By David Bauder
Fans of television comedy are stuck in a time warp.
TV viewers are watching more sitcoms each week than they did a decade ago, a new study concluded. Unfortunately for broadcast networks, they're tuning in to "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" reruns more than anything new on the air.
As network executives spend early spring behind closed doors plotting their fall schedules, the statistics starkly illustrate how these programmers are forced to compete against the best of the last 30 years when developing new comedies.
"The viewers say we're not going to tolerate mediocrity anymore because we've got the classics and there's a lot of competition out there," said NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly on Thursday.
There have been a handful of new sitcom successes this season, most recently the promising start of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' "The New Adventures of Old Christine" on CBS. NBC's "My Name is Earl" and CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" have shown promise creatively and in the ratings.
Still, only two sitcoms rank among Nielsen Media Research's top 20 programs this season: CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," the latter with only three episodes aired.
The ratings would indicate that people just aren't interested in watching sitcoms anymore.
Not so. The average household is tuning in 4.84 hours worth of sitcoms each week this season, according to a report by ad buyers Magna Global. During the 1993-94 season, it was 3.78 hours.
Twelve seasons ago, more than half of that comedy viewing (56 percent) came in prime-time on the big broadcast networks. Startlingly, this year only 13 percent of this season's sitcom-watching fits that category.
Where are they going? Nick at Nite delivers a prime-time lineup with "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show." TBS is all comedy, with "Seinfeld," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Friends" and "Sex and the City." Many of those same comedies are sold in syndication, often competing strongly with Jay Leno and David Letterman late at night.
An average of 171 hours of comedy were aired each week during the 1993-94 season on broadcast networks, cable and in syndication, the report said. This season, there are 568 hours of comedy on each week.
Those statistics don't even count shows like "Desperate Housewives," Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" or anything on reality TV where people often turn for laughs — like the hours of cluelessly bad singers on "American Idol."
It's enough to make a network programmer scream in frustration.
Executives like Reilly constantly see research showing young people consider sitcoms a tired genre; yet the viewership figures indicate they're more than willing to watch the good ones.
"When you put on a new one that's shy of the mark, it's considered another knock on the genre," he said.
People are much more willing to watch comedies they've seen before than dramas, Reilly said. Dramas also tend to date themselves more quickly than a sitcom like "Everybody Loves Raymond," which would have felt plausible in almost any decade.
"You don't think twice about watching `I Love Lucy,'" Reilly said. "It would certainly throw you for a loop to watch Jack Webb."
Dramas have also evolved in both their look and themes over the years, he said, while in some ways sitcom creators have "perfected it to death over the last couple of decades," he said. That means it's harder to come up with something the viewers don't expect.
The heightened competition puts more pressure on show producers to come up with compelling concepts with sharp writing, said Nina Tassler, CBS entertainment president. CBS pays particular attention to casting, "to make sure that there is a cohesion and a chemistry with each one of them," she said.
Considering that roughly four in five homes have only one TV set turned on each night in prime time, it's evident that families are looking for something they can watch together, said Steve Sternberg, the Magna Global report's author.
Broadcasters would do well to court that audience, yet they seem to be leaning toward edgier fare, he said. Viewers are more interested in the next "Everybody Loves Raymond" than "Arrested Development," he said.
Families are increasingly turning to reality shows to experience together — as this season's phenomenal ratings for "American Idol" indicate, Reilly said.
"It's always smart to have a healthy balance of traditional and nontraditional," Tassler said.
The executives are certainly continuing to try, judging by the comedy projects in development this spring (ABC executives declined to speak for this article). Among the more likely to hit the air in the next year:
-- "Community Service," starring Jay Mohr as a real estate agent who travels to the Midwest to win a woman's affection and ends up afoul of the law, on NBC.
-- The Winner," with Rob Corddry of "The Daily Show" as a successful man looking back on when he was a 32-year-old slacker living with his parents, on Fox.
-- "The Class," helmed by a co-creator of "Friends," reunites a group of third-grade classmates when they reach their 20s, on CBS.
-- "Angriest Man in Suburbia," a big-city accountant becomes a stay-at-home dad and it pushes him over the edge, on CBS.
-- "Worst Week of My Life," a limited-run series on Fox. Each episode focuses on one day in the week leading up to a marriage.
-- "Alpha Mom," a comedic look at a frenetic working mom, by the creator of "Scrubs," on NBC.
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