TBS gets laugh lift

Audiences take to 'Boys,' 'Items'

For years, basic cable networks have tried — and largely failed — to find any traction in original sitcoms, but TBS may have cracked the elusive genre with a pair of new comedies.

“My Boys,” a single-camera laffer about a female sportswriter and her group of guy friends, is pulling in the best 18-49 numbers of any narrative, live-action comedy on basic cable ever. And latenight entry “10 Items or Less” has already managed to dethrone Comedy Central behemoth “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” among the target 18- to 34-year-old audience each time out.

While the shows’ longterm performance remains to be seen, the numbers are particularly encouraging, especially since even the broadcast networks are struggling to find a sitcom hit.

For basic cablers, the comedies not only help brand the network, but can provide riches on the backend, if enough episodes are produced to sell the show in syndication. But recent entries like Lifetime’s “Lovespring International” and VH1’s “So Notorious” have proven such coin isn’t easy to mint.//TBS’ formula seemed backward at first: Rather than trying to out-snark competing comedies on broadcast and cable, TBS went for unabashedly feel-good fare.

Between recent buzzworthy network comedies that traffic in the hip and quirky — see “My Name Is Earl,” “Arrested Development” and “The Office” — TBS executives found a void that network senior VP of original programming Michael Wright likes to call “shows with a big old heart beating at the center of them.”

“We are proudly populist,” Wright says. “There’s something affirming about our comedy. ‘Edgy’ has its place, but I think people need balance with something that’s smart but fun.”

Even critics seemed to have been yearning for some solid meat-and-potatoes comedy, with both shows earning praise. .

So far, the sitcom genre has done best on restriction-free pay networks HBO (“Sex and the City”) and Showtime (“Weeds”), but ad-supported channels like FX and Oxygen are determined to grow shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Campus Ladies.”

Studios have already figured out an economic model for hourlong cable shows, having produced appointment dramas such as “The Closer,” “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “Monk,” and are slowly figuring out how to make a viable model for half-hours.

Production costs of a sitcom for cable are said to run about 20% less than that for a broadcast net.

“The presumption is that in success, the studio will make money down the road,” says Sony senior VP of comedy development Glenn Adilman, who noted DVD and international sales are potent revenue streams. Sony produces both “My Boys” and “10 Items.”

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz, which represents hundreds of TV stations, says “My Boys” especially, stands to make significant syndie coin.

“Its chances are even better because it’s broader than most of the broadcast comedies,” he says.

Despite lower viewing levels for cable comedies, there is more afterlife potential than ever because the few laffers that exist on the major webs “are niche in appeal … stations are having to look at what their other options are, from cable to even Internet,” Carroll says.

The leap from cable to broadcast syndication is lucrative: Both “Sex and the City” and “South Park” landed rich syndie deals.

Solving the comedy puzzle wasn’t all smooth sailing for TBS, which tried repeatedly to stake its claim in high-concept reality before taking a page from the playbook of its Turner sister net TNT. TNT launched Kyra Sedgwick crime hour “The Closer” with a bang by creating a show not unlike its off-net procedural dramas.

“If you stumbled across ‘The Closer’ on TNT, you’d get something new and fresh, but also something familiar. It wouldn’t be jarring after having watched our repeats of ‘Law & Order’ or ‘Without a Trace,’ ” Wright says.

Thus, “My Boys” was created as a companion to the sanitized episodes of “Sex and the City,” a series with equal parts wit and heart, while quirkier gamble “10 Items” was built as a lead-out for “Family Guy.”

And again, the content of both shows “is respectful of the audience that’s watching us for ‘Friends’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ reruns,” Wright says. “Like those series, the humor of our originals is based in relatable characters and their relationships.”

For now, cable’s sitcom ratings don’t approach that of its hit dramas, but TBS will play slow-and-steady until the dynamic changes.

Cabler debuted “My Boys” and “10 Items” in late November to help stir excitement for the spring upfront season, but Turner Entertainment president Steve Koonin says that should the pair maintain solid Nielsens, new episodes will return in the summer, cable’s peak season.

It’s early, but “we’re happy with the shows creatively,” Koonin says, “and from a ratings perspective, definitely.”