Fast-forward to the sitcom reruns

There is cash is in syndication, and some networks are speeding up production at the cost of quality

Fast-forward to the reruns

Adam Rose / FX Network / Everett Collection

Fast-forward to the reruns
Adam Rose / FX Network / Everett Collection

The television sitcoms that make the most money are the ones that make 100 episodes, the magic number for selling a series into syndication. But it used to take a long time to make that many episodes. So the production company Debmar-Mercury came up with a plan: Why not make 100 episodes as quickly as possible, and reap the syndicated rewards? This approach, created for Tyler Perry’s sitcom House of Payne, is catching on throughout the industry. The FX network will air all 100 episodes of Charlie Sheen’s Debmar-Mercury production Anger Management, and NBC plans to use the same production method for a sitcom starring Roseanne Barr. Chuck Saftler, president of program strategy and COO of FX, says this model has made it possible to get “100 episodes that look like a traditional off-network sitcom, with big-name TV stars, in a two-year span.”

The trade-off for making these shows so fast is a low budget and a gruelling schedule.They film two episodes a week rather than one, as is typical, cutting corners everywhere, often including post-synchronized laughter instead of a studio audience. The trend fills writers with fear that this might be where their work is headed: “How this doesn’t result in the sweatshopping of the business,” says TV writer Denis McGrath, “is beyond me.”

Debmar-Mercury presidents Ira Bernstein and Mort Marcus came up with the idea of mass-producing sitcoms when they realized that the rerun market was lacking in hit comedies. Thanks to a recent plague of flops on the broadcast networks, Saftler says cable networks are engaged in “a bidding war” over the few comedy successes that exist, such as The Big Bang Theory. Debmar-Mercury stepped in to offer cheap shows that mimic the style of those popular and expensive hits.

Not only do these shows sign up already bankable sitcom stars such as Sheen, George Lopez and Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer—tempting them by offering a big chunk of the eventual profits—but they try to follow the formulas of syndicated sitcom hits. “We will only do male-led sitcoms,” Bernstein says, explaining why his company doesn’t sign up female stars, “because that’s what repeats.”

The critical reaction to these sitcoms has been vicious, and the shows have also been the target of attacks within the TV industry for their tackiness. “In recent conversations I’ve had in L.A., there is not a single comedy writer I ran into that’s excited by the model,” says McGrath, who’s written for shows such as Continuum. The visible boom mikes and other signs of cheapness on Perry’s sitcoms were even mocked on a higher-budget U.S. sitcom, ’Til Death. McGrath adds that the spread of this model could make a mockery of TV’s attempts to improve its work: “We’ve been trying to get things more to a merit-based system, where quality is important,” he says, “and lo and behold, here comes this American model now that prizes not if the show is good, but merely that it gets made.”

Like it or not, this assembly-line production method is getting more popular. Not only is NBC trying to get in the game, but FX, otherwise known as a quality cable network, with such shows as Louie and Justified, has arranged to pick up other cheap sitcoms to go with Anger Management. “Networks value original programming more than they do repeat programming,” Bernstein explains, and with these sitcoms, “they’re getting original programming at a low-end repeat price.”

This arrangement has risks. FX and CTV are committed to air all 100 episodes, even though the ratings for Anger Management have fallen fast, and Sheen had his leading lady, Selma Blair, fired mid-run. But Saftler says the model remains viable because it “has tremendous fiscal control.” Networks also minimize risk by getting a test run of 10 episodes before buying a full series, which has led to its being called the “10/90 model.”

Those financial safeguards may make shows like these a better investment than an acclaimed series with a bigger budget and shorter season. Explaining his company’s philosophy, Bernstein says: “We’re not interested in winning in prime time if we can’t sell it for a lot of money in repeats.” That might be the future of TV.