Cable picks up networks’ sitcom slack

'Boys,' 'Silverman' lead comedy push

Why do most comedy writers hate the broadcast networks?

Betsy Thomas, a Hollywood veteran who created the TBS sitcom “My Boys,” says, “The networks have totally alienated the talented showrunners because they don’t respect them. Network executives who’ve never written a word think they can dictate” how a script should be put together.

Just about all of Thomas’ countless writer friends have horror stories of their ill treatment at the hands of the broadcasters. And now that the networks have engineered heavy cutbacks in the number of half-hour sitcoms on their schedules, disgruntled writers are starting to cross over to cable networks like TBS, FX and Showtime.For broadcast TV, comedy is taking a back seat these days to police procedurals and other dramatic hours, talent contests, reality shows and gameshows.

Scheduling so few laffers, the networks can’t draw any more on successful long-running sitcoms as lead-ins to draw viewers to sample the newcomers.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” exited two years ago on CBS. And only one current laffer, “Two and a Half Men” on CBS, ranks among the season’s top 20 programs in adults 18-49.

Jumping at the chance to go into business with experienced writer-showrunners like Thomas, cable TV has taken up some of the slack, churning out more original scripted comedies than ever before.

Michael Wright, head of programming and production for TBS and TNT, says he and his staff can give comedy writers much more attention because “broadcast networks have to fill 22 hours a week with original shows. TBS needs to fill only two hours for the whole summer.”

Thomas agrees. During the development season, she says, “a broadcast network will buy 25 comedy scripts, shoot 12 of them as pilots and pick up two of the 12 for series.”

The contrast with cable couldn’t be clearer. In her words: “TBS will develop three sitcom scripts, shoot two pilots and go into series production with the better one.”

The broadcast model is dysfunctional, she says, because there are so many projects in the works that individual ones end up getting lost in the shuffle.

TBS stands out because it’s the most recent convert to firstrun sitcoms, picking up “My Boys” for a second cycle of nine half-hours (after an original order of 13) and signing Michael Leeson (“The Cosby Show”) to write and co-executive produce eight episodes of a domestic comedy, “The Bill Engvall Show.”

“One of the paradoxes of the ‘Engvall Show’ is that it’s a multi-camera family comedy done in front of a live audience,” Wright says. “That kind of comedy used to be a staple of the broadcast networks, and, with rare exceptions, you’re not seeing it there anymore.”

A series like “My Boys,” which Sony Pictures TV films in Los Angeles, with exteriors in Chicago (where the show takes place), costs a strapping $1.2 million to produce, putting it close to the budget of a first-year broadcast sitcom.

By contrast, says John Landgraf, president and general manager of the FX Networks, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” comes in at about half the cost of “My Boys” for one key reason: Its three young writer-producers are newcomers, and they also star as the trio who run a local bar.

Landgraf says FX has renewed “Always Sunny” for a third cycle of 15 half-hours because the show overachieves in its target 18-49 demo. Danny DeVito has joined the series as a regular, and FX plans to pour record amounts of money into marketing the show’s third season.

FX’s goal is to turn the series into a big enough success that it can serve as the table-setter for a new scripted comedy down the road, Landgraf says. FX doesn’t have the luxury of TBS, which can use reruns of still-popular comedies such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Sex and the City” as lead-ins to its new comedies.

Comedy Central is closer to FX than TBS in its drive to come up with more scripted original comedies. Lauren Corrao, executive VP of original programming and development for Comedy Central, says her network’s young viewers are not interested in mainstream sitcoms.

“Our shows have to be a little more innovative and interesting,” Corrao says. “Writers come to Comedy Central because we let them express themselves.”

Case in point: “The Sarah Silverman Program,” which hooked more than a million adults under 50 in its first two half-hours earlier this month by virtue of scathing humor the likes of which are seldom seen on ad-supported cable. Comedy Central wasted no time, giving the Silverman show a second-season renewal for 14 episodes.

To take some heat off, Comedy Central and FX tend to schedule their most abrasive comedies at 10 p.m. or later, the so-called “safe-harbor” time periods.

The pay TV networks HBO and Showtime enjoy even more freedom than TBS, FX or Comedy Central because they don’t accept advertising. HBO has set the standard for no-holds-barred content with such long-running comedies as “Sex and the City” and the current “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Showtime took a lot longer to come up with a successful comedy because its resources are puny compared to HBO’s. But “Weeds,” with Mary- Louise Parker as a drug-dealing suburban mom, showed huge double-digit ratings increases in its second season, making the show’s third-season renewal a no-brainer.

Bob Greenblatt, Showtime’s president of entertainment, says he has two more unusual comedies in development, one produced by, and starring, David Duchovny, and the other from Darren Star (“Sex and the City”).

“Every character in our comedies is defined by a big flaw,” says Greenblatt. Unlike the broadcast networks, which frown on flawed characters, he adds, “We celebrate flaws. Let’s face it: That’s what real life is all about.”