'Mother,' 'Men' and 'Modern' all surging this season

Comedy is king again in primetime, and the genre’s biggest hits have never been hotter heading into the new year.

CBS has been the biggest beneficiary of the season’s sitcom surge, but ABC has made some notable noise as well. With these two nets leading the way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more half-hour comedies on the Big Four skeds in 2012 than at any time in nearly a decade.Seven returning series on the Big Four networks grew by double-digit percentages this fall, and all were half-hour laffers. CBS has five of them — including “Two and a Half Men,” which has surged with Ashton Kutcher — while ABC has the other two, including “Modern Family,” the most popular new comedy of the last five years.

Younger viewers are leading the charge, as the biggest gains for most of these hot returning laffers are coming from the 12-34 crowd.

And the two biggest new hits of the fall in the key young-adult demo — CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “New Girl” — are comedies as well, as half-hours account for seven of the top 10 entertainment series among adults 18-49, according to Nielsen data through mid-December.

This month, the broadcasters will have 20 live-action comedies across the primetime schedule — up from 16 at this time two years ago and from 12 in 2006, which has to be considered the sitcom’s nadir (“Two and a Half Men” was the only comedy in the top 20).

No comedy has surged more this season than “Two and a Half Men,” which has clearly made a smooth transition from Charlie Sheen to Kutcher. In Nielsen’s “most current” ratings, the Monday vet was averaging a 7.1 rating in adults 18-49 (up 39% year to year) and 19.3 million viewers overall (up 26%). Sure, its averages were padded by early curiosity surrounding the switch in leads, but “Men” has consistently been tracking ahead of the corresponding weeks of 2010.

Looking more closely at the changing makeup of the “Men” audience, the show is up across all adult demo categories, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that it has shown the most growth among men 18-34, where its 5.4 rating reps a 74% gain over last year’s 3.1. The show is up nicely in women of the same age (53%, 5.5 vs. 3.6), and the rating for teens 12-17 has nearly doubled (3.3 vs. 1.7).

Add the fact that gains are smallest among adults 50 and older (up 12%, 9.1 vs. 8.1), and the median age for “Two and a Half Men” is down from 50.3 a year ago to 48 currently — a very uncommon occurrence for a show in its ninth season.

Other possible factors contributing to the strong start for “Men” include the dueling competition series on ABC (“Dancing With the Stars”) and NBC (“The Sing Off”), meaning CBS’ only scripted Big Four competish on Monday comes from Fox.

And as the 9 o’clock anchor for CBS, “Men” is benefiting from a much stronger opening hour on Monday for the net. Leadoff series “How I Met Your Mother” is red hot in its seventh season (up 24% in 18-49, 5.1 vs. 4.1) and has gotten younger (42.5 vs. 44.2 a year ago), and the net has found a great fit between “Mother” and “Men” in “2 Broke Girls,” whose 5.4 average in 18-49 reps a sizable 59% improvement over last year’s “Rules of Engagement” in the 8:30 p.m. timeslot.

The three shows are clearly feeding off each other, and 9:30 p.m. soph “Mike and Molly” is up 18% at 9:30 (4.7 vs. 4.0).

The Eye has also improved on Thursdays at 8 with “The Big Bang Theory” (+18%, 5.9 vs. 5.0), and its new skedmate, “Rules of Engagement,” is up 12% over its Monday showing of last season (3.8 vs. 3.4).

At ABC, “Modern Family” is up another 25% in adults 18-49 this year (7.0 vs. 5.6); thanks in part to a surge among teens (up 38%, 3.6 vs. 2.6) and only modest gains among adults 50-plus, its median age has dropped as well (41.8 from 43.7). A good chunk of “Family’s” growth is coming via delayed viewing, as the Emmy winner is regularly setting records for full-week DVR playback.

Another third-year comedy for ABC, “The Middle,” is also up for a second straight year — including by 14% in 18-49 (3.3 vs. 2.9) and by 22% in teens (2.2 vs. 1.7). Like CBS on Monday, the 8 and 9 p.m. Wednesday shows on ABC are benefiting from a stronger 8:30 p.m. newcomer between them, as the Alphabet’s “Suburgatory” is up 42% in 18-49 vs. last year’s “Better With You” (3.4 vs. 2.4).

NBC ‘s Thursday comedy anchors haven’t been as fortunate, as “Community” has dropped by 17% (2.0 vs. 2.4 in 18-49) and “The Office” is down by 15% (4.0 vs. 4.7) as it proceeds without Steve Carell.

Fox’s lone returning live-action laffer, “Raising Hope,” is up slightly in most categories as it has been paired with “New Girl.” And the net’s animated vets “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” are within a tick or so of their year-ago averages.

Overall, the momentum is clearly on comedy’s side heading into 2012, and the networks figure to look for ways to place more half-hours on the sked — including perhaps Friday and Sunday, where there are currently no live-action laffers.

In fact, with CBS and ABC both figuring to expand their comedy presence and NBC and Fox possibly doing the same, it wouldn’t be surprising to see 25 or more comedies on the Big Four schedule board when the fall 2012 skeds are announced in May.

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