Orphan Genre: The Half-Hour Sitcom

But some networks are taking a chance on the category

FX's Lucky looked like a very good bet. It featured a big-name star in John Corbett, of theatrical My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. And, with reality shows littering broadcast networks, it seemed the half-hour dark comedy on cable could get some traction.

That hasn't happened yet. The show, favorably received by critics, debuted well enough April 8, attracting a 2.2 Nielsen rating. In week two, it slipped to 1.4. The April 22 episode mustered a 1.4 rating. The repeat at 10:30 p.m. ET the same night collected a 1.2 rating.

FX's problem may be that Lucky
is a comedy in a cable world that doesn't make many.

Although hour dramas have had good success on basic cable in recent years, there have been few scripted, half-hour comedies. In 2001, Comedy Central nixed its satire That's My Bush,
from the South Park
creators, after eight episodes when ratings failed to justify the $900,000-per-episode price tag.

"Some people want half-hour shows really mindless, to go down easy," admits Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. "Others want something more challenging. It's very elusive."

Now a handful of cable networks are taking up the genre. ABC Family has commissioned six sitcom scripts and expects to debut two early next year. WE: Women's Entertainment is mixing scripted and improvisational elements for its first sitcom, June's The Tinsley Bumble Show. Comedy Central is developing a half-hour scripted sitcom.

In the past, programming executives say, they've been hampered by smaller budgets and limited access to creative talent, who historically went for lucrative broadcast deals. But that's changing. Most cable nets are earmarking more money for original production, and, thanks both to cable's success with scripted shows and to the recent reality glut on broadcast, they are gaining access to top-notch writers, producers and actors. ABC Family programming chief Linda Mancuso says the comedy genre is attractive because there aren't many sitcoms. And broadcast networks, focused on drama and reality, have had real trouble developing sitcoms that stick.

At ABC Family, two scripts are in development: 1,001 Dates, about two Manhattan matchmakers, and Twenty Nothing, a Friends-style comedy based in Royal Oak, Mich. Mancuso plans to make 26 episodes of each. "If you hit a home run with a comedy," she says, "you can rerun it to the ground."

Sister net Disney Channel recently welcomed its first sitcom, That's So Raven, which posts encouraging Nielsen marks.

Of course, network execs say, half-hour shows are hardly a bargain. A high-quality comedy will likely run more than $500,000 per episode. Broadcast networks spend upwards of $1 million per episode for the average sitcom. Star-studded shows are wildly more expensive.

Still, cable programmers are keeping a tight rein on costs.

For its unnamed scripted project, Comedy Central grabbed two young writers who don't yet qualify for the Writer's Guild union, which makes them affordable, and paired them with an experienced supervisor. Another new Comedy show Reno: 911
is a hybrid scripted/sketch comedy: The scenes are set, but actors take characters and storylines on the fly. Comedy Central sometimes tests ideas at its Los Angeles comedy club The Comedy Central Stage before committing.

"There's never as much money" for cable development as for broadcast shows, says Comedy Senior Vice President of Original Programming and Development Lauren Corrao, who formerly executive-produced ABC's The Job. "But we try to use it to our advantage. On cable, people are looking for an alternative."

WE's Tinsley Bumble, which kicks off in June with six episodes, is a scripted/improv hybrid. The Rainbow Media-owned network created and produced the show in-house, using a single digital camera. With a price tag said to be under $100,000 per episode, the show is more akin to reality shows than to traditional sitcoms.

"We were determined to do a comedy, and this is the way we found to do it," says WE General Manager/Executive Vice President Martin Von Ruden.

Also trying to manage costs, ABC Family is tinkering with traditional development. Mancuso doesn't plan to shoot pricey pilots. In fact, she won't film pilots at all. "It doesn't make sense, especially for us."

Instead, she'll cast the show and then have actors in for table reads, saving valuable production dollars for the scripts that get a green light.