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Networks Hungry for New Comedy

Network TV is hungry for more laughs.

After years of a comedy shortage that dried up the syndication pipeline, 20 sitcoms are due this fall on the four major networks, the most since 2005.

ABC sees an opening with a return to family comedies. It's adding four to its Wednesday lineup, including the buzzed-about Modern Family and shows led by stars of past hits: Kelsey Grammer (Frasier), Courteney Cox (Friends) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond).

"We're trying to reinvent what is the family comedy today," says ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson. "There's been such a tradition of success, whether it's Roseanne or Raymond, and right now there aren't any" such comedies.

Fox, still chugging with The Simpsons and Family Guy, hasn't had a live-action comedy hit since Bernie Mac, That '70s Show and Malcolm in the Middle, which left the air in 2006 far from their ratings peaks.

The network is adding two comedies: Brothers, starring former NFL star Michael Strahan, and animated Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show. But developing more is "absolutely a top priority for us," Fox chairman Peter Rice says. He says the sitcom formula "became stale to the audience. It's ripe to be reinvented."

NBC, which had 16 sitcoms in 1997, now has four. Though critically acclaimed (30 Rock snared a record 22 Emmy nominations), none tops 10 million viewers.

Zack Van Amburg, co-chief of Sony Pictures Television, says the swing back to comedy is cyclical, helped by the bad economy's push for "cost-effective" programs that can be sold easily in syndication. Several Seinfeld and Friends writers walked away from those series with huge development deals, resulting in comedies that "got on the air that maybe weren't ready for prime time," he says. "We have historically been a trend-based business, and we end up killing those trends."

CBS has had the best recent track record, with a reliably successful Monday night block that programming chief Nina Tassler says depends on casting kismet, a clever setup and compatible shows. "Drama has a whole range of gradations," from emotion to action, she says, "but with comedy, you laughed or you didn't laugh."

Says Chuck Lorre, producer of the top-rated Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, "There's so much alchemy involved, so much getting hit by lightning, (getting) the right actor for the right part. It's a judgment call, it's guesswork."

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