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Fall’s Comedy Bloodbath Points to TV’s Overpopulation Problem

When CBS cancels “The Millers” just five episodes into its second season, you know comedy is hard this fall.

CBS wanted “The Millers” (pictured) to work in the worst way. The Eye and its sibling CBS Television Studios have been dying to field a big fat comedy hit that CBS owns outright in order to reap syndication riches, as other studios have enjoyed off the back of CBS hits. But comedies are clearly overshadowed on the overstuffed TV dial these days by dramas and unscripted series that are often an easier sell to audiences that need a distinct reason to proactively find the show in a sea of choices.

CBS invested megabucks to bring one of the most in-demand comedy showrunners, Greg Garcia, into CBS TV Studios. “The Millers” was the first major byproduct of that overall deal. The show was stocked with veteran thesps — Will Arnett, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges — offering the kind of multigenerational appeal that works so well for CBS shows.

The deepest blow of all to the Eye’s hopes for “The Millers” is that the ax comes as the show was midway through its second season. That means CBS will have invested at minimum $30 million-$40 million in production and marketing costs but be left with only 32 episodes to show for it — not enough to command much in the way of SVOD or international dollars, and bupkis in traditional cable and broadcast syndication.

What’s more, six of the 11 episodes produced this season probably won’t even air for months — the cruelest form of unused inventory. (It seems a safe bet they might pop up on CBS’ cabler Pop, aka the revamped TV Guide Network, next year.)

CBS is not the only network with a comedy problem this fall. NBC has already axed two new shows, “A to Z” and “Bad Judge,” which came on to the scene with some fanfare. And the Peacock proactively pulled the plug on “Mission Control” before production began on the midseason comedy. Casting problems and other behind-the-scenes issues made that show too risky for the network and the Universal Television wing, at a time when the Peacock doesn’t have any wiggle room with comedies.

ABC whacked “Manhattan Love Story” and “Selfie” in quick succession, even as the latter started to gain some traction with critics.

Fox’s big live-action hopeful, “Mulaney,” is hanging on by a thread and had its episode order reduced. The network surprised observers Friday by giving a six-episode pickup to “The Mindy Project,” which is struggling with low ratings in its third season.

Like everything else in TV, new comedies must be not just good but great — so great that people rave about them on their social-media megaphones. To have a hope of survival, they also need a strong POV that can be clearly articulated as a selling point: the remember-what-life-was-like-in-the-1980s nostalgia of ABC’s “The Goldbergs”; the lovable 12-step losers of CBS’ “Mom”; the screwball humor of CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”

After the quick demise of “The Millers,” the highest drama in TV next week may well be found in the pressure-cooker environment of comedy writers’ rooms.

Postscript: A shout-out is due to the team at “The Millers” — particularly stars Arnett, Martindale and Bridges — who got the bad news on Friday but opted to go ahead with Tuesday’s scheduled taping so the crew could get paid. The series regulars would have been assured their paychecks regardless, but not the below-the-line folks. That’s a classy exit.

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