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State of family sitcoms isn't funny

Bill Engvall has not yet seen the overnight ratings for “The Bill Engvall Show.” It's the morning after the premiere of the sitcom's second season, and he's concerned.

“Last night it was hard to get excited when you're going up against the NBA finals,” says Engvall, one-fourth of the popular “Blue Collar Comedy” troupe. “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,” says 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.”

In recent years, the proliferation of Internet and video game usage and the overall fragmentation of the American family has undermined the traditional family comedy “in a big way,” says Brian Lowry, television critic for the entertainment trade paper Daily Variety. “It's not as much about let's gather around the hearth and watch together as it is, I'm going in my room and watch what I want; you go in your room and watch what you want.”

Lowry adds: “You could also blame, quite frankly, that there have been lot of really bad (family sitcoms) lately. But I don't know if even a good family sitcom could have the kind of success that we were accustomed to when they were dominant.”

When you look at what qualifies as family comedy on the broadcast networks these days, it's family with an adult edge.

On CBS, for example, “Two and a Half Men” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” are considered by the network to be family comedies, yet they seldom deal with kids' issues, even though children are part of the shows.

In the fall, the network premieres another such comedy, “Gary Unmarried,” about a divorced dad with two kids who is re-entering the dating pool, and you just know it will be all about Gary.

In the meantime, cable is taking full advantage of the broadcast shortfall.

“We've been lucky to work with some talented writers and producers that might not have opportunities at the (broadcast) networks who are running to Disney Channel wanting to work with us,” says Disney's Adam Bonnett, senior vice president of original programming.

The network is currently in business with Peter Murrieta (“Greetings From Tucson”), executive producer of the channel's family fantasy comedy “Wizards of Waverly Place,” and has worked with writers and producers from shows such as “Full House,” “Friends” and “Murphy Brown.”

Lifetime will premiere a new half-hour family sitcom in December called “Rita Rocks,” starring Nicole Sullivan as a wife and mother of two who tries to invigorate her overworked life by starting up a garage band.

But for his part, at least, Engvall is not trying to “reinvent the wheel,” he says. “It's just good family entertainment and I hope to God that TV doesn't just bail on it.”

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