State of family sitcoms is not so funny

Thursday, July 17, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Bill Engvall had more than the regular competition when his sitcom "The Bill Engvall Show" was being measured for overnight ratings. The morning after the premiere of the sitcom's second season, he was fairly concerned.

"It was hard to get excited when you're going up against the NBA finals," Engvall said. "Not that the entire country watches [the finals], but it does take a huge audience away from you."

Basketball, however, is the least of his worries.

On television, "Engvall" has become something of an anomaly: a multicamera family sitcom played before a live audience in which the lead guy is actually married with children.

Once the staple of broadcast television, the traditional family sitcom has been relegated of late to niche cable channels like TBS, which airs "Engvall" and "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," and The Disney Channel, which has had phenomenal success with its Miley Cyrus-led comedy, "Hannah Montana."

"Engvall" -- with its current season average of 2.4 million viewers, up 8 percent over last year -- is considered a ratings success for TBS. But those numbers don't come close to past broadcast network family hits such as "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire," "Home Improvement" or "The Cosby Show," which at its peak in the late '80s averaged 63 million viewers.

"The family comedy is like that kid in the corner of the quad who's not the coolest kid, but he's a good solid kid," said Michael Wright, senior vice president of content creation for TNT, TBS and TCM. "In this business of what we do, everybody wants to be associated with the thing that's the hippest and coolest and newest and that's not a bad thing, but it doesn't mean that this form is no longer relevant."

"I won't lie to you, it's been an uphill battle," said Engvall, commenting on the struggle to bring new audiences to his show, despite less than glowing reviews.

But Engvall is not giving up. "At our tapings, I can't tell you the number of people who come up to me personally and go, 'Thanks for bringing family back to TV,' [or] the e-mails I get all the time from people saying, 'Thanks for doing it the way you do it,'" he said. "So we're going to ride this horse ... for better or worse we're going to ride it."

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