Laughs harder to find

Comedy 'in a challenged stage'

During the past week, the broadcast networks made their series bets for next season, gambling on high-concept large-ensemble big-budget dramas, while retreating from comedy.

The studios are taking their lumps on the comedy side after spending a fortune to satisfy the networks' insatiable appetite for single-camera pilots this development season.

All networks except Fox ordered comedy slates dominated by single-camera projects, each on average said to cost more than $3 million. Only ABC stuck with the form in its series pickups -- ordering three comedies, all single-camera. Meanwhile, NBC and CBS ended up ordering one multicamera comedy series each, and Fox opted for two multicamera and one single-camera series.

"Comedy is clearly in a challenged stage," Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth said. "Half-hours seem to be more irrelevant and predictable than ever before."

Some studio executives say the experience won't deter them from continuing to pursue single-camera projects. Some are looking for more cost-effective alternatives.

"I hope to switch if possible to a multi-/single-camera hybrid shot on a stage with no live audience that will still give it a film look, so it will make it economically efficient without hurting the creative aspect of it," ABC Studios president Mark Pedowitz said. "If the economics can be worked so that we can maintain the creative vision, it will be the rebirth of the comedic genre."

NBC's only comedy series pickup, the NBC Uni TV Studio-produced "The IT Crowd," is a hybrid multicamera with single-camera elements.

Additionally, 20th Century Fox TV for the past couple of years has been successfully experimenting with the multicamera format on its CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother," a multicamera series that is not shot in front of live audience to make room for several more sets on the soundstage. That allows for more flexibility and shorter scenes.

"We'd be foolish not to take a hard look at the comedy business and reassess our strategy in it," 20th TV president Dana Walden said.

The 20th TV-produced single-camera pilot "Miss/Guided," which was a last-minute series order at ABC, provided one of two vertical integration-related stories this upfront season.

The network originally was inclined to pick up the project for six episodes but raised that to 13 after 20th suggested that the show be made a co-production with the network's sister studio ABC Studios.

"We felt it was a smart business move," 20th TV president Gary Newman said. "It is an expensive single-camera show, so having them as co-producers gives them a financial incentive to help it succeed, and they also get to bear half of the risk."

The other case involving two vertically integrated companies relates to CW's comedy "Aliens in America." It was developed and produced at the pilot stage by NBC Uni TV, but the studio pulled out when CW picked it up to series. CW's sister studios CBS Paramount Network Television and WBTV stepped in to produce the series.

On the surface, the situation resembles the Walt Disney Co.'s infamous decision to pull out of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" after it was picked up to series by CBS, which led to CBS' sister studio taking over, along with Alliance Atlantis.

But NBC Uni TV president Angela Bromstad said the decision had nothing to do with vertical integration and all to do with tough business choices.

"We would've loved to have been able to produce ('Aliens')," Bromstad said. "This is a single-camera comedy, and we thought that with the license fee CW could offer, we couldn't do the show justice creatively. The financials ahead for a comedy on CW are also not proven, so it was just financially too risky."

Similarly, CBS Par TV president David Stapf said his decision to take over the project was governed not by corporate loyalty but by his love for the material.

"I read it a year ago, I loved it and at the time wished we'd be the one making it," he said. "There wasn't a mandate from the network; it was much more of a creative decision to get on board."

One production company that has been aggressive on the comedy side and plans to even step up its efforts next season is Sony Pictures TV, which saw two of its freshman comedy series, " 'Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement," picked up for a second season. The company recently signed big-name comedy producers Eric and Kim Tannenbaum and Mitch Hurwitz.

"We've made a huge monetary investment in the future of comedy, and we believe in it," said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, co-presidents of programming and production at SPT.

With the networks' ratings hurt by repeats, NBC is stretching the seasons of its hits "Heroes," "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" to as many as 30 originals. That puts a lot of strain on producers.

"There is a balance to be struck," said Walden, whose studio produces "Earl." "On the one hand, the faster we can produce the number of episodes that make our hit series profitable, the better. But on the other hand, we have to make sure we maintain the quality that brought viewers to the shows to begin with. It's in no one's interest to deliver an inferior product or burn out our creators with overly long production seasons."

Newman said the prospect is particularly challenging on a drama that takes eight days to shoot and on which writers take on average a two-week vacation after a season wraps before going back to work.

"More episodes will also require larger staffs and little or no hiatus," he said. "It is daunting."

In preparation for a possible writers strike, a lot of returning shows largely will forgo hiatuses, and some new shows also will go into production earlier than usual.

Regency TV president Robin Schwartz said that one of the company's two new series, the comedy "The Return of Jezebel James," which was ordered by Fox for midseason, will start production right away.

Other companies also are making contingency plans.

Roth also said they're preparing "for the worst." But having lived through two strikes in his career, he sincerely hopes that there won't be one.

"It will hurt everybody, and we will never recover," he said.