The latest news from the TV beat -- ''Sports Night'' loses the laughter and ''Friends'' negotiates a new deal

By Joe Flint
Updated August 06, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

For all the annoying trends spotted in the upcoming season’s lineup (too many high school dramas, too few minorities, too many characters talking to the camera), there is at least one positive trend: less canned laughter.

Last season, ABC’s Sports Night cut down on the fake yuks, and now Fox’s new inside-Hollywood sitcom Action and the child-genius comedy Malcolm in the Middle, as well as UPN’s Shasta McNasty, will all be going au naturel.

”There’s something about canned laughter I think is unnerving to younger audiences who expect something a little more real,” says Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog. Shasta creator Jeff Eastin suggests the tracks work only on shows with the traditional setup-punchline-big-laugh format. Eastin watched episodes of Friends and Seinfeld minus laugh tracks and reports they ”didn’t work; the jokes just hung there.” In Shasta, Action, and Malcolm, however, the canned chuckles aren’t as necessary because the three shows ”use a more situational writing style.”

Odds are audiences won’t mourn the demise of phony guffaws. Nonetheless, the pioneering Sports Night has yet to persuade ABC to let them drop the laugh track entirely. Still, Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine TV, a producer of Sports Night, might not wait for the net’s say-so. ”It may fade into the sunset,” says Krantz, who plans to phase out the offending yuks. ”One day you’ll wake up and not hear an artificial laugh.”

NBC and Warner Bros. are busy determining the value of their Friends-ship. The show’s current deal, which costs the Peacock about $3 million per episode, expires after the upcoming season, and the net is hoping to keep the show humming along for at least another two years. Producer Warner Bros. is looking to up the price to $5 million per episode, which is really not that outlandish considering Friends‘ ratings prowess, and the fact that other hits have been slow in coming for NBC. The big hurdle? The studio will have to get the stars to sign for another two seasons, which will require big raises beyond their current $100,000 per episode, possibly as much as $250,000 apiece. At least now that Warner Bros. honchos Bob Daly and Terry Semel have resigned there’s more cash to spare.



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