- Associated Press - Monday, May 21, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - Broadcast television networks are determined to make you laugh.

The resurgence of situation comedies is the clearest trend to emerge from TV’s helter-skelter week of fall schedule announcements that just concluded. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will have 30 half-hour comedies on the air at the beginning of next season _ 32 by November _ compared to 17 at the opening of a new season five years ago.

Tuesday alone is a comic festival. The top networks will air eight sitcoms that night alone, with ABC promising two more in January.

“The audience is really open to comedy right now,” said Robert Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chief. The network made comedy its development priority, and is opening Tuesday and Friday to sitcoms next fall. NBC is also keeping four comedies on Thursday night, despite abysmal ratings.

The explanation is as much financial as cultural, and there’s a clear starting point.

Much as “The Cosby Show” was responsible for resurrecting sitcoms in the 1980s, ABC’s “Modern Family” played the same role this time. It was an instant critical hit when it premiered in 2009 and has grown to become ABC’s most popular scripted program. ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee called it “the defining comedy of our time.”

“I don’t think the networks gave up on (comedy),” said Brad Adgate, television analyst for Horizon Media. “There’s too much of a financial incentive to go with comedies. They were always trying. But they weren’t that good.”

The lesson for Fox coming out of this season was clear. The charming “New Girl” with Zooey Deschanel did well and was invited back for a new season; the special-effects laden drama “Terra Nova” was an expensive bust. Fox is building a four-sitcom night on Tuesdays led by “New Girl.”

It also can’t be lost on struggling NBC that it can invest in a complex drama like “Awake,” get good reviews and virtually no viewers. NBC’s fall schedule shows its drought in developing solid dramas: There’s no show that premiered between 1999 (“Law & Order: SVU”) and 2010 (“Parenthood”).

Many fans express on social media that they’re reluctant to commit to new dramas on broadcast networks for fear they will be quickly cancelled, said Sean Reckwerdt, TV analyst and cultural anthropologist for Networked Insights. CBS is the exception, he said.

Comedies, meanwhile, generally require less investment both personally and financially and the upside in success can be huge.

The slump in new comedy development during the mid-2000s meant there were fewer sitcoms available on the syndication market at precisely the time there was more interest in buying them. “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” commanded prices at or near $1.5 million an episode for their makers when they were sold in syndication less than two years ago.

Reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” have been such a big success for TBS since they started last fall that the network’s viewership is up more than 11 percent over last year, the Nielsen company said.

Demand is such that “2 Broke Girls” and “Mike & Molly” will soon hit the syndication market, even though CBS has made nowhere near the 100 episodes of the shows that is generally considered a benchmark for running repeats, said Bill Carroll, an expert on the syndication market for Katz Media. A classic sitcom can generate money for a long time; somewhere “I Love Lucy” and “M-A-S-H” episodes are still being shown.

“Not every show is like that, but certainly the blue chip players last forever,” Carroll said. “They’ll be running when we watch TV on our watches or watch on our glasses.”

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