ABC sticks with the single-cam

Stylish storytelling comes at higher cost

According to the pre-upfront chatter, the fall 2009 TV season was supposed to be themed “Revenge of the Multicam.” But ABC’s Wednesday slate illustrates how single-cam’s seductive allure won’t go away so easily.

The Alphabet has scheduled a two-hour comedy block in primetime Wednesday, in which three of the four are shot in single-camera.

ABC senior comedy veep Samie Kim Falvey says she and other execs at the web don’t chose shows based on their format. “We have to choose the best shows — shows that we’re passionate about and we believe will make it.”

But she freely admits that with each single-cam show, the network always asks whether it could instead be done in multicam fashion. “Single-cam is so difficult and so expensive, you don’t do it that way unless you need to,” Falvey says.

The use of one camera to film a comedy, which dates back to the early days of TV, including such shows as “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” became popular again among producers trying to breathe new life into the post-“Seinfeld” sitcom.

Single-cam shows are famous for being slow-starting critical successes (“The Office,” “30 Rock”) or cult favorites doomed to premature cancellation (“Arrested Development,” “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”).

They allow more location shots and less stodgy staging, and this stylish storytelling is attractive for those seeking younger demos. But there is an added cost that has come under close scrutiny, in an era of major budget cutbacks.

Such financial soul-searching took place in the spring regarding such existing single-cam shows as the network’s “Samantha Who?” and “Scrubs.” No renewal deal could be reached on preserving “Samantha” in either format, while “Scrubs” dodged yet another code blue in its topsy-turvy history, surviving for a midseason return and retaining its single-cam format.

Though CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” have reinvigorated the multicam market, the top five comedies among adults 18-34 are either NBC single-cam offerings or animated series on Fox.

Those ratings numbers are reflected in the DVD market, where cable’s single-cam comedies also do well. In Rentrak’s measurement of top 20 live-action scripted comedies (in combined in-store sales and online/in-store rentals) for January-June 2009, only three slots are filled by multicam shows: two by “Men” and one by “How I Met Your Mother.”

The ABC lineup on Wednesday reflects the web’s first quartet of fall comedies in five years. It’s a gamble, as the network has devoted the entire evening to new series, rather than mixing in veterans, as it has done in recent years.

The big bet on comedy comes after the fact that of the 20 comedies ABC has premiered over the past five years, only 2009 freshman “Better Off Ted” remains alive. If “Ted” merely makes it to a third campaign in 2010-11, it will represent ABC’s most successful half-hour launch since “Hope and Faith” (2003-06) and its most successful single-cam launch in memory, whistling past the graves of “Carpoolers,” “Cavemen,” “Help Me, Help You,” “The Knights of Prosperity” and “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” to name a few.

ABC’s Wednesday kicks off with a multicam show — the Kelsey Grammer starrer “Hank” — followed by three single-cam skeins: “The Middle” with Patricia Heaton, “Modern Family” with Ed O’Neill and “Cougar Town” with Courteney Cox.

Arguably, ABC has bought itself an insurance policy by inking four of the biggest sitcom stars of the past three decades. Grammer, Heaton, O’Neill and Cox spent a combined 41 seasons on “Frasier,” Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Married … With Children” and “Friends,” respectively.

At the same time, Grammer and Heaton’s “Back to You” (from “Modern Family” creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd) didn’t make it out of the 2007-08 season for Fox, and Cox’s “Dirt” was a rare FX misfire.

And in an era that still makes pursuit of younger auds a major issue, ABC is placing bets on stars with an age range of 45 to 63.

“I think at the end of the day, we have target demos, but we’re broadcast, and hopefully our shows will appeal to all demos,” Falvey says. “Ed O’Neill is one part of a very big ensemble,” so it’s unlikely “Modern Family’ would be sold as a star vehicle.

Falvey adds that a selling point for all four Wednesday sitcoms is that they relate to family, an indication ABC is hoping this will become its comedy identity. Unlike CBS (easy-on-the-psyche multicam series), NBC (darker single-cam) and Fox (animation Sundays with a dash of blue-collar humor during the week), ABC hasn’t had a consistent comedy formula for a while.

Even in a recession, saving money is often no match for saving a comedic approach that single-cam uniquely facilitates.

“With ‘Modern Family,’ those guys pitched a tone for the way that comedy has to play out that would never lend itself to multicamera,” Falvey says.

“We do want to be in the multicam business very badly, and we know there’s a lot of success to be had there,” Falvey says. (The web had six other multicam series in development this past pilot season.)

In the end, pronouncements will be made based on success. There will be temptation to sound another death knell for single-cam if the multicam “Hank” — scheduled to kick off the night at 8 p.m. because on paper it appears to have the broadest appeal — succeeds, and its single-cam siblings fail.

Conversely, if “Modern Family,” which had the best buzz from critics coming out the upfronts, emerges as ABC’s breakout comedy, that could put multicam back on the defensive, as it was earlier this decade.

Either way, both styles will likely continue to find their way on future broadcast schedules.

“Again, I think it’s content first,” Falvey says. “The landscape has proven both can work, and I think in an ideal world we’d do both successfully. People watch what they love and what they think is good.”

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