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Funny fare dominates fall TV

By Matt Webb Mitovich, Special to CNN
updated 10:30 AM EDT, Wed October 19, 2011
Fox's
Fox's "New Girl," starring Zooey Deschanel, has surprised executives with its positive early ratings.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sitcoms surge, challenge reality TV shows
  • CBS exec: "There is some sort of groundswell right now"
  • "2 Broke Girls" and "New Girl" feature "young, energetic" female leads

Editor's note: Matt Webb Mitovich is editor-at-large for TVLine.com.

(CNN) -- One need look no further than the Nielsen Top 25 to see that funny fare is doing some serious damage this fall TV season.

Led by "Two and a Half Men" on CBS and featuring no less than three newcomers -- CBS' "2 Broke Girls," Fox's "New Girl" and ABC's "Last Man Standing" -- sitcoms have dominated the Top 10 scripted programs in the weekly rankings (based on delivery of the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic).

"It's been a while since that's been the case," says Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of CBS Primetime. "At the end of the day, it does seem like there is some sort of groundswell right now."

CBS claims five of eight highly ranked sitcoms. The network's three other hits are "How I Met Your Mother," "Big Bang Theory," and "Mike and Molly." "New Girl," "Last Man Standing" (which debuted to 13 million viewers) and ABC's Emmy-adorned "Modern Family" round out the crowd. "People forget sometimes that comedies are supposed to be fun, but a lot of the comedies are bringing the funny this fall," Kahl says. "And when you do that, the audience is there for it."

The audience also has been there for cable comedies, with HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" coming off all-time highs, even in their eighth and seventh seasons, respectively.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the fall is Fox's "New Girl," which not only bowed to strong numbers but also built on its lead-in, the buzz worthy "Glee." That performance, which has continued throughout the newbie's run, even caught the ratings-crunchers at Fox a bit by surprise.

"Did we think we were going to get those numbers? No," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic program planning and research. "But we had a lot of positive signs."

Beckman says pilot testing indicated "New Girl" would be a potential four-quadrant hit, meaning one that played well to audiences young and old, male and female. While preseason tracking put consumer awareness of the Zooey Deschanel-fronted comedy at expected levels, Beckman says, "The intent to view was consistently high. We knew we had a show here."

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Beckman, who was at NBC during "Friends" fever, sees "New Girl" sharing DNA with that piece of Must See TV. When creating an identifiable cast of characters, "You either want to be those people, you are those people, or you remember being those people -- and if you can hit everybody, you have success," he says. "That's what 'New Girl' is."

Asked how it is that "New Girl" is even growing out of "Glee," Beckman cites a good fit between the shows, as well as the 9 p.m. hour's older-skewing competition (reality juggernaut "Dancing With the Stars" included). To a 12-34 demographic that is ripe for the picking, Deschanel and friends offer "a real alternative," he says.

Much can also be attributed to star power. Both "2 Broke Girls," starring wisecracking Kat Dennings and bubbly newcomer Beth Behrs, and "New Girl" have the "sort of appealing characters the audiences love," CBS' Kahl says. "I don't think there's been a female lead sitcom in a while -- much less two -- that featured young, energetic characters."

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At CBS, the good news expands to its older comedies. "How I Met Your Mother," which leads into "2 Broke Girls" on Monday nights, "has kind of come out of nowhere" to gain 30% in the demographic versus a year ago, Kahl says. Likewise, "Two and a Half Men's" performance -- netting more than 15 million total viewers at last count, despite replacing one of its leads, Charlie Sheen, with Ashton Kutcher -- "is not something anybody could have forecast," Kahl says, "and even 'Big Bang Theory' is up" on Thursdays.

One perspective Kahl offers on the trend is that in an era of bloated reality shows "that are now two hours in length," with a half-hour sitcom "you get your laughs and you're done, and that is very appealing."

Speaking of unscripted programs, expanded editions of "The X Factor" -- coupled with Fox's commitment to post-season Major League Baseball coverage -- led the network to pull its shiny "New Girl" off the schedule until November 1.

Beckman has been down this road before, and to those who question the tactic, he says, "You're thinking about this moment, when we have to think about a strategy for the whole year." So while some grumble at the breakout hit's brief MIA status, his attitude is this: better now than later.

"I get into interesting discussions with my bosses about this, where I say, 'If you're telling me to put (new episodes) on now, you're going to flip out in January or March when I've run out," he says with a laugh. "It becomes choose your poison."

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