By Yinka Adegoke and Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - The big winner of this year's upfront TV advertising sales season was an old favorite: the sitcom.
By the time the curtain came down on the network previews on Thursday, 16 of the 36 new scripted shows added to the programming lineups of the big four broadcast networks - CBS Corp, Walt Disney Co's ABC, News Corp's Fox and Comcast Corp's NBC - were comedies.
Upfront week is the television industry's annual rite at which networks preview upcoming shows for advertisers and media buyers in hopes of persuading them to buy commercial time in advance.
Broadcast networks invested heavily in original scripted programming, as opposed to reality shows. Much of the investment went toward the venerable situation comedy as networks sought to justify the hefty fees they charge advertisers in a world where viewers' time is increasingly fragmented by online video and social media. The big four networks plus Univision and CW are expected to collect about $9.2 billion from this year's upfronts, an increase of 3 percent over last year.
The heavy bet on original scripted shows also has residual benefits thanks to insurgent companies like Netflix Inc, which have shown an appetite not only to compete, but to pay top dollar for the syndication rights to such programming.
"We're seeing a lot of comedy added and a lot less new reality shows," said Needham analyst Laura Martin. "This is good for the TV ecosystem because TV has to have good syndication windows to sell on shows to other networks. Reality has no library value," she said, referring to the reluctance of broadcasters to pay big bucks for reality shows that are several years old.
In an effort to shake off their ratings cobwebs, ABC and NBC, which have long ranked third and fourth in the ratings, respectively, made the most significant revamps to their schedules.
ABC is adding 10 new shows to its schedule including six dramas and four comedies. Two of the network's new dramas, "666 Park Avenue" and "The Last Resort," received positive buzz from media buyers who attended ABC's upfront presentation.
NBC - which most needs a hit - unsurprisingly added 16 new shows to its lineup, the largest number of any network. Among the highlights was "Animal Practice," a sitcom set in a veterinary clinic. NBC sought to generate buzz for the show by bringing one of the stars - a monkey named Crystal - to its upfront presentation Monday.
Indeed, NBC is making the biggest bet of any network on comedies, scheduling sitcoms on four out of five week nights next season.
Media buyers also had high hopes for J.J. Abrams' science-fiction drama "Revolution," though the networks have tried and failed over the last few years to replicate the magic of "Lost," the other Abrams-produced show that launched TV's science-fiction fascination.
BRITNEY, BACON, QUAID
In contrast to NBC, CBS Corp's eponymous network, the top-rated network in terms of total viewers, has the strongest returning lineup and is therefore least in need of new shows. It added only four - three dramas and one comedy - to its schedule for the new season, the fewest new shows of any network.
The best-received of its shows were "Vegas," a new period drama starring Dennis Quaid in 1960s-era Las Vegas, and "Partners," its lone new sitcom from the original creators of hit comedy "Will & Grace" which also has a similar straight/gay buddy relationship as its theme.
Already featuring a strong comedy lineup with "Two and a Half Men," "Big Bang Theory" and "Mike and Molly," CBS boss Les Moonves decided against adding more comedies to his schedule despite the fact that they can help bring younger viewers to the network. CBS' audience is the oldest on TV, with an average age of more than 55 years old.
"We looked at going to eight comedies but felt we already had a great schedule," Moonves said.
Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger said CBS' incumbency advantage is starker than ever.
"For CBS, there was no need to take notes; we can name all four new shows and their time slots from memory," said Juenger.
"Imagine how much easier it is for CBS to drive awareness and interest in four new shows, compared to the other networks trying to launch six or 10 - or even 14 new shows."
For its part, Fox, which trails CBS in overall viewership, added three sitcoms and two dramas.
But the biggest news from Fox did not involve new shows, but a new judge. "X-Factor" producer Simon Cowell appeared on stage Tuesday to announce that Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, who appeared alongside Cowell, had signed on as judges for next season after weeks of speculation in the news media.
Fox also drew applause from advertisers for luring veteran Hollywood star Kevin Bacon to TV for the first time ever for its new serial-killer drama "The Following."
"Our audience has consistently asked, 'Where's the next "24"'? I think we found it," said Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.
The addition of movie stars like Bacon, Quaid, and Lucy Liu, who will star in a new CBS show called "Elementary," is viewed as significant for the broadcast networks since the perception is that they have been losing buzz and mind share to much smaller networks like AMC, home to award-winning shows such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
And then there are insurgent newcomers like Hulu, Google Inc's YouTube and Yahoo Inc, which are luring stars like Tom Hanks and Katie Couric to digital video by investing heavily in original content creation.
"This isn't new to this year, the networks understand that there's all this development on the other side," said Mediacom Chicago managing director Matt Schwach.
With so many holes to fill, NBC and ABC inevitably had some losers at this week's upfronts, with many of their new shows and schedule changes falling flat with critics and other media-watchers.
Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate said NBC's move to extend its hit talent show "The Voice" by an hour on Tuesday nights might be 60 minutes too much for audiences to bear.
"I think they're going to kill 'The Voice' with over-exposure," said Adgate.
Adgate also was not a fan of ABC's new sitcom "The Neighbors," about an alien family living among humans, which the network plans to air after its hit "Modern Family" on Wednesday nights.
But from the TV industry's point of view one person was a bigger loser than any show previewed during the upfronts: Charlie Ergen, chairman of DISH Network Corp. Network executives are hopping mad over Ergen's launch of a DVR called the "Hopper" which allows viewers to completely skip over commercials rather than fast-forward through them.
The industry was collectively appalled that Ergen would attempt to undermine their key source of revenue - advertising.
"I do find it surprising that they're going to do that to their largest content provider. I mean, more broadcast is watched on their service than anywhere else, and this is how the shows are paid for," said Peter Rice, chairman of Fox Entertainment.
CBS' Moonves was even more emphatic. "It's preposterous, they can't do this," he said. "How does Charlie (Ergen) expect us to pay for the programming?"
(Reporting By Yinka Adegoke and Liana B. Baker in New York; Editing by Peter Lauria, M.D. Golan and Matthew Lewis)