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Stateside sitcoms mixed overseas

Golden Globes Update

If every U.S. comedy possessed the cross-cultural appeal and star power of “Friends,” global distributors of American-made TV comedies would always be laughing all the way to the bank.

Since the retirement of “Friends,” which generated 10 Golden Globes nominations during its run, peak-time showcases for U.S. laffers on mainstream networks across continental Europe are the exception rather than the rule — though their fates have been better in the U.K.

In Gaul, where U.S. procedurals top primetime ratings every year, Yank comedy shows remain underexposed by the big broadcasters, confined to daytime slots on DTT, satellite and cable channels.

Commercial network M6 picked up “Modern Family” (nominated for Globes in each of its first two seasons) in March 2010 and has since aired on it on pay DTT net Paris Premiere. M6 also acquired two-time defending musical or comedy Globes champ “Glee,” choosing to launch it by programming three episodes in a row late on a Tuesday starting at 11 p.m. After averaging a 12 share, M6 demoted “Glee” to DTT net W9.

“Apart from a few exceptions, such as ‘Friends,’ sitcoms have seldom worked well on national broadcasters,” says Manuel Alduy, head of cinema and TV series acquisition at Canal Plus, whose tiny slate of U.S. comedies includes “Two and a Half Men.” “We see comedies as a kind of niche program targeting a very narrow audience segment.”

As well as wider cultural considerations, being dubbed into French is another reason why U.S. laffers remain on the fringes of schedules in Gaul.

“Jokes don’t translate well in French,” Alduy says. “These shows are often packed with cultural references. … Even the most sophisticated American sitcoms don’t perform as well as U.S. action drama and crime shows.”

U.S. comedies have proven more popular in Germany, where they are drawing younger audiences, says Lorene Nowicki at Eurodata TV Worldwide.

“Two and a Half Men” has nabbed a 16 market share on pay TV net ProSieben, around four points above the web’s average share for young adults.

And while Spanish auds aren’t easily lured by American laffers, the accelerating trend across continental Europe for local remakes of 1980s U.S. sitcoms, such as the Spanish versions of “Golden Girls” and “Cheers,” suggests this is one way that humor can successfully navigate national frontiers.

In Blighty, pubcaster Channel 4, its youth-skewed digital station E4, and paybox Sky are the channels most closely associated with U.S. comedy. Until it finally exited E4 this fall, having been poached by Comedy Central in the U.K., “Friends” was a mainstay of the broadcaster since 1995.

As one commentator said, ” ‘Friends’ is as linked to Channel 4 as ‘Coronation Street’ is to ITV.” In August, it was calculated that 31 of the show’s total 236 halfhour episodes were screened on Channel 4 and E4 during a single week.

So will Channel 4 ever find another U.S. comedy that can match the long-running success of “Friends”? Fox’s “Glee” looked like a possible contender until Sky outbid Channel 4 for the skein earlier this year.

In 2010, E4’s success with “Glee” made it the year’s highest rating acquisition on digital television in the U.K. Season two averaged 2.6 million viewers (a 9 share) with 48% of the audience hitting the vital 16-34 demographic coveted by advertisers. On Sky, “Glee” is unlikely to get even a third of that audience.

Despite the loss of “Friends” and “Glee,” Channel 4’s head of acquisitions Gill Hay is upbeat regarding the prospects for the latest batch of U.S. laffers being lined up by the broadcaster.

“Until recently, new hit U.S. comedies were few and far between,” she says. “But comedy has experienced a revival across the Atlantic. At the moment, we are at the top of the mountain.”

Striking comedic gold at the L.A. Screenings is easier said than done, but last May had all the makings of a gold rush, according to Hay. Freshman Globes noms contenders “New Girl” and “2 Broke Girls” are being prepared for high-profile slots on Channel 4 and E4, respectively.

“Finding one gem is unusual, but to end up buying two shows in one year represents the ultimate goal,” she says.

Meanwhile, “The Big Bang Theory,” which bowed on E4 in 2008, is the web’s top show, generating a series average of 475,000 viewers.

At Sky, acquisitions topper Sarah Wright, having brought “Modern Family” to British auds since the fall of 2009, has assembled a sizable chunk of U.S. comedies.

As well as “Modern Family,” among the laffers that play across Sky’s channels are “The Middle,” “Cougar Town” and “Hot in Cleveland,” not forgetting seasoned comedies “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Simpsons.”

The impact of fare like “Modern Family” also encouraged the paybox to start investing in homegrown laffers such as the recently re-commissioned sitcom “Mount Pleasant.”

“Our aim is to have as rounded a portfolio of comedies as possible,” says Wright. “It sounds obvious, but comedies have to be funny. … For me, ‘Modern Family’ stood out because it had an almost European sensibility. It can be ironic, as well as soft and caring without being at all sentimental.

“Overall, there has been a resurgence in comedy both here and in the U.S.”

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