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Broadcast Networks Re-Commit to Comedy in Hopes of Finding Next Big Hit

With a dozen network comedies cancelled this past season, it’s no secret that broadcast is struggling to find a big hit. But take one quick glance at the fall schedule, and this year’s secret is out: comedy is on trend.

While the past season delivered respectable performers in CBS’ “Life in Pieces” and NBC’s “Superstore,” plus a critical darling in The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” no broadcast comedy has been a true smash since ABC’s “Modern Family” debuted in 2009.

And yet the networks are eager to find the next big thing as they recommit to the genre in a major way: ABC has slotted 10 half-hours on its fall schedule, CBS will return to four hours of sitcoms a week after going all drama on Mondays last season, NBC is bringing comedy back to Thursday, Fox continues taking big swings and The CW has added a third hourlong comedy to its boutique slate.

“I think there are a lot of great comedies on broadcast, but what defines a hit is so hard,” says Tracey Pakosta, NBC’s executive VP of comedy development. “Shows that resonate and are talked about, there is absolutely room for that, but from a ratings standpoint and figuring out what the bar is, that’s a little bit more of a challenge. We’re competing with cable and streaming and everything else.”

“We saw really good numbers coming out of last season with comedies and it felt like the perfect time to expand.”
Glenn Geller

The crowded landscape is certainly a concern for broadcasters in the age of peak TV, so the networks are pulling out all the stops in 2016 with high concepts — a talking dog, an imaginary friend, time travel — and familiar faces — Marlon Wayans, Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale, Kevin James.

“Kevin knew in the room, when we bought the show, that we stick behind our shows. We promote them, we support them, and we believe in them,” CBS president Glenn Geller says of James, who’s returning to the network that was home to his “King of Queens” for nine seasons — an example of the net’s typical longevity [though Jane Lynch’s freshman comedy “Angel From Hell” was quickly axed last season].

James’ family comedy, “Kevin Can Wait,” landed the plum launching pad behind “The Big Bang Theory” on Mondays in the fall. “Big Bang” then returns to Thursdays after football wraps, to help launch Joel McHale’s “The Great Indoors.”

Geller feels the time is right to get aggressive with comedy. “We saw really good numbers coming out of last season with comedies and it felt like the perfect time to expand and put more comedy on the air, and frankly, I’m thrilled,” he says.

Matt LeBlanc — whose “Man With a Plan” will follow James’ series after the “Big Bang” move, and air an hour earlier than his former “Friends” pal Matthew Perry’s “Odd Couple” — says he was looking to return to broadcast, after five seasons on premium cable with Showtime’s “Episodes.”

“I really do miss the multicam format, and if you’re going to do it, network television is the place to do it, and if you’re going to do it on network television, it seems like CBS is the place to do a comedy these days,” LeBlanc says.

While CBS has a whopping eight sitcoms on their fall schedule [including the three newbies], NBC just has two: the second season of “Superstore” will be paired with high concept title “The Good Place” from “Parks and Recreation’s” Mike Schur, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.

But the timeslot is meaningful. The pair will air on Thursday, long a home to prestige comedies on the network — from “Cheers” to “Seinfeld” to “30 Rock” — until going comedy-free for the entirety of last season.

No Tomorrow” is the latest addition to The CW’s brand of hourlong female-driven comedies.

“Given that there are so many options on all of these different media, I think that people aren’t always willing to give comedies the time they need to grow and find an audience,” NBC’s Pakosta says.

“The strategy moving forward this year was about rebuilding and redefining the comedy brand for NBC,” she adds, emphasizing that a clear point of view, authenticity, and relatability are what make up NBC comedies today.

The Peacock only renewed two comedies for the upcoming season: “Superstore” and critically acclaimed multicam “The Carmichael Show.” “It’s always hard to see shows go,” Pakosta says. “Clearing house wasn’t our strategy as much as ‘Carmichael’ and ‘Superstore’ just fit more in line with what the comedy brand looked like moving forward.”

Fox, meanwhile, looks to continue its successful male-skewing Sunday night block anchored by indomitable toons “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” Jason Sudeikis’ hybrid-animated “Son of Zorn” is set for fall and the American Revolution-set time-travel laffer “Making History” will swap in at midseason. Both hail from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who also launched the network’s “The Last Man on Earth.”

Similarly, ABC looks to make a splash with creative gambles in the talking dog show “Downward Dog” and “Imaginary Mary,” which blends live action and CGI animation. Both are on deck for midseason, but all the Alphabet’s new comedies have an intriguing common link: they’re each led by women.

For fall, Katy Mixon toplines “American Housewife,” paired with relocated veteran “The Middle” on Tuesdays. And Minnie Driver stars in “Speechless,” slotted between “The Goldbergs” and “Modern Family,” as the mother of a special-needs child. Both of the new series appear to be directly in the ABC wheelhouse of diverse family comedies.

Likewise, The CW aims to build on what’s been working and launch another hourlong female-driven comedy. This fall, the younger-skewing network introduces “No Tomorrow,” starring newcomer Tori Anderson, who the net hopes can follow in the footsteps of back-to-back Golden Globe-winning “It girls” Gina Rodriguez [“Jane the Virgin”] and Rachel Bloom [“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”].

As the net finds its footing with a unique comedy brand, the ambition is to augment a schedule dominated by the breakout Greg Berlanti-produced superhero shows.

“We want to try to move from not just being Monday-focused on female comedy. We’d like to have another night and another place for an hourlong comedy,” says CW president Mark Pedowitz of his strategy for the upcoming season.

It was an opening Pedowitz saw after Berlanti’s “Supergirl” became available from big sister net CBS. “[With] ‘Supergirl’ into ‘Jane’ and ‘Flash’ into ‘No Tomorrow,’ we’re giving our comedies a real shot at getting viewership. We want to get these shows that are getting critical acclaim the best shot they can to have a long and healthy life.”

Pedowitz is proud to be recognized for comedy — new territory for The CW. “We were never a place known for comedy so the fact that you’re even talking to us about comedy is a treat,” he quips. But, he’s also proud to be making a difference on the television biz.

“We think we’ve made an impact to creators and showrunners [to show] that comedy doesn’t have to be 23 minutes, it can be 42,” he says.

With all of the CW’s comedy momentum, Pedowitz admits his main focus is hourlongs, but he’s not totally ruling out half-hours. “We have a little niche, but we are a broadcaster, so we do want to have a balance in the programming that we offer.”

After all, comedy remains a crucial part of any network’s balanced diet.

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