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Fewer laughs in fall's TV lineup

Short on comedy, new dramas still combine best elements of old franchises.

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The peacock network is also pushing the boundaries of audience tolerance for overt commercialization of scripted shows. The new "Knight Rider" will flaunt its General Motors connection. One critic dubbed the show's movie preview this past season "a two-hour car commercial." The Christian Slater-helmed drama, "My Own Worst Enemy," will also become a vehicle for touting the GM name.

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"What we are trying to do is integrate marketing," says Mr. Graboff. "We're trying to make it more organic to the show," he says, adding that with the 1980s drama about an intelligent car, the automobile firm partnership was "like low-hanging fruit."

One of the more pronounced trends is the ongoing comedy drought. Only a quarter of the new shows are "laffers." Indeed, networks continue to struggle to craft the defining comedy for the post-"Friends" television world.

Audience expectations are so much higher today, says Jonathan Zipper, entertainment editor at the social media site, whereIstand.com, who points out that the relatively simplistic sitcoms of a few decades ago such as "Saved by the Bell" or "Charles in Charge" would never fly today. Younger viewers have been weaned on the single-camera, non-laugh-track style of reality TV and expect a much higher level of sophistication from comedy. He points to shows such as "30 Rock" and "The Office."

Beyond that, says Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at City University of New York's Queen's College, while the traditional three-camera-studio-audience sitcom – "Two and a Half Men," "According to Jim," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" – continues to deliver solid ratings, audiences for these shows tend to skew older.

"These days advertisers want a younger, hipper audience," she says, "and networks are realizing they can survive with lower ratings as long as they are delivering the more desirable audience."

"Comedy is really hard to do," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It is also the building block for a network because, when it works, it is so powerful."

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