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No Laughing Matter: TV Networks Need New Sitcoms

Big Four struggle to find breakout hits amid mixed returns for fall’s heaping helping of half-hours

It’s been four years since ABC’s “Modern Family” came along and seemingly put the half-hour comedy back on the map, but the TV biz has hardly been a laugh-a-minute since. Not only has the Alphabet been unable to find a companion to its megahit comedy, but nothing new on any network has really connected with audiences in a comparable way.

It’s not for a lack of trying. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC felt they had the goods heading into this fall — even if none of the 13 new sitcoms was as well reviewed as some of the frosh dramas. In all, the Big Four networks served up 26 half-hours at the start of the season, the most for any fall slate in 10 years.

But so far, the results have been lackluster — even when factoring in DVR playback — so much so that they’ll probably start further discussions about why, at a time when the television drama is more popular and revered than ever, it has become so difficult for viewers to coalesce around comedy.

Sitcoms don’t have the same serialized stickiness with viewers as do dramas, such as “Breaking Bad” and “Scandal,” which overcame slow starts as more viewers found them over time via on-demand platforms.

Some half-hours still rank among TV’s top shows, but the well could soon run dry. Last season was the weakest in memory for the comedy genre (only the modestly rated “The Mindy Project” and “The Neighbors” are back this year from that class), so the only new half-hour hits of the previous two years have been CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “New Girl” — and both have faded some since their hot starts in September 2011.

CBS has been the comedy ratings leader for years, but it has also been the most aggressive network in the genre this fall because “How I Met Your Mother” is wrapping in May, and “Two and a Half Men” may soon follow, based on its sluggish ratings start this fall.

Fortunately for the Eye, three of its four new comedies — “The Crazy Ones,” “The Millers” and “Mom” — have fared well enough to earn back-nine orders. The fourth new CBS laffer of the fall, “We Are Men,” is already in the discard heap.

The Robin Williams-fronted “Crazy Ones,” averaging a 3.5 rating in adults 18-49, and “The Millers” (3.4) are the top new comedies on any network this fall, but these averages are about a point lower than the top new dramas: ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (4.5) and NBC’s “The Blacklist” (4.3).

Brad Adgate, senior research veep at Horizon Media, thinks the quality of comedies in recent years hasn’t approached the level of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” which remain TV’s top-rated half-hours, in their seventh and fifth seasons, respectively.

“I also think the networks were relying on familiar faces to capture their sitcom past this year,” Adgate says, pointing to new shows with Williams, Michael J. Fox (“The Michael J. Fox Show”) and Sean Hayes (“Sean Saves the World”). “The result is an unusually older audience profile for these sitcoms.”

But for now, that older skew is working for CBS, which has a schedule of eight viable half-hours for the first time in years. CBS also has the luxury of two midseason shows, “Bad Teacher” and “Friends With Better Lives,” and may have to rest shows (perhaps “2 Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”) to find the newbies homes.

NBC is on the other end of the comedy spectrum these days. The network that at one point in the late ’90s opened a season with 18 half-hours on its sked is down to four slots — and the Peacock is finding even those hard to fill.

NBC rolled the dice this fall by sticking to its four-comedy Thursday template — even though “The Office,” the net’s strongest performer last season, is now gone. But “Parks and Recreation” and three rookies (including the shows fronted by Fox and Hayes, former NBC Thursday-night comedy stars) have produced tiny ratings, and been trounced by CBS’ comedies head-to-head.

NBC’s strategy for now is to do what it can to give “Sean Saves the World” and “Michael J. Fox” with stronger, broader lead-ins from specials like “Saturday Night Live” clip shows and “The Voice.”

ABC and Fox have had minor victories this fall with their new comedies, whose ratings have stabilized of late.

The Alphabet’s Tuesday combo of “The Goldbergs” and “Trophy Wife” have done OK behind “Agents of SHIELD,” as have Wednesday’s “Back in the Game” and “Super Fun Night” behind “The Middle” and “Modern Family,” respectively.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see “Goldbergs” get a shot behind “The Middle” at some point, while “Trophy Wife” seems a perfect fit with “Modern Family.” Meanwhile, returnee “Suburgatory” is waiting on the midseason bench.

Fox’s Tuesday laffers aren’t doing much ratings-wise but, as the youngest-skewing live-action block, they’re gaining by larger percentages in DVR playback than shows on other networks.

“Dads” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are putting up similar ratings on Tuesday nights, though “Brooklyn” has recruited more DVR fans, and its fi nal tally builds more on “Dads” in L7 ratings. “Mindy Project” is hanging in there behind “New Girl,” which is no longer the tentpole propping up the night.

Fox has committed its most precious real estate — the post-Super Bowl slot in February — to “New Girl” and “Brooklyn,” in the hopes of gaining sampling with a broader audience. That’s a notable choice given that it also has a budding hit on its hands with drama “Sleepy Hollow.” But as any network executive would have to admit, it’s going to take a Super Bowl-size effort to grow a new comedy hit these days.

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