Joel McHale

When it comes to comedy, the networks have some tough decisions to make in the next few months. Do they stick with low-rated but critically adored shows with rabid fan bases, like NBC's Community? Or do they attempt to emulate the success of sitcoms with broad appeal but little acclaim, like the CBS hit 2 Broke Girls?

A handful of shows — including Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory — manage to pull off the rare feat of landing big accolades and big audiences. But for some reason, at least in broadcast primetime, "smart" plus "sophisticated" usually equals "low-rated."

It's not a new debate — Fox spent three years attempting to turn Arrested Development into a hit — but one that takes on new urgency this year now that the networks have started to witness comedy's resurgence. Eager to expand their sitcom footprints, ABC and NBC each have 13 comedy pilots in contention for next fall, while Fox has 11 and CBS has nine. (That comes to 46, compared to 35 drama pilots this year.)

With so many laughs in the pipeline, the opportunity is there for some of the networks to completely overhaul their comedy identity. Among the more mainstream pilots in the works are ABC's family comedies with Reba McEntire (Malibu Country) and Kirstie Alley (The Manzanis) and NBC's Roseanne Barr comedy Downwardly Mobile. CBS is staying the course, while Fox, enjoying the success of the fairly sophisticated New Girl, is sticking with single-camera comedy pilots — but looking to broaden things out with more family-centered shows.

Network execs have shown quite a bit of patience in recent years for half-hour entries like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Cougar Town, Raising Hope, Happy Endings and Community, all of which have pulled off renewals in the past despite small audiences. Giving them hope was the slow build of The Office, which started small but blossomed into a hit, proving that clever single-camera comedies could be nurtured over time.

But TV is a business driven by ratings, and several of those shows average less than a 2.0 rating among adults 18—49. And it's hard to avoid the obvious fact that CBS' more run-of-the-mill comedies are also mega-hits. "CBS had a fairly consistent vision, while the rest of the world was heading in more of a single-camera, edgy, young adult workplace direction," notes former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, whose upcoming book details the glory days of Must-See TV (and its populist sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends). "CBS really stayed straight ahead, with the majority of their shows multi-camera. And they continued to rack up hits."

The comedy divide is particularly glaring on Thursday nights, where NBC's Parks and Recreation is getting trounced in the ratings by the critically despised CBS sitcom Rob (which itself is not even a shoo-in for renewal, given the dominant strength of CBS' other comedies). Something's gotta give.

Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence believes Nielsen's methodology doesn't help. "I think the gap is not as big as those numbers would have you believe," he says. He also hopes that since network ratings in general have gotten lower — and it's now almost impossible to label shows either a "hit" or a "miss" — building a "loyal, cultish audience" that makes a show buzzworthy is also valued.

"When I got started out in this business, there were big hits and then there were niche shows, and sometimes good shows that no one was passionate about but had a great time slot," Lawrence says. "That doesn't fly anymore. Now there are only two ways to survive. Either you become a great zeitgeist-y hit or you're a niche show that appeals to veracious people who will lock on, demand extra content and follow you wherever you go."

It worked for Lawrence's Scrubs, which managed to air for eight seasons without becoming a major hit, and he hopes to do it again with Cougar Town, now in its third year. But Lawrence admits he was disappointed that his recent blitz throwing viewing parties around the country for fans didn't move the ratings needle. The producer spent tens of thousands of dollars on the parties, but Cougar Town continues to limp along following its Feb. 14 return. (Star Josh Hopkins, hedging his bets, recently signed on to star in another comedy pilot.) "I wasn't trying to attract new viewers, I was just trying to get the word out to fans that our show was back on the air," Lawrence says. "If our show had gone away and we didn't give it a shot I would have been bummed out."

Fans have helped keep Community on the radar, but creator Dan Harmon isn't sure if the show, which returns from hiatus March 15, will get a fourth season. "It's always 50/50, because it's just chaos," he says. "I just say flip a coin, because that's how random it is. It's in my self-interest to end the season in a way that makes everyone demand a fourth."

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke says not to fear; even as NBC attempts to broaden its comedy palette, it doesn't want to alienate its core audience. "We're not going to sweep everything out and start from scratch," she says. "We're not going to alienate the fans of those critically acclaimed shows, we'd be foolish. The thing that makes the most sense is to try and start a new night and integrate these new comedies one at a time."

Comedy tastes have also changed as writers weaned on The Simpsons, David Letterman and The Onion steered the genre into more challenging, and sometimes too quirky, styles of humor. Cartoonish, irreverent humor, like the kind seen on shows like Community and 30 Rock, is also considered more male-friendly — but young men watch less primetime TV.

"Some of it comes down to an accessibility issue," Salke says. "On shows like [Fox's] Raising Hope, which I developed, and some of our shows on Thursday night that we love, sometimes the worlds feel too narrow and too polarizing for a larger audience. They become these critically acclaimed shows but they somehow don't invite everybody into the tent... I think that when you're in some of those other shows that feel more narrow, there's no access point for people in the middle of the country."

Salke says she's very aware that this year's comedy pilots — her first crop since joining NBC last year from 20th Century Fox TV — have to be broader than in the past. One of NBC's highest-profile comedy pilots is a clear attempt to reach mainstream audiences: the multi-camera Downwardly Mobile, which reunites Barr with her 1990s sitcom co-star John Goodman. "When the deal closed, we were cheering, just thinking of the two of them back together," Salke says. But even on NBC's Sarah Silverman comedy pilot, Salke says the edgy comedian has come up with a very mainstream idea. "She could be a polarizing, more narrow talent, but she came to the table smartly with what she thought could be a network show," she says.

NBC is so eager to find new comedies that it had originally planned to order more drama pilots, but ultimately scrapped one so that it could order another sitcom pilot instead. Many industry observers were surprised when NBC decided not to move forward on a comedy starring Mindy Kaling, selling it to Fox instead. (NBC's Universal TV remains the producer.) But Kaling's show is a single-camera workplace comedy — and NBC probably realized it already has too many of those. Says Littlefield: "If you look at their development direction, they're trying to broaden out the brand a bit. They're looking at bigger themes, more family themes."

If there's an overarching trend this pilot season, it's the quest for more family comedies. And Modern Family at least proved that the family comedy could be just as smart and sophisticated as a workplace show.

Lawrence has hope for shows that can be smart and draw an audience, citing The Big Bang Theory. He quips: "The day the smart comedy dies on network TV is the day that I'll go into business with a bunch of friends to launch The Smart Comedy Network on cable."

With reporting by David Kronke

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!