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Networks hope audiences are ready for a laugh

Of 71 scripted pilots in contention for slots at the five networks, 33 are half-hour comedies and 19 of those are multi-camera formats.

April 07, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

America: Do you feel like laughing?

The television industry hopes so because a slew of family, buddy and workplace comedy pilots might be coming to a small screen near you later this year. Despite the cloud of anger and anxiety hanging over the nation because of the ailing economy, the broadcast networks believe the genre is poised for a comeback.

That there is even a pilot season -- the annual springtime ritual of dashed hopes and broken dreams as networks test potential new shows -- is notable. Last year, some networks declared that the writers strike had pushed the industry into a year-round model and would force them to abandon the usual winter and spring development season. And although the recession can be largely blamed for about 40 fewer pilots this season than in recent years, there are still more scripted shows in the works than most industry insiders expected.

The mad scramble ends in mid-May with the "upfronts" in New York City, where network executives unveil their fall season lineups in hopes of attracting billions of dollars in Madison Avenue advertising.

"I know that people are still trying to play with the model, but what I think we all realize is that even though it can be somewhat dysfunctional, we're all competing for the same thing at the same time," said Suzanne-Patmore Gibbs, executive vice president of drama development. "Here at ABC, we do well with deadlines. We like to see things in context."

Of 71 scripted pilots in contention for slots at the five networks, 33 are half-hour comedies and 19 of those are multi-camera formats -- shows taped before a live audience, and sometimes enhanced by laugh tracks. Today, only CBS airs multi-cam sitcoms.

The multi-cam sitcom, such as legendary hits "I Love Lucy" and "Cheers," was once the dominant format in which to televise comedies, as much for conveying a theater-like intimacy to home audiences as for its relatively cheap production costs. But within the last decade, multi-cam sitcoms began to disappear, while single-camera comedies like "30 Rock" and "The Office," with its movie-like freedom, started to rise in prominence.

"The industry had been moving away from multi-cameras out of a sense that other formats offer more creative freedom," said Jamie Erlicht, president of programming at Sony Pictures Television. "But there's room for both and there's a real appetite in these economic times for the tried and true multi-camera format."

Sony, which produces the multi-cam "Rules of Engagement" for CBS, is also behind 10 of the comedies under consideration this pilot season. A year ago, Sony commissioned a study to determine how a change in government or the economy could affect television habits. Its conclusion was that this pendulum would swing away from dramas. Six of the shows on Sony's slate are traditional sitcoms, including "AB FAB," a remake of the popular British series "Absolutely Fabulous" for Fox.

While Fox has a healthy animation comedy block on Sunday nights, it has failed to successfully develop a live-action series for some time. Its pilot slate includes two multi-camera comedies, two single-cameras, one hybrid, and a one-hour comedy.

"Post-9/11, reality TV was very, very fresh to the audience and took up a lot of the space that comedies did," President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly said. "Right now, people are angry. That's where comedy historically has come into play -- when you need someone to voice something in a way that you can hear it."

ABC, which lately has provided most of its lasting laughs on one-hour shows like "Desperate Housewives" or "Ugly Betty," wants to invigorate its family comedy brand, according to executives. Half of ABC's 14 comedy pilots are multi-camera.

"We strongly believe in the benefits of the communal feeling you get watching a comedy with an audience and I think some of the stigma has eroded," Samie Falvey, senior vice president of comedy development at ABC, wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

NBC is committed to a full night of comedy on Thursdays, built around the critically acclaimed shows "30 Rock" and "The Office." The network, which has been taking a beating in the ratings, is producing five comedy pilots, including two traditional multi-cam sitcoms.

"We love that genre and we would have made more but we just didn't have as many strong multi-camera scripts as we did single-camera," said NBC President of Primetime Entertainment Angela Bromstad. "When you look at what's working and what is standing in a very crowded environment, the multi-cameras on CBS are doing very well and prove that it's not a dying format."

In fact, CBS' Monday night lineup helped launch a second comedy hour on Wednesday nights this season. CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler said she expects to keep both comedy lineups next year.

The network is producing seven multi-camera pilots and one hybrid, "The Fish Tank," that will be shot multi-camera, but without an audience, like "How I Met Your Mother."

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