Multicamera comedy primed for comeback

Format dominates sales this development season

The most buzzed-about new comedies of the fall, ABC's "Modern Family" and NBC's "Community," are single-camera shows. And all major comedy-series Emmys for the past two years have gone to single-camera shows.

But multicamera comedies are hotter than they have been in years. They dominated early pitch sales in the summer, sparking heated bidding and landing major commitments.

Of the comedy projects with production commitments so far this season, only Greg Garcia's "Keep Hope Alive" at Fox is single-camera. A number of production commitments have gone to multicamera projects, including Mark Brazill's "The Rednecks & Romeos" at Fox, Matt Tarses' "True Love" at CBS and Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith's "18 Years" at ABC, with several more pending.

"Multicamera comedy is absolutely making a comeback this development season," said Glenn Adilman, head of comedy at Sony TV, which is behind a number of high-profile new multicamera projects, including "True Love" and "18 Years."

NBC, which has the only established block of single-camera comedies among the broadcast networks, is said to be focused on diversifying its comedy offerings by buying primarily multicamera projects.

Fox brass plans to go about 50-50 between single- and multicamera this season in its pilot orders.

"It feels like, given the budgetary constrains with license fees, multicamera comedies are definitely being favored by the financial side of the company," 20th TV executive vp Jennifer Nicholson Salke said. "But coincidentally, or (maybe) the time is just right for the reinvention of the genre, so many writers are coming with great and inspired ideas in the multicamera arena."

20th TV is behind hot multicamera scripts by Garland Testa at ABC, Gary Janetti at NBC and Bobby Bowman at Fox, with several more -- including a relationships-themed spec by Michael Pennie supervised by Garcia -- about to be taken to the networks.

The recession certainly is playing a role in the networks' increased appetite for multicamera comedies, which on average cost about $300,000 an episode less than filmed half-hours.

Additionally, repeats of CBS' multicamera comedies "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" raked in better ratings than any other reruns and most of this summer's original fare.

"They've done very well, and that's not lost on anyone," Adilman said. "As a viewing experience, these shows somehow feel a little more immediate, more comfortable and easy to watch ... which is appealing these days."

That makes multicamera comedies a more attractive building block for the broadcast networks, especially from 8-9 p.m., when most average households are busy with other things and can't necessarily tune in at 8 sharp.

"The stories in multicamera comedies are simpler, and people watch them for the jokes, while single-camera shows are harder to join 17 minutes into it," one network executive said.

The strong repeatability, which cable networks and local stations love, and the lower price point is what made the multicamera format attractive to syndicator Debmar-Mercury and Tyler Perry, who launched two successful sitcoms -- "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns" -- during the past two years on TBS and in broadcast syndication.

NBC does have a high-profile single-camera project in the works headlined by Debra Messing (coincidentally, Messing's "Will & Grace" co-star, Eric McCormack, also is attached to a single-camera project that Sony TV is shopping to the networks). But, as is the case at the other nets, most of the Peacock's comedy development is in the multicamera format, with a Sony TV project by David Guarascio and Moses Port looking good for an early order and several others in contention, including one from "Will & Grace" co-showrunner Janetti.

With the return of the multicamera comedy, some of the genre's top veterans are coming back.

"Rednecks" hails from "That '70s Show" co-creator Brazill, and ABC handed out a script commitment with penalty to a new show from "Home Improvement" creators Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean.

In the past, when multicamera dominated, TV writers would pen their single-camera passion projects on spec while working daily jobs on a sitcom. Now, it often is the other way around.

"Will & Grace" alumna Gail Lerner penned the multicamera spec "Open Books" -- which landed at CBS with a pilot commitment -- between her previous gig on CBS single-camera comedy "Worst Week" and her current job on ABC's hourlong comedy "Ugly Betty."

The hot multicamera market is also attracting some unlikely auspices.

"My Name Is Earl" exec producer Bowman is switching formats with a multicamera family comedy that received a premium script commitment at Fox, and drama heavyweight Josh Schwartz also picked multicam for his foray into comedy with a project at CBS that he is writing with Matt Miller.

Even twentysomething actor Bret Harrison, who toplined Fox's single-camera comedy "The Loop," went multicamera for his writing debut, which landed at CBS.

"With what's happening at CBS, I think that's the way the market's going to start to turn," he said, "and I want to be part of it while it's still hopefully hot."