TV networks are desperate for the next big comedy. Maybe too desperate.

“Right now, people are hitting it big or not at all”
Photograph by Andrew Tolson; Photo Illustration by Sarah Mackinnon

Comedy is more valuable to TV networks than it has been in years. Too bad it’s also more unpopular than it has been in years. With comedies like The Big Bang Theory among the few hits in TV, several networks expanded their comedy lineups this year, but the results were as disastrous as a sitcom plot: not a single new show became a hit. “Right now,” says Jonathan Davis, executive vice-president of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, “people are hitting it big or not at all.”

Ironically, these unpopular comedies may be the result of trying to be more popular. NBC’s new comedies, including Go On, a comeback for Matthew Perry (Friends), and Animal Practice, with a monkey as one of the regulars, were announced as part of what network president Robert Greenblatt called a strategy to “broaden our audience and broaden what the network does,” But these shows wound up with ratings identical to NBC’s cult comedies like Community and 30 Rock. Networks and writers can’t seem to help making comedies that appeal only to a niche audience.

Some attribute this to what Canadian TV scholar Myles McNutt calls “fragmented comedy audiences,” with people of every age group preferring different types of comedy: a show that seems mainstream to viewers aged 18-34 may seem forbidding to older viewers. “You want to build something that doesn’t just appeal just to 18-34,” says Fox’s Davis. “We sometimes get in trouble when people feel something is too niche.” But only a few shows, such as Big Bang Theory and Fox’s Modern Family have shown an ability to appeal to multiple age groups.

Also, no age group can get to like a comedy without finding it, and in their rush to find the next hit comedy, networks overloaded the schedule, pitting several comedies against each other at the same time and cannibalizing each other’s audience. “The marketplace is so jammed,” Davis says. “All these new shows are premiering at the same time. It’s hard to lock into a spot where you know your favourite show is going to stay on the air.”

Many people still feel some of these low-rated new shows, like comedian Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, could become hits, given patience. “U.S. networks don’t give a show time to really lift off,” says Adam Korson, star of the new comedy Seed. “Seinfeld was not too successful the first two years.” But McNutt says today’s niche comedies never develop “the kind of audience necessary to turn into a legitimate hit.” 30 Rock just ended after seven years of failing to do that.

While Davis points to the Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl as a recent show that is starting to rebuild its ratings and has the potential to “grow and grow,” he notes that in today’s crowded marketplace, it may be hard for a show to stand out if it doesn’t make an impact right away. “It’s almost like the movie business in a way. A launch has never been more important in the TV business than it is right now.” But unlike high-concept dramas, comedies usually deal with simple premises—nothing that gets noticed.

Still, unlike in the 2000s, when networks replaced failing sitcoms with dramas and reality shows, networks now may have no choice but to keep investing in comedy. Now that most dramas are serialized and hard to sell into syndication, comedies stand the best chance of making big money. Comedy, when it works, is so profitable that the FX network has floated a plan to start an “FXX” network for comedies like Louis C.K.’s Louie, which appeal to the young, male viewers advertisers love.

That could mean networks will try even harder for sitcom hits, turning to creators with track records; Fox bought a live-action comedy from Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) while CBS has a new pilot from Chuck Lorre, creator of Big Bang Theory. If that doesn’t work, networks might just have to settle for shows that aren’t flops: McNutt points to Raising Hope, a low-rated comedy that has lasted years because “it’s at least stable” in the number of viewers it gets. It might not matter if a comedy is a hit—as long as it can run long enough to make some money.