Network Comedy Crisis: Cable Chips Away as the Big Four Can't Make a New Hit

The Mindy Project Halloween - H 2012
Beth Dubber/FOX

The Mindy Project Halloween - H 2012

With "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory" serving as rare exceptions to the rule, the struggling genre faces an uncertain future on the networks that made it a TV staple.

This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Less than two years ago, strong initial ratings for Fox's New Girl and CBS' 2 Broke Girls spurred myriad "comedy comeback" headlines. The sitcom is a staple of the broadcast brand, a genre that, when it works, can have tremendous upside (CBS' The Big Bang Theory and ABC's Modern Family sold in syndication for $2 million and $1.4 million an episode, respectively). But this season, the Big Four struggled to launch laughers. Several freshman comedies already have been axed (NBC's Animal Practice, CBS' Partners, Fox's Ben and Kate), and many more are on the chopping block (NBC's Guys With Kids and 1600 Penn). Only one first-year comedy has received a second-season order, and it can't even be called a legitimate hit: Fox's The Mindy Project averages a 2.1 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic.

Why have the broadcast networks been unable to locate their funny bones this season? Industry observers cite multiple factors, including a fractured media landscape in which viewers curate their own schedules; cable's increasing encroachment with unconventional fare; and a lack of patience on the part of network executives who, some showrunners contend, are too quick to pull the plug on half-hours or use them as schedule spackle (CBS' Rules of Engagement, for example).

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"To really laugh with characters, you have to get to know them," says Happy Endings executive producer Jonathan Groff. The quirky ABC comedy has a core (albeit small) young fan base, but after getting the plum post-Modern Family slot last season, it was moved to Tuesdays, where it did not air until October and never had more than three consecutive weeks of originals. Endings was shelved in January, and on March 29, ABC began airing (or burning off) the remaining 10 episodes back-to-back on Fridays. Sources say producer Sony TV is pitching the show to cable networks, especially USA, which is attempting to break into scripted comedy with several pilots in development while using Modern Family reruns as a launchpad.

Of course, what's happening in comedy is a more pronounced version of what has happened in drama: Cable is stealing much of the buzz, awards and ratings with edgier, targeted shows. FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in its seventh season, was the No. 2-ranked comedy on cable among men. The network's animated Archer is the top-rated scripted cable comedy among viewers 18-to-49 and 18-to-34 and across all male demos. BET's The Game -- which pulled in a jaw-dropping 7.7 million viewers for its first episode on that network, which rescued it from the broadcast scrap heap -- was the No. 1 comedy among African-American viewers in 2012.

"You're picking out subcomponents of the audience and taking them away from broadcast," says FX Networks president and GM John Landgraf, who will launch FXX, a young-male-targeted network anchored by new seasons of Philadelphia and The League, on Sept. 2.

With its dual revenue stream and economic programming budgets, cable can afford to play to niches. "We have to service a different bar for our audience," says Marcus Wiley, senior vp comedy development at Fox Broadcasting. "We are numbers-based. Places like HBO and Showtime, they don't even have to think about numbers."

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Indeed, the Zooey Deschanel comedy New Girl might be down double digits in its second season, but Fox still can charge more than $320,000 for a 30-second ad to reach its young, upscale audience. And while HBO's Girls is not widely viewed (1.1 million watched the second-season premiere, a number that would kill a broadcast comedy), its cultural impact makes it valuable. But big, broad hits are becoming increasingly rare. Modern Family and multicamera stalwarts Big Bang (reruns of which bested American Idol in the 18-to-49 demo April 18) and CBS' Two and a Half Men are the exception, not the rule.

Still, when a comedy works, it works big, which makes the half-hour a problem worth solving.

"There's more commonality to what makes people cry than to what makes them laugh," says Landgraf. "Comedy is the most sensitively specific genre there is."