Lieutenant Cable

CBS is going to promote a cable comedy, TBS’s The Bill Engvall Show, by giving it a special one-time-only network showing in advance of the second season of the show. CBS and TBS are not part of the same corporate family, unless there was yet another merger last night while I was sleeping; the cable network just struck a deal with CBS, which serves a similar demographic, to plug its show (while giving CBS something different to broadcast during the summer doldrums, since the writers’ strike made summer programming hard to come by).

Bill Engvall is another example of how cable has essentially become a refuge for the kind of programs the networks were doing only a few years ago. (Other examples are mystery and non-serialized action shows, which are more likely to be found on the USA network than on “regular” TV.) It’s an innocuous family sitcom about a guy dealing with his job and his family; he has all the answers at his job but doesn’t always know the answers when it comes to raising his kids. It’s Home Improvement, in other words. The writers are all people who spent years writing for big network shows like Cheers and The Cosby Show, but have been pushed to cable by a) the lack of network sitcom jobs and b) the notorious ageism of network writers’ rooms.

The networks were doing all kinds of shows like this for decades, and not very long ago most of the biggest hit shows were family-oriented sitcoms of one type or another. But today, the irony is that this kind of show, which by definition has broad appeal — pulling in kids and their parents — is not really appropriate for mass-market network television, because network advertisers are more interested in niche markets, meaning that a show needs to have a specific, targeted audience, preferably one with a goodly amount of disposable income. It used to be that networks served the broader public and cable served the niche audiences, and now it’s probably exactly the other way around.

While I’m all for the return of the family comedy, on cable or networks or anywhere else, this does seem to be one genre where cable has not caught up with the stuff that the networks used to do. Compare Bill Engvall to The Cosby Show or even Home Improvement (not a great show, but often funny) and despite the presence of the always-welcome Nancy Travis, it’s pretty bland. Similarly, the Disney Channel sitcoms are produced and written by many of the people who used to do ABC’s TGIF sitcoms, but Disney Channel hasn’t yet come up with anything to match the better TGIF shows (like Boy Meets World or Sabrina). HBO tried to step into the breach by producing Lucky Louie, not a show for family audiences but a deliberate throwback to network comedies about blue-collar families, but while it had promise, it didn’t catch on with cable audiences and was canceled after one season. When cable takes on other genres that the networks have abandoned, it can match or surpass the network product, like Monk did in the mystery genre. But domestic/family comedy still seems to be something that cable isn’t very good at; the best you can say is that they’re no worse than the networks’ current attempts at the same genre.

Part of the problem may be that the shorter seasons of most cable shows, not a problem for science fiction or drama or mystery, is a big problem for the sitcom. Unless you’re doing a show with relatively few characters (like British shows, which have smallish casts to match their small runs), 10-13 episodes per season isn’t really enough to service all the characters, and leaves them feeling underdeveloped and with the cast’s chemistry feeling unformed.

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