Sitcoms circle the wagons

Returning comedies might save dying genre

Five years ago, there were 18 returning half-hour, live-action comedies on the Big Four’s fall skeds. This season, that number has been trimmed to eight.

And since none of these second-year skeins — Fox’s “Til Death,” CBS’ “Rules of Engagement” and NBC’s “30 Rock” — is what you would call a ratings juggernaut, the clock is ticking to save a dying genre.

Although there are a few likable comedy entries among the fall’s pilot crop (Fox’s “Back to You,” CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” and ABC’s “Carpoolers”), the best hopes probably lie in elevating the most promising laffers already on the air.

NBC’s “The Office” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” both of which grew the younger segment of their audience last season, will look to crank it up another notch as they prep for their third full seasons.

“The Office,” a single-camera comedy with a median age of just 35.9, has been promoted to the 9 p.m. slot on Thursday. This is a vote of confidence that the workplace comedy starring Steve Carell can hold its own opposite “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and “CSI” on CBS.

Last season in the 8:30 p.m. slot, it averaged a 4.1 rating among adults 18-49, up a tick from the 4.0 it earned the previous season. But while “The Office” declined 5% among adults 35-49 (3.7 vs. 3.9), it rose 12% among adults 18-34 (4.6 vs. 4.1) and by a hefty 33% among teens 12-17 (2.0 vs. 1.5).

Yes, there seems to be a comedy divide these days at around the age of 35: Those older have grown up on the familiar rhythms of multi-camera comedies and have been slower to laugh to a new beat, while those younger yearn for anything but their parents’ sitcoms.

“The Office” is a strong performer among the 18-34 set (and could win its time period in men 18-34), but will need to broaden its appeal to become the next “Seinfeld.” That will be tough opposite its brutal competish, but NBC made the right decision in shifting the Emmy winner to the high-profile slot for what should be the peak of its run.

At CBS, “How I Met Your Mother” — a multi-camera comedy shot with a single-camera sensibility — is the net’s youngest-skewing show, with a median age of 46.

After playing behind “King of Queens” in its first year, it did pretty well in kicking off Monday nights last season. Although no match for ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in the time period, by season’s end, it had caught NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” among 18-49.

In moving to the tougher 8 p.m. slot, “Mother” declined year to year by 6% in adults 18-49 (3.2 vs. 3.4) but rose a tick in adults 18-34 (2.8 vs. 2.7) and shot up nicely among teens 12-17 (1.5 vs. 1.1).

CBS is smartly airing repeats of “Mother” at 9:30 p.m. this summer behind the older-skewing and popular “Two and a Half Men.”

“Rules of Engagement” is a good fit with “Men” on the CBS Monday lineup but doesn’t have the chops to stand on its own. And “30 Rock,” with its Hollywood backdrop and acclaim from big-city critics, plays more like a cable comedy than a worthy addition to NBC’s “Must See” legacy.

One dark horse returning-laffer candidate is ABC’s “Notes From the Underbelly,” which bowed in the spring and aired just eight times to modest ratings. Despite an off-putting title and nauseating ad campaign, it grew into the funniest half-hour on the net in years.

ABC was wise to bring it back. Now, if it can just find it a worthy skedmate.

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