Comedy nudges out reality in the US this Fall

MUMBAI: The catchword is comedy at the top networks in the US this Fall.

While back home, broadcasters continue to swear by tear jerker family dramas, heavy on glycerine and low on laughs, ABC, Warner Bros' The WB Network, NBC, Fox and CBS which recently announced their fall lineup, are banking extensively on comedy. Even as reality television, that genre that promised ratings deliverance last year, has been sidelined without much fanfare. 

The Walt Disney Co owned ABC, which has not done too well in the last two years despite a concerted and marginally successful effort with George Lopez and Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, will feature five comedies among the seven new shows scheduled to launch this season. On rival WB Network, owned by AOL Time Warner, comedian Steve Harvey returns to host a variety show featuring ordinary people, among five other shows like Tarzan and Jane that resets the jungle tale in modern-day New York City.

NBC, which is airing the final season of Friends and Frasier, has also charted a course heavy on scripted comedies and dramas and familiar faces. Surprises include the return of critical favorites like Ed and Boomtown, the ditching of Watching Ellie and Kingpin, and the renewal of Good Morning, Miami. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told the media that the network's priorities for the upcoming season included premiering strong comedies and keeping its focus on dramas along with fixing problem night Tuesday.

On Fox meanwhile, which announced its lineup yesterday, a new Joe Millionaire is back in a fall lineup that includes four new comedies, three new dramas and a pint-sized version of American Idol. The network's challenge is to build more sitcoms and dramas without relying heavily on fickle reality fans, say reports. Among schedule changes, Wanda and Boston Public move to patch a Friday trouble spot, where Fastlane and John Doe have been canceled. Cedric the Entertainer Presents and Oliver Beene join Wanda in the renewal column.

All the networks target different demographics (ABC zeroes in on the 18 to 49 demographic, while The WB aims at coloured audiences) but the viewer need for lighter shows on television seems to be clearly perceived by all three.

On ABC, Kelly Ripa, from the morning talk show Live with Regis and Kelly will star in the comedy Hope & Faith, about a soap opera star who gives up Hollywood for a quiet suburban life with her sister. It is slated to air Fridays at 9 p.m. The hit drama The Practice is being moved back to Sunday nights at 10 pm, after foundering in the ratings race on Monday nights. Dragnet, which hasn't done well so far, is getting a new title L.A. Dragnet and moving to Saturday night at 10 pm from Sunday night. 

A new comedy I'm With Her, about a high school teacher who falls in love with a Hollywood star is also on the cards. According To Jim, the comedy starring Jim Belushi, will move to 9 pm. Other new comedies include It's All Relative, from the producers of the Oscar-winning film Chicago. Among the dramas Threat Matrix, about an elite task force assigned to defend the country against terrorism, which will air Thursday night at 8 pm and 10-8, is about a reformed hoodlum who becomes a cop, which will air on Sunday nights at 8 pm.

ABC's lineup could be its effort to undo the damage inflicted by six reality shows that launched in February, including the instantly despised modeling series, Are You Hot? 

ABC network executive Lloyd Braun put it succinctly when he said: "ABC has found its comedic voice." 

The WB on the other hand, say reports, invested in eye-popping film-quality trailers, the kind that make even the most pedestrian comedy seem like groundbreaking television during its presentation to advertisers recently.

CBS, which leads as far as total household viewership is concerned, in its fall primetime schedule is adding seven new shows (five dramas and two comedies).

The NBC schedule includes a number of familiar names, including Rob Lowe's new legal drama, The Lyon's Den; James Caan, Las Vegas; Alicia Silverstone and Ryan O'Neal, Miss Match; Whoopi Goldberg, in Whoopi; and John Larroquette and Christine Baranski, both in Happy Family. Returning shows include Law & Order's three programs, The West Wing, ER, Will & Grace, and Fear Factor. Along with Boomtown, the other 2002-03 shows returning to the schedule are Good Morning, Miami, Scrubs and American Dreams. 

While this season would be the last for both Friends and Frasier, Zucker was quoted as saying that last season's Tuesday schedule had not been kind to Frasier and that NBC's priority was finding out how to change that. "Frasier operated as an island on the entire night and it wasn't fair to that show," Zucker said. Frasier will now be surrounded by a two-hour block of comedies and then move Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from Friday nights to 10 pm Tuesdays. 

Fear Factor and The Apprentice are the only two unscripted series on the NBC schedule, and Zucker said it's no accident."NBC is committed to scripted comedies and dramas," Zucker said.

All in all, it seems like the US viewer can now settle back for a few good laughs this Fall.

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