Exit laughing: NBC retreats from comedy

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It's the sign of the times.

For the first time in almost 30 years, NBC won't have a new comedy series on its fall schedule. And, in a hint of the new direction the broadcast networks will be taking in the face of audience demand for as many originals of their favorite series as possible, NBC's top comedies "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" will produce 30 and 28 episodes, respectively, next season.

NBC is set to unveil its fall schedule today in New York following down-to-the-wire negotiations that secured the return of two veteran NBC series — drama "Law & Order" and comedy "Scrubs" — both of which had had potential suitors, TNT and ABC, respectively. "L&O" has been picked up for 22 episodes, "Scrubs" for 18.

It's been an across-the-board retreat from comedy this pickup season, with only a few new half-hour projects getting series orders by the networks. NBC ended up ordering only one new comedy series, "The IT Crowd," which is said to have received a six-episode order for midseason. Also rumored for midseason is newly greenlighted dramedy "Lipstick Jungle."

"Crowd" and "Lipstick" join four other hourlong projects that NBC picked up to series Thursday: "The Bionic Woman," "Chuck," "Journeyman" and "Life" (HR 5/11).

Because of dramas' poor repeatability, especially when they are serialized, the broadcast networks have been moving steadily toward running hourlong shows in long stretches of original episodes. If NBC's experiment with "Office" and "Earl" is successful, comedies might follow with bigger annual batches of original episodes than the regular 22-24 per season.

Comedies used to perform much better than dramas in reruns, but with the shows now available on many digital platforms right after they air on TV, on-air repeats are becoming less and less relevant. What's more, long stretches of repeats seriously hurt the series' ratings when they come back with originals, which is the case with "Office" and "Earl," which had a great run in the winter, but suffered in the final portion of the season after weeks of repeats in March and April.

While it's a safe bet that "Office" and "Earl" will stay on Thursday, the rest of NBC's fall schedule was still murky Sunday as the network closely guarded details about its lineup.

For a second consecutive year, "ER," which is going into the second year of a two-year pickup, has been rumored to leave its Thursday 10 p.m. period. While it is possible, observers caution that the 14-year-old show's steep price tag would make such move risky.

A couple of new series with sci-fi elements, "Bionic Woman" and "Journeyman," had been speculated as potential companions for NBC's freshman hit "Heroes" on Mondays, while critical darling "Friday Night Lights" could stay true to its title with a Friday berth.

"Lipstick," based on Candace Bushnell's novel, stars Lindsay Price, Brooke Shields and Kim Raver as trio of successful professional women in New York. NBC Uni TV Studio is producing.

"Crowd," from NBC Uni TV and "American Idol" producer FremantleMedia North America, is a multicamera workplace comedy with single-camera elements that is set at an IT department. With its setting and pedigree, the project, based on a British series, is close to the network's hit comedy "Office."
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