Broadcast Offers Clues for Cablers New to Comedy

Cable networks look for their own brand of 'Modern Family' or 'New Girl' success
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The breakout success this fall of female comedies 2 Broke Girls and New Girl and the continued success of family sitcoms led by Modern Family is already influencing early development at the broadcast networks through projects such as a vehicle for comedian Sarah Colonna and a family comedy from Ryan Murphy, both bought by NBC.

And as more cable networks start to aggressively develop original comedies, it’s seeming likely that those trends of family and friendship sitcoms will manifest on cable in some way. This is especially true for nets new to the comedy genre—albeit filtered through each cabler’s brand.

USA is perhaps the most high-profile network getting into the comedy game, and repeat-laden Nick at Nite just greenlit its first original comedy. Even AMC has been making noise about developing in the space. TV Land continues to launch comedies following the success of Hot in Cleveland, and TBS is aggressively looking for more half-hour originals to prop up late-night talker Conan.

“There are more cable entities that are looking to do comedy than ever before,” says Lindsay Howard, VP, television literary at the agency APA. “And a lot of that is because of the success of comedy on primetime networks.”

This development comes in part because successful network comedies from recent years are starting to make their way into cable syndication. TBS, which started to strip The Big Bang Theory three nights a week this fall, is making the Chuck Lorre comedy a central part of its strategy going forward.

“It will likely serve as lead-in to whatever original comedies we put on, so we’re also looking for something that’s tonally compatible with that show,” says Michael Wright, executive VP and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM.

Wright sees the tone of Big Bang as sharp, smart, contemporary and unafraid to be a little optimistic. And he thinks he has a similar show in Sullivan & Son, a pilot from Rob Long about a New York corporate attorney who returns home to Pittsburgh to take over the family bar.

USA, which will start to air the off-network Modern Family in fall 2013, has already greenlit two half-hour pilots, including a family comedy with Nathan Lane attached about an unlucky actor who puts his Broadway ambitions on hold to return to his Texas hometown when his father becomes ill.

“We were able to adapt the procedural one-hour and make it our own,” says Bill McGoldrick, senior VP, original scripted programming at USA. “I don’t see why we can’t do the same thing with a family or an office comedy, or any of the sort of basic genres in comedy.”

While USA’s primary focus is developing comedies to launch behind Modern Family, McGoldrick says he’s keeping an eye on the female comedies working so well on broadcast this fall—and he’s hardly the only one.

“Nine out of 10 phone calls you make right now, and you say to somebody, broadcast or cable, what are you looking for, they all say we want stuff like New Girl or 2 Broke Girls,” Howard says.

The story is different for a network like FX, which has already established itself in the comedy space and built a distinct comedic voice through veteran series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

“We’ve already built up this strong comedy brand,” says Nick Grad, executive VP of original programming for FX. “What the networks put on is not at all remotely close to what our brand is.”

But even FX will have a familiar broadcast star on its channel next year with the acquisition of the Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management. TV Land execs, who also look for veteran sitcom stars to front their series, may have more competition as names such as Tim Allen and possibly Roseanne Barr return to scripted TV.

Keith Cox, TV Land executive VP of development and original programming, says it’s ultimately good for everyone involved that comedy is back in a big way.

“In a world where there’s more comedy, there’s more shows; more shows, there’s more writers on staff; and then those people will go up through the system,” Cox says. “When there were fewer comedies, there were just fewer people to develop with.”

And despite competition from more networks, seeing comedy bounce back on broadcast ultimately encourages cablers who are preparing to throw their hat in the ring for the first time.

“I would be worried if we were two or three years behind the curve, but it feels like we’re right within the curve here,” McGoldrick says. “That definitely validates the decision for us to get into this.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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