While nets shrug, sitcoms laugh all the way to cable

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The sitcom isn't dead; it has just moved to cable. Following years of TV executives and experts pondering the future of the comedy series -- particularly the multicamera format -- basic cable seems to be more willing than ever to give sitcoms a go.

To wit: Lifetime last week launched a big push in the format, ordering two multicamera comedy pilots from Media Rights Capital: "Libertyville" and "Rita Rocks." In the summer, TBS set records with the debuts of "The Bill Engvall Show," the network's first in-house production, and first-run syndicated sitcom "Tyler Perry's House of Payne."

The kids networks also have done with well the format: Nickelodeon with shows including "iCarly" and "Just Jordan" and Disney Channel with "That's So Raven" and a little program called "Hannah Montana."

It's not news that the number of sitcoms on broadcast has been declining: There were more than 30 on the air in fall 1987, when networks and viewers were enjoying the format's heyday with such series as "The Cosby Show," "Cheers" and "Family Ties." Twenty years later and with one additional network on the air, only eight could be found on the broadcast schedules last fall.

The trend has been going in the opposite direction on cable, which is a perfect place for the format's comeback, according to TBS' original programming chief Michael Wright.

"Because we don't have to aggregate the same size audience as (the broadcast networks) do, we have greater freedom to pursue different forms and grow the audience," he says. "Engvall" in particular fills a void left by the diminishing number of feel-good family sitcoms on the air, he adds.

To be sure, even cable has had its struggles with the format, with such short-lived series as "That's My Bush" on Comedy Central and "Lucky Louie" on HBO. But those two networks don't rely heavily on off-net sitcoms to round out their schedule the way TBS and Lifetime do. Reruns of hit multicamera comedies are a key part of these networks' schedules, so, as fewer half-hours are coming down the pike because of the sitcom draught on broadcast, their executives began looking at alternatives. Lifetime, for example, is hoping to strip one of the half-hour series it ultimately picks up in the four-pilot deal with MRC.

"We don't want to deprive our audience of half-hour comedies, so we felt like we should just start making our own sitcoms," says Maria Grasso, who oversees series development at Lifetime and developed various sitcoms in previous roles as a studio executive. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel; we just want good writing and situations and a great cast."

In fact, Lifetime, which got into the comedy business two years ago with the single-camera "Lovespring International," is putting all its comedy development efforts into the multicamera sitcom, Grasso says. TBS, meanwhile, is continuing to develop in a range of comedy formats.

Broadcast networks already are looking to copy cable's successful development model. A sitcom success on cable also could spur the format's comeback on broadcast, Wright believes.

"Every time someone declares a form dead, it re-emerges," he says.
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