Upfronts 2014: Comedy Left Behind as Networks Turn to Drama, Reality

Desperate times call for desperate scheduling. And in the case of network comedy, that means breaking with longstanding traditions in seeking to invigorate a signature TV genre that is struggling mightily to find its place in the DVR age.

The upcoming 2014-15 season was unveiled during last week’s network upfront presentations, coming on the heels of a year where much pre-season buzz surrounded a glut of high-profile comedies and big names — Michael J. Fox! Robin Williams! — gracing TV with their presence. Many critics glommed onto new shows with “Comedy’s back” abandon, enthusing over half-hours like “Enlisted,” “The Crazy Ones,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “About a Boy.”

While the last two will be back, the pile-up of canceled comedies resembled the carnage in a summer blockbuster. NBC finally got around to pulling the plug on “Community,” and announced a closing run of “Parks and Recreation,” shows whose media footprint always far surpassed their Nielsen resumes.

The real jaw-dropping takeaway from the aggregated lineups, however, is how decades of tradition were discarded, largely because the challenge in launching new comedies has become so formidable.

Toward that end, NBC will shift a drama, “The Blacklist,” to anchor its Thursday lineup at midseason, and kick off the fall with reality competition “The Biggest Loser” in the 8 p.m. hour — the first time the Peacock will be comedy-free to open the night in more than three decades. (NBC did move “The Apprentice” into its 9 p.m. slot during Jeff Zucker’s tenure, generally seen as a Hail Mary pass after years of squandered sitcom development.)

Fox, meanwhile, will break up its longtime Animation Domination block, pairing “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” on Sunday with two live-action sitcoms, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the new “Mulaney,” respectively.

CBS felt compelled to shrink its comedy footprint by an hour, and thanks to its acquisition of Thursday-night football, will get through a chunk of the fall airing only two sitcoms.

During his network’s upfront, ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee described passion as a must-have ingredient for program survival in the modern age, saying of successful shows, “It’s about what you love — what you seek out.”

Sitcoms have still managed to form love connections. But with a few ostentatious exceptions — CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and to a lesser degree ABC’s “Modern Family” — those bonds have been with smaller audiences, to whom such shows can speak in a more particular way. Other than those Emmy-nominated network hits, the roster of cable award contenders, like “Girls,” “Veep” and “Louie,” draw crowds that would get them canceled between the first and second commercial breaks by any broadcaster.

Echoing Lee, Fox counterpart Kevin Reilly discussed the need for new shows to make noise in order to get noticed. But comedies generally struggle to conjure the kind of noise-making concepts that dramas or reality shows can, which is why new sitcoms have traditionally relied on an existing hit to help lead people into the tent. “Strong lead-ins still matter,” CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler says.

In success, of course, there’s still nothing quite so lucrative as a wildly popular comedy — and even in this day and age, “Big Bang” is a supernova of profits for Warner Bros. Television.

Amid the din of channels crying for attention, however, the sound emanating from such hits, along with the experience of widely shared laughter, looks to be slowly but steadily fading. And if that trend can’t be reversed, sitcoms as a genre could really be the biggest loser.

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