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No Cynicism Allowed: ABC Banks on Family Comedies With Multigenerational Appeal

ABC is going against the prevailing winds in TV and making a big bet on family values.

The network is banking on the strength of its comedy roster this fall by expanding its Tuesday sitcom block from one to two hours. The clutch of family-centric laffers that will air from 8-10 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday represent the most well-defined comedy brand among the Big Four networks at present.

For sure, there’s been a years-long drought of big breakthrough comedy hits across the broadcast nets. But ABC has steadily built a bench of half-hours that are consistent, if not spectacular, performers for the network. ABC was home to six of the top 10 broadcast TV sitcoms last season, including two freshman entries: “Modern Family,” “The Goldbergs,” “Blackish,” “Speechless,” “The Middle” and “American Housewife.”

“We have comedies that are all very unique and specific in their point of view and the families they describe and yet they are very universal and in some of the issues and topics they tackle,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told Variety. She pointed to the range of life experiences and family backgrounds depicted, from the African-American family on “Blackish” to the Asian immigrant story of “Fresh Off the Boat” to a family with a special-needs child on “Speechless.”

ABC’s revamped fall schedule will see “Blackish” move out of halo of “Modern Family” on Wednesday to the 9 p.m. anchor slot on Tuesday, where it will be paired with newcomer “The Mayor” at 9:30 p.m. Dungey said she has great faith that “Blackish” is ready to stand alone in its fourth season. She also has confidence that there is a multigenerational audience for sitcoms imbued with heart and soul.

“When you look at what’s happening in the real-world landscape that we live in, I think people want to feel. They want to laugh. They want to connect,” Dungey said. “Our family comedies allow the audience to do just that.”

“Modern Family” and “The Middle” are the archetypes of the current ABC brand. “Middle,” the gentle laffer about a Midwestern family, is preparing for its final outing in its ninth season.

“I talk to fans all the time who say ‘This is a show I can sit down and watch with my kids,’ ” said “Middle” star Atticus Shaffer. “That’s something to be proud of.”

ABC aims to expand the contours of its comedy brand with new series that blend family dynamics with workplace settings, including “The Mayor” (revolving around an aspiring rapper who becomes mayor of his hometown) and midseason entry “Alex Inc.” (featuring Zach Braff as a husband and father who launches a company). But Dungey also has a clear sense of what won’t work for the network.

“We’re looking at what we do well and we want to expand and grow,” Dungey said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to do a comedy that is cynical. That’s just not who we are as a network.”

From a business perspective, comedies have the extra appeal of repeating well, relative to dramas, and they are easier for viewers to drop in and out of even if they miss a few episodes.

“In a world where there’s a lot of other pressures in terms of your life, it’s nice to be able to sit down and watch for a half an hour, and if you miss next week, you can still come back and engage,” Dungey said.

Moreover, ABC sees an opportunity to grow its family audience on Tuesday and Wednesday when parents and kids are more likely to be home — they’re school nights, after all. ABC for the past few years had aired an hour of comedy on Friday, but the calculation this year was to load up midweek in order to maximize the promotional value from night to night. ABC also has the benefit of strong launching pads for fledgling sitcoms.

“We have less difficulty launching a comedy because we already have a large audience to promote to,” Andy Kubitz, ABC’s exec VP of program planning and scheduling, told Variety. “We have successful comedies to put them behind. The overall challenge (in TV) is to cut through the clutter. We have a great platform and a great brand to build on.”

The fun factor and the non-serialized format has also driven ABC’s increased investment in game shows (“Match Game,” “$100,000 Pyramid,” “Celebrity Family Feud,” “The Gong Show”) during the past year, Kubitz added.

“We have specifically targeted easily-joinable shows,” Kubitz said. “Our game shows are just fun and light for the summer. We have enough heavy drama during the season.”

(Pictured: “Blackish”)

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