Where are the Network TV Kids?

The new President of ABC, Paul Lee, has said that he wants to revive the old “TGIF” Friday lineup if he can get enough inexpensive, sitcoms started up, particularly sitcoms that the network owns itself. (The low budget, and the prospect of making money in syndication, would make up for the lower Friday ratings.) To that end, there have been some stories lately about ABC developing sitcoms with established sitcom stars: Kirstie Alley is doing a pilot for them, and so – amazingly – is Jim Belushi. This is part of a larger trend of networks trying to lure back the sitcom stars who helped them out in years past: Sean Hayes is doing a new pilot for NBC, Roseanne is setting up a new sitcom and this season, ABC is betting a lot on the idea that people still want to see Tim Allen. But in ABC’s case it’s starting to seem like if they do launch that dreamed-of TGIF lineup, it’ll be something like TV Land’s original sitcom lineup – a showcase for aging or aged sitcom stars.

Nothing wrong with giving older stars another shot, of course. But it seems odd that at least so far, very few networks seem to be developing shows where kids are a major presence. It sometimes seems like you’re more likely to find a show with a baby – this year’s entry is Up All Night – than one with kids who are old enough to do anything. Fox has a poorly-reviewed comedy called I Hate My Teenage Daughter, but it’s told entirely from the point of view of the adults (which is only one of its problems). Fox had some of its biggest hits with shows like That ’70s Show and Malcolm in the Middle, or even The Simpsons (where many episodes focused on the kids getting into mischief or having personal dilemmas), and more recently it’s done well with the frequently kid-centric stories on Bob’s Burgers, but it’s been slow to get back to that kind of thing in live action comedy.

ABC is the same way; it seems to want to bring back family-friendly comedy, and the kids are some of the best things about The Middle and Modern Family. (If Manny isn’t the breakout character of Modern Family, he probably should be.) But they’ve been very slow to greenlight shows with younger characters, even though the kids were often the key to the success of the TGIF lineup they’re so anxious to bring back. Full House and Family Matters are examples of shows with large numbers of kids, which soon became primarily about the kids. And Boy Meets World and Sabrina were star vehicles for younger actors. Except for the bright idea of casting Kaitlyn Dever, fresh from her success on Justified, as Tim Allen’s teen daughter, this year’s comedies don’t seem to have many kid actors, let alone kid actors with breakout potential.

There are reasons why you can’t do an iCarly type of show, where kids dominate the world, on a broadcast network: adults must watch, so there must be strong adult characters. And kids are hard to cast because they’re not bankable stars (by the time they’re bankable stars, they’re no longer kids), so the casting mostly has to be done based on the producers’ own judgment. That terrifies network executives. But it does seem like there are a lot of stories about kids and teenagers that half-hour comedies are not telling. For adult viewers, these stories would at least have the benefit of seeming marginally fresher than observational humour about adult relationships.

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