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Single-camera shows become the trend

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 23, 2001) Given the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, extensive network news coverage and the early print schedule of TV Week, some program listings in today's edition will be inaccurate. Please check the daily grids for the most up-to-date information.

PASADENA, Calif. - NBC's "Scrubs" is the best new comedy of the fall television season, and it will prove especially refreshing to viewers who hate the dreaded laugh track.

Even without the canned yuks, "Scrubs" will earn plenty of laughs from viewers as it tells the outrageous and sometimes poignant stories of medical intern J.D. (Zach Braff) and his friends. They work in a teaching hospital alongside abrasive, emotionally detached but well-meaning Dr. Phil Cox (John C. McGinley) and smiling but evil Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins, "Homefront").

What sets "Scrubs" apart from so many other comedies - other than actually being funny - is the look of the show. In light of the success of "Malcolm in the Middle," many comedies this fall are adopting the "single camera" style that differs from traditional sitcoms.

Traditional sitcoms are filmed in front of a studio audience, include a laugh track and are shot using three or four cameras. Single camera comedies are often filmed on location away from a studio and usually don't include an audience or laugh track.

"Sports Night" was a single camera show, although early in its run ABC insisted on using a distracting laugh track. "Malcolm in the Middle" was the breakthrough success in single camera comedies.

In addition to "Scrubs," this fall's new single camera comedies include The WB's "Maybe It's Me" and "Men, Women and Dogs," Fox's "Undeclared," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "The Tick," and CBS's "Danny."



When: 9:30 p.m. Oct. 2 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 4

Starring: Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Sarah Chalke.


ABC brings back the midseason single camera show "The Job," a police squad room comedy starring Denis Leary. Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC

Entertainment Television Group, said whether or not to film a show single camera style depends on the material.

" 'The Job' you would never do as a multiple camera show," Bloomberg said. "If it's warranted, you should do single camera."

Single camera can lend shows a reality you wouldn't get from a studio-based show. In the case of "Malcolm," single camera allows for more outrageous, almost cartoon-like story telling. For "Scrubs" and "Maybe It's Me," it means sequences out of the characters' imagination.

For Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman, that means the show can't be set in a living room, which is easy enough to film in the traditional style.

"Either I have to read it in the script and see that it earns that or I have to feel it in the pitch," she said. "I know that sounds a little abstract, but there really has to be a reason for it to be single camera. You have to know you're going for a different look, going for some sort of artistic accomplishment at the end of it."

Why must single camera shows clear such hurdles? Because they're more expensive to produce.

"From a production standpoint, they're probably as demanding as a drama," said CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem. She said multi-camera comedies typically cost between $800,000 and $1 million per episode. Dramas cost $1.8 to $2 million per episode. Single camera comedies fall somewhere in between, costing between $1.2 million and $1.4 million per half hour.

Fox's "Grounded for Life" is a hybrid that features living room scenes shot multi-camera style in front of a studio audience and outdoor scenes filmed on location using a single camera. Executive producer Mike Schiff said that wasn't the original plan.

After a reading of the pilot by the show's cast brought gales of laughter from Fox executives, the network said the show could be shot single camera. But the resulting pilot episode left the network underwhelmed.

"Something was lost in the translation," Schiff said. "Everyone was so psyched at the table read, and then they saw the show and were a little disappointed. Everyone remembered what the table read was like and said, 'What can we do to give it that kind of energy?' "

Thus, the hybrid was created.

For "Scrubs," executive producer Bill Lawrence ("Friends," "Spin City") said NBC executives were supportive of the single camera approach.

"They really wanted to make an effort to create something that would stand out from the regular fare," Lawrence said. "[NBC Entertainment president] Jeff Zucker wanted to push hard for no laugh track and I was actually worried. I've been on multi-camera shows my whole career and when you hear the space where a laugh is supposed to come and it's not there, it's off putting. But I think it ultimately was the right direction to go in."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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