Comedy Central sets sights on mid-2010

In another case of an animated primetime series resurrected from the dead, 20th Century Fox TV plans to produce 26 new episodes of “Futurama.”

Comedy Central will begin airing the new episodes in mid-2010. Voice actors Billy West (who played Philip Fry), Katey Sagal (Leela) and John DiMaggio (Bender) have all signed on to return.

Created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, “Futurama” originally aired on Fox from 1999 to 2003.

“It’s sweet, and basically everybody who has worked on the show wants to come back,” Groening said. “I choose to believe it’s more than the economic situation. People had a good time working on this show.”

After “Futurama” ended its run, 20th Century Fox TV produced four new “Futurama” segs for DVD, which first spurred talk of a series revival.

“It was a little bit of putting our toe in the water to see what sort of response we could get,” said 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman. “We discovered that, like ‘Family Guy,’ there’s a passionate core audience and a tremendous pent-up demand to see more ‘Futurama.’ ”

But it took Comedy Central to seal the deal. The cabler started airing all 72 off-net episodes of “Futurama,” as well as the DVD episodes, in January 2008.

Since then, both 20th and Comedy Central have been kicking around ways to make a “Futurama” order make financial sense for both the studio and cable net.

“The animation on ‘Futurama’ has always been so intricate, and there are costs associated with that,” Newman said.

In order to make the deal work some costs were trimmed — leading to a smaller writing staff and a shorter delivery schedule, among other changes.

“Across the board, everyone is doing a little belt tightening,” Newman said. “That’s what’s necessary to get this thing into production … no one is going to make a big payday on the show, including the studio.”

But for 20th and News Corp., the deal means there will now be enough “Futurama” episodes to potentially drive an off-net syndication sale to stations. The new batch of episodes will also lead to either one or two new DVD box sets.

Meanwhile, as part of the deal, 20th still has an option to license the new episodes’ original runs to a broadcast network (such as Fox). If the show does go to broadcast, Comedy Central’s license fee will be reduced.

“It’s a deal we’re all happy with,” said Comedy Central programming senior VP David Bernath. “It’s a bigger win for us promotionally if we wind up going first … but if we wind up in second position, then the economics work out for us as well.”

Comedy Central’s “Futurama” rights run well into the next decade, which is why the net was so invested in the production of new episodes, Bernath said.

“One of the things that excited us even at the time when we bought the initial 72 episodes was the possibility of new production and new episodes,” he said.

Twentieth Century Fox TV has called shows back from the grave before: “Family Guy” returned thanks to that show’s strong DVD sales. And although not nearly as dead and buried as “Family Guy” and “Futurama,” the studio’s “King of the Hill” was also canceled and then uncanceled by Fox at least twice in its lifespan.

“Futurama” follows the tale of Fry, a pizza delivery boy who winds up accidentally frozen — before waking up 1,000 years later. He befriends one-eyed alien Leela as well as cranky robot Bender.

Writing has already begun on the show; Groening said he was inspired by the “Star Trek” movie this summer enough that the updated “Futurama” may take a similar tact to explain the launch of this run.

Beyond that, Groening said he and Cohen already have a pile of potential episode storylines that they never got around to producing during “Futurama’s” original incarnation.

“David and I have ideas that we knocked around before we even began the first series,” Groening said. “And we haven’t gotten to everything yet.”

“Futurama” never really went away — the series’ characters had continued to live on via comicbooks.

“The intensity of the fan enthusiasm is very gratifying,” Groening said.

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