A Reason To Smile?

A fresh batch of off-net comedies seeks to end humor drought

Four hot sitcoms could bring some grins to the sober world of off-network syndication, which has had few laughs lately. But the road to comedy riches could be rocky.

Warner Bros. could announce as early as next month a plan for a fall 2007 syndication launch of Two and a Half Men, which has performed well enough for CBS to make the show its critical new Monday-night anchor.

Twentieth Television, meanwhile, is prepping plans to bring Family Guy, the resurgent animated sitcom for Fox and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, into the market next fall.

In the wings are Twentieth's new NBC hit My Name Is Earl and Paramount's UPN success story Everybody Hates Chris, both of which have sparked buzz and will be targeted for 2009.

Through Oct. 23, Earl was leading all comedies this season in key adult demos. But its biggest test may lie ahead if the network moves it from Tuesday to the highly competitive Thursday night.

Given the drought of successful sitcoms in recent years, syndicators are hopeful that this group will be the most promising crop since Everybody Loves Raymond debuted in syndication in 2001.

While the distributors are reluctant to talk until they firm up their plans, Chuck Larsen, a former industry executive whose syndication-consulting firm October Moon represents a number of producers, is hopeful the new sitcoms will mark a turning point. “The drought is over,” he declares. “I think they will revive the market. These four represent the breath of fresh air we've all been looking for.”

But station buyers aren't necessarily convinced the two freshman shows have the legs to perform beyond just one season. Even if the strong ratings continue, none in the new crop may snag the highly lucrative long-term deals of past top-tier sitcoms. That's because stations are uneasy about providing long-term commitments since they are faced with more-intense competition and standing on shakier financial ground than ever before.

One senior station-group executive, who asked not to be identified, dismisses the new crop. The executive says the future of time slots leading into prime time lies in the studios' developing “more entertaining and funnier” first-run programming instead of acquiring more off-network sitcoms.

He doesn't think the upcoming comedies will be able to match the Big Four: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends and Raymond. “Nothing is a given anymore,” he says. “The entire category has slumped into the future. They are what they are, so we're just going to have to get used to it. We're not buying them forever. It's more like just one to three years now, [and] they just fill holes.”

With that attitude and recent management changes at the two biggest off-net–comedy buyers, Fox and Tribune, studios have reason to pause in rushing out marketing plans for their off-network comedies. The prize could be more than a billion dollars in syndication sales, which a small number of top-tier sitcoms have secured in the past.

Following the recent departure of Pat Mullen as broadcast president, Tribune could take a step back from making major program purchases in the near term. Still, Tribune has been in desperate need of product for its crucial 7-8 p.m. access block, after Fox siphoned off Raymond. That left Tribune with only Friends, which, despite its age, remains more potent than many alternatives. Fox had already licensed Seinfeld and The Simpsons.

It's also unclear how interested the Fox station group—headed by Chairman Roger Ailes, CEO Jack Abernethy and their new hands-on lieutenant, broadcast veteran Dennis Swanson—will be in acquiring sitcoms in the coming year.