TV's Unfunny Fall: Why Are All the Comedies Flopping?

'Animal Practice' Cast

 Justin Kirk, Tyler Labine and Bobby Lee star in the single-camera comedy about the House-like vet who loves animals but hates their owners.

With "Go On" the only "hit" of the freshman crop, new sitcom blocks are tanking and hyped first-year series are pulling anemic numbers -- and those are the shows that are still on the air.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At this time last year, breakout hits 2 Broke Girls and New Girl had the TV industry declaring a comedy comeback. Months later, 16 of the 36 scripted series ordered for the 2012-13 season were comedies. NBC led the pack with six newcomers powering four nights of laughs. ABC ordered four new half-hours, while CBS and Fox bought two and three, respectively.

But as the season hits its halfway mark, the Big Four networks’ big bet on comedy is no laughing matter. Not a single show has cracked the Nielsen Top 30. NBC’s heavily hyped Animal Practice quickly fizzled, CBS’ Partners was DOA, Fox’s midseason The Goodwin Games episode order was cut from 13 to seven, and NBC’s Dane Cook vehicle Next Caller was scrapped before it even hit the air. (Six others, including NBC’s White House sitcom 1600 Penn and ABC’s Sarah Chalke starrer How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), are not yet on the air.)

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In addition to DVR-enabled shifts in viewing habits, which are hurting ratings across the networks, and a fall schedule rattled by storms, a presidential election and sporting events, many are placing the blame on quality. With few exceptions, new additions such as The Neighbors (ABC) and Guys With Kids (NBC) were universally panned. “This sounds simple, but I didn’t laugh,” says Horizon Media senior vp research Brad Adgate of the freshman batch. “Comedies repeat well, bring in a younger audience and pay better in off-net [syndication], so there’s a financial reason to put them on. That said, they have to be good.”

While viewership this fall has tumbled at every network save NBC, comedy has been hit harder than drama, where one arguably can describe such new series as NBC’s Revolution, CBS’ Elementary and The CW’s Arrow as successes. At this stage, NBC’s Matthew Perry vehicle Go On, which garners a day-of 2.4 rating, has the closest thing to a hit in the half-hour arena, though that’s thanks in part to early Olympic sampling and its weekly lead-in, The Voice. Still, the networks are moving forward with several comedies in hope that patience will pay off, as it has historically for the genre (see Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory). Fox ordered more Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project despite those shows generating only 1.4 and 1.8 ratings, respectively, in the key 18-to-49 demo. With the full week’s worth of viewing factored in, the critically admired series deliver slightly better, though still unimpressive, 1.7 and 2.5 ratings, respectively. (In announcing the full-season order, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly highlighted the series’ “smart writing” and “young, influential” viewership as well as his confidence that the shows would “continue to build.”) Making matters worse for his network is the fact that female-fronted comedies traditionally have done poorly in syndication, leading one network insider to joke, “Wish we had just called it Ben.

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Longer-running fare has had its struggles, too. NBC’s formerly top-rated The Office and awards magnet 30 Rock are limping toward their series finales, drawing 2.1 and 1.3 day-of ratings, respectively, in the 18-to-49 demo. Fox and ABC are getting beaten up on the now-ultra-competitive Tuesday night, where Voice is crushing everything in its wake. (ABC plans to shelve the remaining episodes of its little-watched cult favorites Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 in March.)

But that’s not to say viewers aren’t eager to laugh. In November, CBS’ Big Bang Theory hit a series high of 17.6 million in its sixth season, while ABC’s Modern Family continues to deliver top-five ratings. (TBS and USA each paid roughly $1.5 million per episode in license fees for repeats of the No. 1 and No. 2 comedies and have or are planning to launch original comedy efforts on their coattails.)

The poor showing hasn’t stopped networks from scooping up new projects. But NBC, for one, is doing so with an eye toward bigger-tent comedy, making hefty commitments this development season to a Michael J. Fox family sitcom and a relationship entry from Joe Wiseman and Joe Port, among many others.

“We need to try to broaden those ratings,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, referring to NBC’s beloved but increasingly niche series such as Parks and Recreation, Community and 30 Rock. “They’re super-sophisticated, and they attract a certain very upscale audience, but we need to expand beyond that.”

Michael O'Connell contributed to this report.