Last week the news broke that USA is considering picking up Happy Endings if it gets dropped by ABC. The news was leaked to Nellie Andreeva at Deadline.com, who seems to have a lot of sources at Sony TV, one of the producers of the show (you will recall that when Sony’s Breaking In was on, she had an item about that show’s future seemingly every other week). But if USA does pick up the show, it will make a lot of sense. USA paid out a lot of money a couple of years ago for the off-network rights to Modern Family, hoping to use it to branch out from hour-long drama and get into half-hour comedy. But it hasn’t had much luck in finding original comedies to go with Modern Family: it ordered a lot of pitches and a few pilots, but only one of two of them seem like they could amount to anything. So why not dip into the pool of well-liked comedies that are not quite popular enough to survive on broadcast networks? TBS already did this with Cougar Town, and is doing quite well with it.
I’ve said before that the single-camera, young-skewing half-hour comedy is probably the thing broadcast networks do better than anything else at this point. It plays to all their strengths. The larger budgets and large writing staffs allow the shows to be packed with jokes, as well as minimizing the number of weak characters (with a big enough writing staff and lots of rewrites, eventually most of the characters will get something to do). Most comedies are only minimally serialized, so they don’t suffer from the broadcast drama problem of servicing weekly stories that the writers aren’t really interested in. And even the heavier censorship on broadcast networks is not as big a problem for a single-cam comedy, since comedy thrives on innuendo and suggestion.
Cable, which has surpassed broadcast in the scripted drama field and the reality field, has never really gotten to the point of possessing that advantage when it comes to comedy – particularly if you’re counting only “funny,” laugh-out-loud comedies, rather than shows that are more comedy-drama hybrids (Girls, Enlightened, almost anything on Showtime). The live-action cable comedies that do make it lately are often the ones that are set up to make do without big writing staffs and big casts: Louie has no regular cast and only one writer, and doesn’t actually need to be funny in every episode. There are comedy success stories on cable – I’m not a big Always Sunny fan, but that’s certainly a success story – but compared to its drama and reality dominance, its comedy output seems a bit puny, and not comparable to the casts and writing staffs the U.S. broadcast networks pull together on a regular basis. The broadcast networks can essentially produce a well-cast, well-written single-camera comedy on demand; they have more of them than they know what to do with.
That being the case, it seems like a good idea for cable networks to help themselves to the broadcast leftovers. It would be hard for USA to pull together a cast for a new show that’s as good as the cast of Happy Endings, and even with the smaller budgets and writing staffs of cable, these shows have a built-in advantage: the cast and characters have already been honed and perfected by the big staffs they had on the broadcast network version. Even if you started from scratch on cable with a similar cast, it would be hard to play to all the actors’ strengths and get good as quickly as broadcast comedies do; having 22 episodes a season, and lots of writers to toss out ideas, allows characters to be developed to a point that is much more difficult with 13 episodes and a smaller staff.
This is one of the reasons I don’t think the comedy centre of gravity is going to shift toward cable, as this article by Maureen Ryan speculates. Cable isn’t in a position of being able to manufacture laugh-out-loud comedy on demand, the way it can manufacture quality drama on demand. (Greatness can’t be manufactured in an assembly-line way, but quality certainly can; that’s why we have so much quality drama below the very top tier.) It almost seems likelier that broadcast networks will eventually find a way to make money off its low-rated quality comedies, using DVR data and online viewing and convincing advertisers that shows with small, young audiences are worth their time. Right now Happy Endings is doing quite a bit worse on Fridays than ABC’s previous, older-skewing block of Tim Allen and Reba McIntyre comedies, which got better 18-49 ratings and twice as many viewers overall – but Happy Endings probably does better with college-age viewers and twentysomethings, and in a world to come, networks might be finding ways to make a bundle off that.
But if that doesn’t happen, then a Happy Endings type of show might be seen as more appropriate for cable. Right now it isn’t, because its style is one that was developed at the broadcast networks, and the whole style of light, frothy comedy is still seen as something that isn’t quite right for cable. (It may make sense that USA would be at least considering getting into this market; they are, along with TBS, one of the lightest and frothiest of successful cable networks.) But if quirky, fast single-cams with very young audiences – generation-gap comedies, one might call them, since they don’t appeal much to people over 40 – don’t break through and become broadcast successes, then they might start migrating to cable. In a way, it already started when Conan O’Brien, a comic beloved by younger audiences and disliked by most older viewers, couldn’t get a show at a broadcast network and chose to take his act to basic cable. Fun and frivolity isn’t usually considered “niche,” but everything about the past few years of network comedy has proven that some shows can aim to do nothing but be funny (like Happy Endings, or like the famously non-threatening Conan) and still deeply divide audiences. Maybe cable is the place for those shows to be.