Sitcoms bloom but few slots open in primetime

Comedy’s finally off life support at the networks — but the genre isn’t out of the woods yet.

Critic darlings like “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” continue to struggle in the ratings, while Fox has no live-action comedy hits — and the CW now avoids the half-hour genre all together.

Nonetheless, this year’s out-of-the-box success of ABC’s “Modern Family,” as well as the surge of CBS’ “Big Bang Theory,” has webheads more bullish than usual on the form this pilot season.

Execs appear particularly high on romantic comedies, sitcoms about thirtysomethings/fortysomethings having a midlife crisis and more versions of a quirky family laffer. (Beleaguered dads, in particular, appear to be making a comeback.)

At ABC, Matthew Perry stars as a man looking for love in “Mr. Sunshine,” while “Freshmen” features Sarah Chalke as a rookie congresswoman — also looking for love.

CBS’ “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Hitched” both focus on young couples. Fox’s “Strange Brew” is about a father who attempts to bring his kids into the family business, while “Most Likely to Succeed” looks at high school pals, several years later.

NBC’s “Nathan vs. Nurture” centers on a surgeon in his 30s who finds his biological family, while “This Little Piggy” revolves around a family man whose siblings suddenly move in with him.

This year’s players include Greg Malins, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, Josh Schwartz, Dana Gould, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, Chuck Lorre, Greg Garcia, Robert Borden and many more — a group with more than a few hits under their belts.

The nets may face a big problem come May, however: A lot of dressed-up shows with no place to go.

“Smart networks might look at that and ask themselves, why are we developing so much stuff?” says one exec. “I don’t know how many more can get on.”

After years of shrinking their comedy plate and replacing those hours with supersized reality shows (like two-hour versions of “The Biggest Loser” and “The Bachelor”) and a flurry of procedural dramas, there’s not a lot of shelf space for new comedy.

Each of the Big Four nets has carved out just one two-hour block of comedies on their skeds — and most of those slots are already spoken for.

At CBS, three of the net’s four Monday night half-hours already have been renewed for 2010. Similarly, NBC has already given an early pickup to “Parks and Rec,” and renewals for the net’s other three Thursday night laffers seems also a given (ratings be damned).

ABC also gave early pickups to Wednesday night newbies “Modern Family,” “The Middle” and “Cougar Town” — leaving just one half-hour to fill.

Meanwhile, Fox’s two-hour Sunday night animation block is already filled — with hit “Family Guy” spinoff “The Cleveland Show” rounding things out.

As a result, fall 2010 could finally be the year the networks hand sitcoms land that had been ceded to reality and drama. Is at least one network ready to once again field more than one two-hour laffer block?

If so, it would represent the firmest sign yet that a sitcom comeback is real.

TV’s decade-long comedy crisis might be traced back to fall 1997, when then-No. 1 NBC — in a moment of hubris — scheduled an unprecedented 18 comedies in primetime.

That same year, CBS fielded 10 comedies, ABC had 12, The WB aired 10 and UPN ran eight. That’s right: Every network (save Fox), and including the weblets, aired at least two nights of two-hour comedy blocks.

It all shrank from there. The low point came in fall 2006, when Fox’s Sunday night and CBS’ Monday night skeds repped the only two-hour comedy blocks at the Big Four.

Networks had traditionally turned to sitcoms because they were quicker to find auds and easily repeatable. And studios appreciated the off-network riches that a hit laffer can bring. But in recent years, procedural dramas — easily repeatable, and hot off-net commodities in the basic cable world — filled some of that void.

Now, the networks don’t even program comedies any more on Tuesday, once a fertile home for laffers.

ABC ruled there for years, going back to “Happy Days” in the 1970s, “Roseanne” in the late 1980s and “Home Improvement” in the 1990s; NBC also shined bright on Tuesdays in the mid-1990s with “Frasier.”

With no sitcoms on the night, that makes an obvious opening for someone.

But who? CBS (the “NCIS” twins), NBC (“Biggest Loser”) and Fox (“American Idol”) are already spoken for on Tuesdays.

ABC’s the most likely candidate to enter the night with laughs, but it already took a risk this year in launching a completely new night of comedies on Wednesday. Would execs there want to attempt such a feat again?

(((As for other nights of the week, ABC could always make another attempt at reclaiming Friday (its old “TGIF” home) — but previous attempts have fallen short.

“You’re just throwing money away (on Fridays),” one exec says.)))

At NBC, the departure of “The Jay Leno Show” leaves holes to fill, and the Peacock could easily make more room for comedies with some juggling. But CBS’ Monday night is potent competition, and Tuesdays are set aside for “Biggest Loser.” NBC could either drop “Loser” to 90 minutes and launch a show at 9:30, or attempt an expansion to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. — if it were to expand its comedy lineup at all.

Fox’s conundrum is twofold: It needs to find room for more comedies, and it has to launch new live-action laffers without the assistance of sturdy non-animated half-hours.

Fox hasn’t had much success in launching Friday night laffers, and its Mondays and Thursdays are humming along pretty well. Tuesdays and Wednesdays might be a possibility, but any show there would have to work around the ever-expanding-and-moving “Idol” come winter. (Carving out a half-hour after “Idol” is another possibility.)

Of all the nets, CBS is already the only one with more than one night of sitcoms (now that ABC has stopped shuttling its “Scrubs”/ “Better Off Ted” combo around, and Fox has started burning off “Til Death” in the Sunday 7 p.m. entropy slot). That makes the Eye — where execs have long desired an eight-comedy sked — the most logical network to add a second two-hour sitcom block next fall.

To do so, CBS would have to add a 9 p.m. sitcom hour to its Wednesday 8 p.m. comedies. That would bump out Wednesday hit “Criminal Minds,” either to 10 p.m. (which would then push “CSI: NY” elsewhere) or to Sundays.

If they’re feeling bold, CBS schedulers could move “Big Bang” to Wednesdays at 9 p.m., creating a mirror to their dominant Monday sked and going straight after the Alphabet’s “Family.”

The Eye could then use the power of both Chuck Lorre shows to launch new entries at 9:30 — including, perhaps, Lorre’s own contender, “Mike and Molly.”

Of course, it’s all idle speculation until network execs start screening their pilots come May. They may be optimistic now, but as webheads have learned over and over again this past decade, comedy isn’t easy.

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