” as TV’s top comedy in 18-49 (5.1 vs. 5.3), continues CBS’ decades-long streak of laffers in the timeslot, while ABC is looking to establish a comedy presence — anywhere — with a show that has exhibited real promise behind “Dancing With the Stars” this fall.

For ABC, “Samantha” looks to be its strongest comedy newcomer in years, averaging a 4.7 demo rating in its first five airings — putting it on par with Fox’s “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” and behind only “The Office” and “Two and a Half Men.”

To be sure, much of its ratings strength can be tied to airing after “Dancing With the Stars,” but “Samantha” has held up well in the four episodes since its preem, with auds obviously liking what they see. (Viewers didn’t stick around for laffers like “Crumbs” and “Help Me Help You,” which also played behind “Dancing” on ABC the previous two years).

After “Dancing” wraps Nov. 26, “Samantha” will air behind Christmas specials and new reality show “Duel,” and will go up against a mix of “Two and a Half Men” originals and repeats.

The Eye laffer, which is up slightly year-to-year, should win the matchup when they’re both in originals, butABC would likely be happy with any rating above a 3.5 in the tougher 9 o’clock slot.

ABC also has a compatible skedmate for “Samantha” in “Notes From the Underbelly,” a second-year comedy that is returning despite subpar ratings. Show improved creatively during the course of its run last spring, and should fit well with “Samantha.”

It would be nice if these shows didn’t have to go up against “Men” and its lead-out “Rules of Engagement,” but this is the sked that works best for ABC at this time. The net still needs another puzzle piece before it can feel confident enough to try a four-block of comedies.

The Alphabet hasn’t done well with its high-profile new laffer “Cavemen” on Tuesday, while another newbie, “Carpoolers,” has drifted from the quality of its pilot, but still may be a show worth keeping around.

For CBS, “Two and a Half Men” is the anchor of a quietly successful comedy block. On a night when “Dancing With the Stars” and “Heroes” bring the buzz, the Eye is a solid No. 2 from 8 to 10 p.m.

“Big Bang Theory” has performed well in its 8:30 p.m. slot, averaging a 3.7 rating in adults 18-49 and building on its lead-in from third-year show “How I Met Your Mother.”

These opening-hour comedies are key for CBS for another reason, in that they skew so young. Whereas the more traditional “Two and a Half Men” draws a lot of older viewers (median age: 49), “Mother” and “Big Bang” are the youngest shows on the net’s primetime lineup (median age of about 45).

Thanks to its success, CBS can look to expand its comedy brand, perhaps moving “Rules” or using on-the-bench returnee “Old Christine” to open up another night.

Dramas and reality shows are still dominant in primetime, but for the first time in years, it seems like fortune is smiling on network comedy.

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