Networks' need for hit sitcoms is no laughing matter

Looking for 'Seinfeld'-style magic, major TV networks are rolling out 18 new comedies

There's a backstage drama happening this fall on TV, and it's all about comedy.

The major networks are in a sitcom slump, unable to generate the kind of magic found in shows like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "The Big Bang Theory."

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For the record: An earlier version of this article said that Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won two consecutive Emmy Awards for the series "Veep." She has won three in a row.

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Of the 21 new comedies last year, just five are set to return this fall. Only 14 of the 82 prime-time comedies unleashed since 2009 are on the air.

The major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — are not giving up as the fall season kicks off this week, rolling out 18 new comedies that will seek to mine laughs from romantic entanglements and family dynamics.

It's not hard to see why. Comedies have long been the ratings and profit drivers of the television industry, cheaper to produce than hourlong dramas and lucrative in syndication long after new episodes have been canceled. Hollywood's production studios bank on them to sustain their businesses. And cable channels rely on sitcom reruns to pad schedules and lure advertisers.

"There is always a desperation for something to hit — and there's been so few of them over the last several years," said Darcy Bowe, a vice president at advertising giant Starcom USA. "There's such a high demand for them."

The major broadcasters in past decades gave life to such cultural touchstones as "All in the Family," "MASH," "Roseanne," "The Cosby Show" and "The Simpsons." The 1990s provided fertile ground with "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Will & Grace."

There have been few blockbuster sitcoms since. "Two and a Half Men" is in its 12th season and running out of steam. "The Big Bang Theory" and "Modern Family" have been out for years.

What happened? Those working in network television point to several factors, including increased competition from cable channels and video streaming services, such as Amazon and Netflix, that are aggressively developing original content.

Writers who previously might have produced shows for the big networks are migrating to these fresher outlets. They offer as much money as, if not more than, the networks, and freedom from censors.

Netflix announced last week that it ordered a comedy from movie producer Judd Apatow, whose credits include "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." The generous deal called for two seasons, without even a test episode hitting the screen.

Premium cable channels have also eaten into the network's business. Two of the most critically acclaimed comedies of recent seasons, "Veep" and "Silicon Valley," are on HBO. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, famous as Elaine on "Seinfeld," stars in "Veep" and has won an Emmy Award for lead actress in a comedy for three consecutive years.

Studio executives and show creators also point to the adage: Comedy is hard.

Achieving the perfect combination of great writing, strong acting and chemistry among the actors and crew — not to mention a favorable time slot on a crammed network schedule — is akin to trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

"It's a harder thing to do, and the audiences, particularly for comedies, are so fickle," said Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment. "Sometimes it comes down to finding that magical equation."

That said, a juggernaut hit like "The Big Bang Theory" can produce as much as $2 billion over its lifetime in syndication. That makes up for the misses.

"We are in a game that is very expensive and very risky," said Jeffrey R. Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. worldwide television distribution. "The rewards are substantial when you have a show that makes it big. That level of success allows us to keep taking shots at the goal."

To try to crack their comedy conundrum, the networks this fall are in some cases going back to tried-and-true formulas — family comedies, romantic comedies, and shows that borrow right from the scripts of past hits.

ABC is bringing out "Black-ish," about an affluent African American family and the father's fear that his kids have lost touch with their cultural identity.

"Black-ish" is one of several new family-oriented comedies that are also aimed at appealing to more diverse audiences. ABC also is showcasing "Cristela," about a Latino family, and "Fresh Off the Boat," about a Taiwanese family that moves to Florida.

"The history of great comedy on television has always been built on some kind of family," said David Madden, Fox president of entertainment. "Despite how they may cause each other trouble, they genuinely love each other and you feel that as you watch them."

Romance is another theme making something of a comeback. NBC is leading the charge with "A to Z," which chronicles the early stage of love, and "Marry Me," about a proposal gone awry. ABC is betting on "Selfie," a modern-day "My Fair Lady," and "Manhattan Love Story."

Hoping to get the next "Seinfeld," Fox looks to score with "Mulaney." The show features stand-up comedian and former "Saturday Night Live" writer John Mulaney playing a fictionalized version of himself. CBS is preparing a midseason reboot of "The Odd Couple" starring Matthew Perry ("Friends") as messy Oscar Madison.

What's more, the studios are getting creative in an effort to pump up popularity and secure lucrative syndication rights.

CBS, which scored the biggest audiences last season, is trying to extend its dominance powered by "Two and a Half Men," "Mike & Molly," and "The Big Bang Theory." Those programs were created by Chuck Lorre, who is considered to be one of television's most influential producers.

Lorre and his studio, Warner Bros., hatched a plan to nurture his latest show into a bigger hit. "Mom," a sitcom starring Allison Janney about a mother-and-daughter duo who are both recovering alcoholics, averaged 8.3 million viewers in its first season. That's a solid number but still less than half of what "The Big Bang Theory" averages.

It was Lorre's idea to run the entire first season of "Mom" on cable channel TBS, sandwiched between reruns of his blockbuster "The Big Bang Theory." Shows are typically not syndicated until after a few years. His hope is that new viewers will find it and tune in to CBS, thus enhancing prospects for bigger ratings and a more lucrative syndication deal.

"I can't tell you how many people I've met over the years who only discovered 'The Big Bang Theory' in reruns; they didn't discover it on CBS," said Lorre. "TBS runs it five times a night, and then it's on syndication on local channels, or on a plane — there are all kinds of other opportunities to find viewers."

Producers in Hollywood are also trying to emulate Lorre's success.

All of his hits are filmed using a multi-camera setup, in which shows are shot on a soundstage with a live studio audience. Most of the scenes are filmed around one or two sets. Some of television's biggest hits — from "I Love Lucy" to "Everybody Loves Raymond" — were shot this way.

The format fell out of vogue when so-called single-camera comedies, such as "The Office" on NBC and "Modern Family" on ABC, grew in popularity. These shows, without a studio audience, shoot on location and provide a more cinematic feel.

But "Modern Family" has been the only one to deliver sizable audiences, prompting the industry to rethink its infatuation with the single-camera format. Studios have revved up the number of multi-camera comedies they have in development.

"You cannot deny the success of the multi-cams, and people want to try it again," said Bela Bajaria, executive vice president of Universal Television. "Why should CBS have all the fun?"

But there's fun only with success. If the past is any indication, the networks will give most new shows only a few weeks to prove themselves before the cancellations begin.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

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