LOS ANGELES (AP) – NBC had little to laugh about. With its glory sitcoms out of the picture, the network had lost its No. 1 ranking in viewership for the first time in six years.

It was 1992, when the end of “The Cosby Show” and “The Golden Girls” helped topple NBC while new top dog CBS was reveling in the performance of “Murphy Brown” and “Designing Women.”

Thirteen years later, the names have been changed but the story is the same. Stalwart comedies “Friends” and “Frasier” are gone and the peacock network is fending off CBS, Fox, even a resurgent ABC.

But if comedy has let the network down, it’s also rescued it – and NBC is banking on that happening again.

“‘Cosby’ did it in the ‘80s, ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends” in the ‘90s,” NBC programming chief Kevin Reilly said at a gathering of advertisers last week. “When we needed it most, it’s been there.”

Having milked the last ratings ounce of “Friends,” which returned for an abbreviated 16-episode season last year, its 10th, NBC was acutely aware a sinkhole was forming.

But the network’s light touch had vanished, resulting in a series of flops including “Good Morning Miami,” “Coupling,” “Whoopi” and the costly animated effort “Father of the Pride.” The comedies couldn’t find an audience, let alone a “Friends”-sized blockbuster one.

NBC is reaping the fallout. After four years as the No. 1 network among the 18-to-49 crowd favored by advertisers, NBC fell from first to fourth place. The race remains tight, with four-tenths of a ratings point separating NBC from leader Fox.

But NBC can’t dismiss the pain of its faded dominance on Thursday, a lucrative advertising night that it long ruled courtesy of its powerhouse comedies including “Cheers” (and with the help of drama “ER,” which contributed to NBC’s 1995-96 comeback).

NBC’s viewership in February, a crucial “sweeps” month used to set local advertising rates, was down 15 percent compared to February 2004.

“I’m acutely aware that we need the next generation of hits,” Reilly said, adding confidently that “the process has begun” with the midseason success “Medium.”

But the big push is for more laughs, not more crime on “Law & Order”-saturated NBC.

For the upcoming season, NBC literally redoubled its efforts to create winning shows. It formed two development teams, one looking at in-house production for new series and the other scanning the industry at large, analyst Shari Anne Brill of Carat USA noted approvingly.

“NBC is on the right track. … At least they’re not restricting themselves to NBC Universal Television Studio,” Brill said.

The approach has yielded results, at least numerically, on the comedy front. NBC ended up with 14 sitcom pilots to outline for advertisers. (By comparison, there were a half-dozen drama pilots.)

What ultimately makes it onto the 2005-06 schedule will be announced in New York at the annual May “upfront” presentation for Madison Avenue.

But Reilly said last week he was optimistic because the network was acutely aware of the big picture: It isn’t just NBC but situation comedy itself that needs a shot in the arm.

The comedy business has fallen “to an anemic state that hasn’t been seen since the early ‘80s,” Reilly said. He called “the stale creative scope of many of the comedies on the air” an opportunity for NBC.

The goal, Reilly said, is to offer viewers fresh choices that make them sit down and take notice.

In format, at least, some of the sitcoms match Reilly’s intent. There are three single-camera productions, a break from the traditional multi-camera shows (such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Two and a Half Men”) filmed in front of a studio audience.

The trio includes “Earl,” starring Jason Lee as a small-time crook who decides to make amends for his past; “Notorious,” with the real Tori Spelling in a fictional world; and “Dante,” starring Morris Chestnut as an NFL player.

It’s a potentially rewarding approach. HBO had successful and critically acclaimed single-camera ventures with “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Finding a broadcast example is tougher. Fox’s “Arrested Development” is an Emmy winner and critics’ darling, but the show has yet to cultivate an audience in two seasons and is unlikely to get a third.

“It’s hard to be unique and appealing to the mass audience at the same time,” said analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media.

Whether intended or not, NBC is doing a test-run of its ability to launch an alternative comedy with “The Office.” The single-camera show, based on a British hit comedy, begins airing Thursday.

“They could still make a lot of decisions after “The Office’ goes on,” said analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television. “If everybody is talking about it and it’s exciting and different and people watch, then you’re prepared to take advantage of that.

“If it doesn’t turn out to be a success, then you take a step back and say, “What do we do now?”‘

Striking gold with one or two comedies, the most lucrative and recyclable TV genre, could make this a brief slump for NBC, experts said. Television, which is nothing if not cyclical, has seen it happen again and again.

“It really just takes one show with a lot of buzz,” said Koerner.


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