Situation is not so funny for sitcoms

LOS ANGELES --- The Bill Engvall Show is something of an anomaly: a multicamera family sitcom played before an audience in which the lead guy is actually married with children.


Once the staple of broadcast television, the traditional family sitcom has been relegated of late to niche cable channels such as TBS, which airs Engvall and Tyler Perry's House of Payne , and The Disney Channel, which has had success with its Miley Cyrus-led comedy, Hannah Montana .

Engvall -- with its season average of 2.4 million viewers, up 8 percent over last year -- is a ratings success for TBS. Those numbers, though, don't come close to past broadcast network family hits such as Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Home Improvement or The Cosby Show .

"The family comedy is like that kid in the corner of the quad who's not the coolest kid, but he's a good solid kid," said Michael Wright, the senior vice president of content creation for TNT, TBS and TCM. "In this business of what we do, everybody wants to be associated with the thing that's the hippest and coolest and newest and that's not a bad thing, but it doesn't mean that this form is no longer relevant."

IN RECENT YEARS, THE proliferation of Internet and video game usage and the fragmentation of the family have undermined the traditional family comedy, said Brian Lowry, a television critic for the entertainment trade paper Daily Variety .

"It's not as much about let's gather around the hearth and watch together as it is, I'm going in my room and watch what I want; you go in your room and watch what you want."

Mr. Lowry adds: "You could also blame, quite frankly, that there have been lot of really bad (family sitcoms) lately. But I don't know if even a good family sitcom could have the kind of success that we were accustomed to when they were dominant."

"I won't lie to you, it's been an uphill battle," said Mr. Engvall, of Blue Collar TV fame, commenting on the struggle to bring new audiences to his show, despite less-than-glowing reviews.

Mr. Engvall is not giving up, though.

"At our tapings, I can't tell you the number of people who come up to me personally and go, 'Thanks for bringing family back to TV,' (or) the e-mails I get all the time from people saying, 'Thanks for doing it the way you do it,' " he said. "So we're going to ride this horse ... for better or worse, we're going to ride it."

Though the half-hour family comedy hasn't been put out to pasture, "there seems to be this idea that everything needs to be reinvented, that everything needs to have some clever high-concept sort of idea that draws people in," said Ali LeRoi, a co-creator and executive producer of The CW family comedy Everybody Hates Chris .

"People are fairly simple. They like good actors, they like good stories, they like good writing, they like good jokes," Mr. LeRoi said, "and I am really under the impression, in terms of the development process, that these people have out-clevered themselves."

When you look at what qualifies as family comedy on the broadcast networks these days, it's family with an adult edge.

On CBS, for example, Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine are considered by the network to be family comedies, yet they seldom deal with kids' issues, even though children are part of the shows.

In the fall, CBS will debut another such comedy, Gary Unmarried , about a divorced dad with two kids who is re-entering the dating pool, and you just know it will be all about Gary.

AS BROADCASTERS BECOME increasingly, and now almost exclusively, focused on adults 18 to 49, "they don't care if kids watch their shows," Mr. Lowry said:

"They're not really trying to do Full House, where they have a show that plays across as many levels because they can't really monetize -- which has become the favorite word -- the kids as well as they can the adults."

Wendi Trilling, the executive vice president of comedy development at CBS, said: "If we do a traditional family comedy, we have to find a show that really appeals to adults. If we can't get adults, the show isn't going to succeed. If we get kids, too, that's great, but I don't think that can be our primary focus."

At ABC, home to the once popular "TGIF" family comedy block, finding the next hit family comedy is a "huge priority" for Samie Kim Falvey, the senior vice president of Comedy Development. She recently greenlighted the animated midseason series The Good Family , about a family of overly committed do-gooders:

"If you're a broadcaster and you're trying to bring in the largest number of viewers, doing a show that involves family will be relatable to everyone and also has a lot of value."



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