Comedy: Cable picks up the sitcom slack
EmptyLogo has its "Big Gay Sketch Show" and animated "Rick and Steve." Showtime already has "Weeds" and will premiere the David Duchovny vehicle "Californication" on Aug. 13. TBS has fast-tracked "House of Payne" and "The Bill Engvall Show," with the sketch series "The Frank Show" rolling out of the gate in November. VH1 will unveil the ensemble "I Hate My 30s" next week. And BET is dipping its toes in the water with the single-camera series "Somebodies," slated to premiere next year. All comedies, all original -- and all weighted with the expectation that they will help their respective networks break out of the ratings gate.
It may not be all funny, all the time across the dozens of cable channels out there, but more and more frequently, those channels are looking to the funny business to help give their networks a specific brand identity -- and their timing couldn't be better. Whereas broadcast networks are scaling back on new comedies -- at least as far as the new fall schedule is concerned -- on cable, there seems to be no such downturn. This bodes well for the cablers, who in past years have come to understand that while the ground is littered with failed comedy shows, one solid hit can substantially increase a network's ratings, or even Emmy cachet.
"We see original comedy as a sure way of binding together our audience and establishing the Logo brand," explains Brian Graden, president of Logo as well as president of entertainment for the MTV Networks Music Group. "It's easier for our viewers to tap into a broad mass comedy than into drama, in large part because the gay and lesbian community relates with one another through humor."
He, and many other programrs, might be on to something. Cable's strong niche targeting frees producers from having to make their programs all things to all audiences, which means comedy specifically can get very personal and "inside baseball."
"We feel like this represents a sensible direction for both Logo and VH1," adds Graden. "Comedy, the way we do it, has a broad reach that allows us to hyperconnect with a very specific niche."
Having fewer broadcast sitcoms is a benefit, says Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's executive vp original programming and development, "because it frees up the talent pool and helps us work with people we might not otherwise get. They know they'll get more creative freedom here. We don't have to soften it or dumb it down or be too broad."
That's often a key to comedy success -- not just targeting the niche, but being willing to push the envelope with them. "(Audiences) come looking for a particular thing that's more irreverent, more provocative, more out-of-the-box (on cable), and if you do it well, it pays off in viewer levels," notes Corrao.
As a premium channel, HBO has been able to push the envelope more than others, and currently has the Lily Tomlin starrer "12 Miles of Bad Road," from "Designing Women" writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, slated to arrive in 2008. According to HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss, the show will be "a really broad, accessible, smart comedy -- but not at all mainstream."
Yet despite HBO's reputation as the gold standard for original network programming, it has had just a handful of comedy breakouts: "The Larry Sanders Show" (a critical smash but never a ratings hit), the iconic "Sex and the City," "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." This summer, it's pushing the satire "Flight of the Conchords," about a couple of New Zealand-born musicians struggling to make it in New York City, with new episodes of "Curb" scheduled for September.
"Comedy is the hardest thing to do, no question," Strauss says. "It's difficult to find a comedy that strikes a chord because humor is such an individualized thing. I mean, we're very proud of (the Ricky Gervais comedy) 'Extras,' but it doesn't get a huge audience. It remains tremendously important to us, however."
Yet a cable network need not necessarily venture to the edge to find scripted comedy success. TBS hit paydirt last summer with the successful launches of "My Boys" and "10 Items or Less" and clearly is investing in more properties.
According to Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin, the strategy is working splendidly. "As broadcast is in a comedy drought, we plan to (continue to) be very aggressive in our development," he explains. "If we're going to be a comedy brand, right now we're in phenomenal shape."
Of course, cable has also been fertile ground for offbeat, observational reality series such as Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List," "Blow Out" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which Amy Introcaso-Davis, the network's senior vp development and production, sees as having taken a big bite out of the network sitcom pie in terms of audience and attention.
"I'm sure the pendulum ultimately will swing back the networks' way," she believes, "but in the meantime, we're benefiting from their down cycle."
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