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The Playbook: How TV Land Made the Old-School Hot in Cleveland Into a New Hit

A month after the broadcast networks used their annual upfront presentations to unveil a raft of new comedies aimed at viewers under 35, TV Land — a cable network known for appealing to oldsters who just want to live in the past — scored a summer success with a sitcom that feels like it was created from a Mad Lib in 1993: Hot in Cleveland revolves around three Los Angeles socialites (sitcom hall-of-famers Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick) who move to Ohio and bunk with a sass-spewing Betty White. While comedy elites fret over the fates of the quirky Party Down and Better Off Ted, middle America seems to have made this oldest-school comedy a hit. And here’s how it happened.

THE DILEMMA: Sure, everybody loves Raymond. And Lucy. And Roseanne. But while classic TV shows are great, a few years ago TV Land realized there was no growth potential in its all-rerun model; people could just as easily see them online or on DVD. After scoring some initial success with first-run reality shows (She's Got the Look, High School Reunion), the network decided to try its hand at original comedies that might appeal to the network's core audience of viewers aged 25 to 54. TV Land programming chief Keith Cox started reading scripts that the big networks had passed on, but, "Except for the stuff CBS developed, they were all so young-skewing," he says.

THE SOLUTION: As Cox was mulling how to make TV Land into a sitcom player, Suzanne Martin, a veteran Frasier writer, was at work on a comedy pitch that had first come to her in 2008. "I was in my car the day Estelle Getty died, and they were playing clips from Golden Girls," she recalls. "I started wondering why that sort of show wasn't on anymore. There are so many actresses of a certain age, to use an expression that's been overused, and they're just out there and not working. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to tap into that?'"

The idea for Hot in Cleveland percolated for more than a year, then popped up while Martin was meeting with Will & Grace alum Sean Hayes and his Hazy Mills Productions partner, Todd Milliner. "I was doing a laundry list of loglines, and that one made them laugh out loud," she remembers. Then, a few days later, Hayes and Milliner were pitching TV Land's Cox reality concepts (the duo had done Situation: Comedy for Bravo), when Cox asked if they had any scripted ideas. Even though they technically didn't have the rights to Martin’s idea, Hayes and Milliner mentioned it. "We said we loved it and that we had to have it," Cox says. "We scooped it up right away ... [And] not only was the premise funny, it had a great hook. I could also relate, being from Kentucky.” When the Hazy Mills guys told Martin her idea had been bought, Martin was initially puzzled. "It was like, 'TV Land?'" she remembers. But she quickly said yes.

THE CASTING: TV Land ordered a Hot pilot last fall. Martin had pictured White in the show from the beginning, though TV Land only envisioned the octogenarian as a guest star, because of cost concerns. (Indeed, the March 2010 press release announcing Hot's series green-light mentions White only in passing.) While Cox won’t discuss the specifics of his budget, industry insiders estimate that a Hot episode costs at least 25 percent less than the $1.3 million or so it would cost on ABC or CBS. Because money was tight, there was only going to be room for three women in the ensemble.

White was already in her post-Proposal renaissance, but after her Super Bowl Sunday Snickers ad and the Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live, her national domination could not be denied. TV Land realized that the added costs associated with making White a full-time cast member would easily be offset by the massive marketing hook her involvement would provide. Yes, Hot is an ensemble, but for bloggers and TV columnists, it was just another peg for the never-ending story of how Betty White Controls the Universe. (Though, to TV Land’s chagrin, waiting to make the decision cost them: Martin says that White only got more expensive in the interim.)

THE SELL: In order to avoid confusing viewers who naturally associate TV Land with oldies, the network's marketing team opted to play down the fact that the show ... aired on TV Land. "We were conscious of the fact that people might assume it was an existing series," says Kim Rosenblum, who heads up the network’s marketing. So ads that aired in heavy rotation on other networks minimized mention of TV Land, instead referring viewers to visit hotincleveland.tv to find out on what number channel the show aired in their neighborhoods. And to battle the perception of it as an old show, every print ad featured the words "a new comedy" prominently positioned under the show's logo.

THE RESPONSE: Martin was expecting critics to be cool toward Hot since "critics like to slam" traditional multi-camera sitcoms. "It's like when you give your 3-year-old broccoli: You're not expecting a good reaction." But lo, the power of Betty was strong and resulted in surprisingly kind reviews. Viewers were even more enthused: The nearly 5 million who watched the June 16 premiere represented TV Land's biggest tune-in ever, and outdrew the same night's premiere of Top Chef D.C. on Bravo, as well as TNT’s drama Hawthorne and TBS’s comedy Are We There Yet?

This week’s second episode dropped about 30 percent, but Cox says he expected the fall-off. Hot still was the No. 1 show on all of cable Wednesday among TV Land's core 25 to 54 audience, and as a result, "I have very high hopes that we'll pick up season two shortly," Cox says. If the show does return, TV Land will likely up its production order from season one's ten-episode run.

WHAT'S NEXT: TV Land has already given a thumbs-up to its second first-run comedy, Retired at 35, in which a New York City businessman decides to move in with his Florida-based parents (equally familiar sitcom faces George Segal and Jessica Walter). Cox has also started development on a new batch of comedy scripts, with plans to shoot one or two more pilots by year's end. The behind-the-scenes talent on Hot (Martin took advantage of the slow sitcom market to snap up high-quality writers, including four fellow Frasier alums) is no doubt helping Cox attract better pitches. The ratings don’t hurt, either: "Now that (writers and actors) have seen the show and the ratings, they want to be a part of it," Cox says.

However, don’t expect this success to ripple through the networks and inspire them to return to their multi-camera comedy roots. Despite Hot’s hot debut — and CBS's continuing luck with traditional half-hours such as The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men — the broadcast nets seem much more interested in niche comedies, as evidenced by the slew of single-camera shows being prepped for next season. But at least now traditional sitcom writers have options. "Cable is the new network," says Martin. "It's this whole new world where there's less red tape ... and people seem more free to just let you do what you'd like to do." Somebody tell Gavin MacLeod, Donna Pescow, and the ghost of Vic Tayback to dust off their résumés: TV Land is hiring!

Photo: TV Land