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Making Yucks for Bucks

1/10/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Pasadena, Calif. — After years of rolling out successful,
dramatic scripted series, the cable industry now
wants to get its laugh on.

A number of original scripted comedy shows were on
display last week during cable’s portion of the Television
Critics Association Winter Tour, as networks look to tickle
audience’s funny bones while filling a void for half-hour
comedy series left by broadcasters.

“I feel like this forum is fantastic and, if it’s done well,
people tune in and love it even though it looks like something
that we’ve seen a lot,” said Chris Chase, writer and
executive producer for TV Land’s Retired at 35, one of seven
new comedy series touted at last week’s tour.

While pay cable networks have tapped the comedy genere
over the years with such series as HBO’s The Larry
Sanders Show
and Entourage, Showtime’s Weeds, and
Starz’s Party Down
, basic-cable channels have spent more
of their original programming dollars to develop such
quality dramas as AMC’s Mad Men, TNT’s The Closer, FX’s
Sons of Anarchy and USA Network’s Burn Notice.

But in the first quarter of 2011, sitcoms will be plentiful
on a number of cable networks. BET announced at the
TCA tour the January launch of two scripted comedies —
The Game and Let’s Stay Together — while Comedy Central
and IFC said they will bring the online faux news franchise
The Onion to cable with Onion SportsDome and The Onion
News Network
, respectively (see Content).

CMT and TV One will make their initial forays into the
scripted-series arena with traditional sitcoms. CMT later
this month will debut Working Class, a series that stars
Melissa Peterman (Reba) as a blue-collar mom who moves
to an upscale suburb to provide a better life for her family.

TV One will debut on Jan. 10 Love That Girl!, starring
Tatyana Ali as a recently divorced woman who returns to
her hometown to work for her father’s real-estate business.
Ali said that there’s an audience for comedy fare that’s currently
underserved by the broadcast networks that cable is
hoping to tap into. Broadcasters currently air nearly half
the number of comedy series as were offered 15 years ago.

“I think [cable] is feeding audiences … something that
a family can sit down together and watch
and enjoy,” she said. “People want to
laugh.”

Chase, who has also produced such
comedies as Reba and Spin City, added
that today’s economic climate has
forced people to stay home and watch
television for entertainment. In such
uncertain times, viewers tend to gravitate
toward comedy, which bodes well
for the ratings prospects of cable’s new
offerings.

“If you look through history, anytime
there’s a wave of comedy that came out,
it’s during times that are tough and people
need to laugh,” he said. “People are staying
home more, and I think people need
to find comfort in seeing characters they
can relate to.”

Actor Phil Morris, who appeared in the
1990’s sitcom Seinfeld and currently co-stars in Love That
Girl!
, said the addition of scripted comedies provides cable
with more genre choices for viewers and gives it a leg
up on the broadcast networks.

“The paradigm [for the networks] was no longer appropriate
for the sitcom dynamic,” he said. “But audiences want the
whole ride … they want to laugh, cry, scream and shout.”

September