The 'upfronts' (or 'sweeps'), American TV's annual rite of spring, kicks-off this week with networks and agencies alike haggling for the best Fall 2005 airtime deals.

Many on both sides of the media fence would like to see the end of this annual horse-trading ritual, arguing that there are more modern and cost-effective ways for TV airtime to change hands.

This year, however, it remains business as usual. But at the outset of the dollar liturgy, TV moguls are in grim mood - about comedy. Or, more specifically, its disappearance from the current ratings.

There were just two sitcoms rated in the top thirty programs during the week ended May 8, reports Nielsen Media Research and one of these, the CBS hit Everybody Loves Raymond, goes off-air in June.

Bob Wright, chairman/ceo of NBC Universal has a long face when comedy comes up for discussion. "We really struggle with comedy," he told the Financial Times. "It's a troublesome issue."

Comedy - or the lack of it - has been a major headache for NBC since its Thursday evening blockbuster duo Seinfeld and Friends ended their runs. The combo had cemented NBC firmly at the top of the ratings for the past ten years. Now it languishes fourth out of four in the major network league.

But while the magic guffaws elude NBC and its peers, the purported 'reality' format goes from strength to strength, as does other formulaic fare. "Plenty of genres are working well," Wright says. "The only one that's not is comedy."

But NBC continues to seek the ratings grail of laughter. The network has ordered no fewer than seventeen new comedy programs for the spring season, in the hope that some might stay the course through into the all-important fall season.

Pronounces a grim-faced Wright: "For broadcast TV, comedy is very important."

Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff