Viewers may be laughing a lot less when they turn on their televisions this fall, as the major U.S. broadcasters are loading up their schedules with dramas in an effort to lure some defecting viewers back from cable.
For the first time since 1985, CBS replaced the 9 p.m. Monday night slot that once aired the sitcom "Murphy Brown" with an hour-long drama, "Scorpion," a show about brainiac misfits who come to the aid of the Department of Homeland Security.
NBC, a unit of Comcast Corp, is also chopping up its storied two-hour comedy block on Thursday nights that was once occupied by "The Cosby Show" and "Friends." Instead, it will air the reality weight loss show "The Biggest Loser" at 8 p.m.
Networks ordered 34 dramas to start the new TV season this fall, compared with 30 a year ago, while they cut their comedy orders down to 20 from 23 last year, according to a tally by the Hollywood Reporter.
Part of the reason why networks are loading up on dramas is to resell them overseas, where American fare has become a hot commodity. Overseas sales for a one-hour drama can fetch up to $2 million an episode, said CBS' Chief Operating Officer Joe Ianniello on Thursday.
"Dramas definitely sell well internationally. American comedy is a little tougher," Ianniello said.
Networks are trying to replicate last year's best-rated new show, NBC's "Blacklist," a one-hour drama starring James Spader with spies and intrigue, that helped propel NBC to No. 1 in the 18-49 age group.
Plus, last season, high-profile comedies starring big names were canceled, including NBC's "The Michael J. Fox show" plus CBS' "The Crazy Ones" with Robin Williams.
NBC unveiled several new dramas, including "Allegiance", a series about Russian spies, "Odyssey," which centers on a global military conspiracy, and "State of Affairs" starring movie actress Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst.
Broadcast for years has been trying to emulate the drama strategy with darker themes that has succeeded on cable with AMC's "The Walking Dead." Both Fox's "Gracepoint" and ABC's "Secrets and Lies" each open with the murder of a child.
"The general program concepts may not be new, solving murders, stopping the bad guys, but the execution of those concepts has gotten noticeably darker and more gruesome," said Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger.
Dramas that have the potential to be hits this year are Fox's "Gotham" about Batman's origins and Shonda Rhimes "How to Get Away with Murder," on ABC starring Viola Davis, according to Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at media buying firm MindShare.
Relying on dramas is not "any riskier than it has always been. They are simply following current audience tastes," said Jeff Gaspin, a former NBC Entertainment television chairman.