Comedy in cable push

Cablers look to laughs for viewers

A number of basic cablers are making a concerted push in a programming arena that execs see as neglected by the major nets: broad-appeal multicamera sitcoms aimed at 40- and 50-something viewers.

At the start of the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena on Wednesday, TV Land and CMT unveiled new laffers — “Retired at 35” and “Working Class,” respectively — as their top programming priorities

of the year. Execs with both Viacom-owned outlets see original comedies as a way to broaden their existing audience with shows that could bring stability, with viewers coming back week after week.

“We want to be to cable sitcoms what USA is to cable dramas,” said Doug Herzog, who oversees TV Land as prexy of MTV Networks Entertainment Group. TV Land scored with its first original laffer, “Hot in Cleveland,” which was fortified by sitcom vets Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. It hopes to build on that momentum with the George Segal-Jessica Walter starrer “Retired,” which bows Jan. 19 in tandem with the sophomore season debut of “Hot.”

“Retired” revolves around a guy in his mid-30s who leaves New York to move in with his estranged parents in a Florida retirement community. Segal calls it “cutting-edge comedy in the guise of an old-fashioned sitcom.”

TV Land has three pilots set to shoot next month, with the hope of picking up at least one that can be on-air by mid-summer. The original laffer initiative is part of a strategic plan that the cabler began laying out three years ago in its bid to focus on the 40-54 demo, according to TV Land prexy Larry Jones. “We want this to transform our network for the future,” Jones said. “We want to be known as the place for modern sitcoms.”

Jones emphasized the importance of targeting a distinct demographic that falls a little outside the norm. A big part of the build-up to original scripted series was the acquisition of rerun rights to “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which teed up the perfect lead-in.

“Viacom recognizes the value of this (40-54) demographic that nobody else is really targeting with comedies,” Jones said.

For years, scripted laffers were the sole province of the broadcasters. TBS opened the door for original skeins in the past decade with the success of its Tyler Perry comedies and other shows. Now plenty of cablers that would at first blush seem an unlikely fit with sitcoms are taking the plunge. And with the pullback in comedies on the Big Four nets in the past decade (though that’s changing), there is no shortage of seasoned talent eager to work in the familiar mulitcam form — even at cable’s lower prices and tighter budgets.

The African-American-cabler TV One will launch its first original skein, laffer “Love That Girl,” starring Tatyana Ali and Phil Morris, on Monday. And BET is in the sitcom game as of Tuesday with the revival of former CW skein “The Game” and launch of companion piece “Let’s Stay Together.”

Even more than TV Land, CMT sees the sitcom push as vital to growing its aud beyond its core base of country music enthusiasts. Execs sought out projects that would fit nicely with the channel’s family-friendly mantra — and once they put out the word, they were inundated with more than 300 scripts, according to Brad Johnson, CMT senior VP of comedy development.

“Working Class,” which stars Melissa Peterman as a single mom and Ed Asner as her cranky neighbor, was a project initially developed by scribe Jill Cargerman at ABC.

Johnson, a former development exec at 20th Century Fox TV, said he’s surprised at how significantly the major nets have ceded the family comedy genre — which spells opportunity for his cabler. “Class” bows Jan. 28. “Our research shows that there’s a huge appetite for family comedy,” Johnson said. “There’s such an opportunity for us. We could double or triple our audience easily if we do this well.”

For CMT, cost was a key concern. They worked out an unusual 3 1/2 day shooting sked (rather than the five-day norm for sitcoms) for the 12 segs of “Working Class” that allowed them to keep the production in L.A. Long-term, the bet on original skeins should pay dividends as CMT, like TV Land, owns its series outright. “If it works we’re no longer just paying a license fee for a show that we may only have for a few years,” Johnson said.

Johnson gives credit to Cargerman and the creative team for gamely working under tough conditions that left them with no margin for error during production.

Cargerman, an alum of such network skeins as “Spin City” and “Las Vegas,” said she was overjoyed that a script she cared deeply about would have a second shot. She said it amounted to “a leap of faith” because CMT had no track record in scripted series. “The execs were fearless in developing this show. They were not worried about reining us in,” she said. “I think if we’d been at a network with more of an infrastructure for development we wouldn’t have been able to take as many liberties.”

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