Inside Networks’ Struggle to Find ‘Empire’-Size Comedy Hit

“Drama is incredibly competitive, but comedy has the added challenge of creatively being something that you have to build toward,” ABC EVP Samie Falvey tells TheWrap

Comedy is hard. And it’s not getting any easier, particularly on broadcast television.

Fox’s “Empire” proved last season that it’s still possible for a new broadcast show to draw massive audiences. ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” — last season’s second highest rated freshman — was no slouch either. But both those shows were dramas.

Facing increased competition from cable and streaming services and ratings depressed by delayed and digital viewing, broadcasters have not able to replicate those results with comedy. As a result, programmers are changing strategies when it comes to the genre.

“Drama is incredibly competitive, but I do think comedy has the added challenge of creatively being something that you have to build toward,” Samie Falvey, executive vice president of comedy development for ABC, told TheWrap.

“Programming today is so event-driven and about bringing eyeballs right away and getting people to that first episode,” Falvey said. “Comedy inherently, a lot of the best ones are very low-concept and not easily targeted in a tagline or a logline.”

ABC has had more success than most networks with comedy in recent years, focusing on low-concept family-centered shows such as “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Goldbergs.” The network boasts seven of the top 10 comedies so far this season in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo, according to Nielsen live-plus-same day ratings.

But none of those shows have had the same pop coming off the bat as the most successful new dramas. NBC’s “Blindspot,” the highest rated new drama of the fall, is averaging a 2.7 demo rating so far this season. The No. 1 new comedy, by comparison, ABC’s “The Muppets,” is averaging a 2.2.

“The sensibilities of pop culture have gone away from traditional network comedy content,” said Will Packer, executive producer of new comedy “Truth Be Told,” which premieres Friday night on NBC. “It has gone to other outlets with edgier, more provocative, more envelope-pushing content.”

NBC has struggled more than any other network with comedy in recent years — a struggle reflected in its schedule. “Truth Be Told” isn’t just the only new scripted comedy on NBC this fall — it’s one of only two comedies, period. The other, “Undateable,” is also on Fridays, when fewer viewers are watching TV than on any other weeknight.

NBC began changing its scheduling strategy toward comedy last season, when it abandoned its longstanding Thursday-night Must See TV block — home to shows that defined the network, such as “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “30 Rock.”

But the network hasn’t abandoned comedy altogether. Instead it has shifted toward a strategy slotting the genre during midseason and summer, when competition is less intense. That shift yielded a rare success for the network when “The Jerrod Carmichael Show,” an African-American family comedy built around the stand-up comic, exceeded ratings expectations and earned a renewal order this summer.

The network has, like other broadcasters, also experimented with form. “Undateable” premiered in summer 2014 as a traditional multi-camera comedy, but this season switched to a live format. “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris,” also live, is an effort to merge the variety-show and unscripted genres.

But the biggest and most promising strategy shift in broadcast comedy has been toward onscreen diversity. Two of the top four new comedies of last season, “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” both on ABC, featured casts made up primarily of minorities. Both shows also dealt head-on with the experience of being a minority American family — the former about an affluent black family in a mostly white community, the latter about a Taiwanese family that relocates to Orlando, Fla.

This season, ABC’s new Friday-night comedy “Dr. Ken,” starring Korean-American actor Ken Jeong, has averaged a respectable 1.3 demo rating. “Truth Be Told” stars Filipina-American actress Vanessa Lachey alongside white actor Mark Paul Gosselaar and African-American actors Tone Bell and Bresha Webb.

“There’s no question that Hollywood has realized that diversity is big business,” Packer said. “The country is different, and the demographics of it are changing in a really positive way. The content needs to reflect that.”

But even with broadcasters reaching out to diversified and under-served audiences, no new comedy has broken away from the ratings pack since “Modern Family,” which premiered in 2009. It’s currently the No. 2 comedy on broadcast (behind CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory”) and has averaged a 4.5 demo rating this seasson — up 30 percent from the next highest rated show, “The Goldbergs.”

The success of “Modern Family” spawned a new wave of family comedies, such as this season’s “Life in Pieces” on CBS and “Grandfathered” and “The Grinder” on Fox.” So far no amount of experimentation by the broadcasters has sparked a new, similar trend.

“When we were developing ‘Modern Family,’ nobody else in town wanted to do a family show,” Falvey said. “It’s extremely competitive now for family shows.”

In that environment, is it better for broadcasters to follow a model that has worked in the past or experiment?

“A little bit of both,” Falvey said. “We spent a lot of time having that conversation at the top of the season. The bar is very high for us right now.”