The Return Of The Network Sitcom

The situation comedy is arguably the most ancient and lucrative genre of television programming.  “I Love Lucy” was the original “Must-See TV” show — and in the decades that followed, some of the biggest hits on TV (“The Andy Griffith Show,” “All In The Family,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Seinfeld”) have been sitcoms that went on to make hundreds of millions in syndication.

In recent years, though, the traditional network sitcom has fallen on hard times.  In 2014 Grantland’s Andy Greenwald proclaimed the “death” of the sitcom -- and you could see where he was coming from.  There had been no recent sitcom hits (only the aging “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” were sitcom successes back then) and the sitcoms that networks were trotting out were unoriginal and formulaic.

Of course, excluding football and awards shows, all network genres have suffered as viewers have migrated to cable and streaming services. But the sitcom was hit particularly hard, since networks seemed unable to develop shows with broad comedic appeal.  Most of the comedic action had moved to darkly misanthropic shows like FX's “Louie,” HBO's “Girls” and Amazon's “Catastrophe,” or to situations where there was plenty of swearing, as in HBO’s “Veep.”



In that regard, it was a sad day in 2012 when the formerly formidable NBC announced its determination to focus on series with “broader appeal” instead of idiosyncratic shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Community.”  Not surprisingly, NBC then passed on the adorable “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which ultimately became a hit on Netflix. 

Also not surprisingly, I literally have no idea what NBC now offers on Thursdays nights. I had to go online to discover that the schedule is now full of forgettable dramas -- so forgettable that even though I just looked them up, I can’t at the moment recall what they were.

So I was a little surprised when I recently looked at my DVR playlist and noticed I had somehow managed to cobble together a decent-sized list of network sitcoms that our family watches on a regular basis.  New shows  like “black-ish,” “The Grinder” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are hilarious and would be suitable for my wife and me to watch with both my parents and my son.  Add old standbys like “Modern Family” and recent standbys like “The New Girl” and we can, through judicious recording and playback, watch at least one decent sitcom every night.

Granted, that is a very low bar: there was a time in the very recent past when NBC offered four classic shows (“The Office,” “30 Rock” etc.) on Thursday nights alone.  

And granted, except for “Modern Family” none of the shows I watch are mega-hits.  Some of them are just hanging on, but they do demonstrate that network television can still provide a platform for solid content.

I’d like to think that the economics of network television will ultimately favor the perpetuation of quality television shows over those hack three-camera jokefests that seem to be churned out an assembly line.  For starters, given the costs of launching a new TV show, it doesn’t make sense to use a quick hook on a low-rated new program, since its replacement will be equally expensive and might perform just as poorly.  Once a network has sunk a fair amount of money in a pilot, a marketing campaign and a set amount of episodes, it’s better to see if it can build an audience eventually.  This works to the benefit of a series like “The Grinder,” which has a quirky sensibility that grows on you over time.

Another advantage of developing high-quality sitcoms is that they have a longer afterlife once the series has retired from network TV.  Although the syndication market is not as lucrative as it once was, a show with loyal viewers is more valuable than a show that people watch just because they can’t find anything better.  Good shows that stand out are even more valuable to streaming services, because viewers need to actively seek out a show on Netflix or Hulu.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that the network sitcom will ever return to its glory days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m hoping that the recent arrival of a few good shows is the precursor to a “sitcom spring.” 

I’m not asking for a lot -- just a handful of funny shows that my wife and I can watch together before we head off to our respective computers every night.

3 comments about "The Return Of The Network Sitcom".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 19, 2016 at 5:49 p.m.

    Good points, Gary. In my book, "TV Now and Then", I chronicle out the ups and downs of network sitcoms, which delelop their appeal in cycles. First you have a hit like "The Andy Griffith Show or "The Beverly Hillbillies" and almost immediately, a host of copy cats appears, until fans of "rustic comedies" have had too much of them and they tune out. The same thing happened to the young singles sitcoms of the 1960s,  the "real people" sitcoms led by "All In The Family' of the 1970s and the "Must See TV NBC hits of the 1990s---"Seinfeld", "Cheers", "Frasier", etc.The new twist is the rise of so-called reality fare, which is cheaper to produce and has become a major alternative to sitcoms on network primetime schedules. The downside, of course, and as you noted, is the long and profitable afterlife of sitcoms relative to most reality fare, but especially those of the contest type. Are sitcoms dead? I don't think so. It's only a matter of time before some new format. cast of characters or choice of subject matter will give us a new hit---which, of course will be copied to death, with the inevitable results.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 20, 2016 at 2:26 p.m.

    Sitcoms may no longer be as lucrative because viewers have so many more options these days, with all the original programming coming not just from cable but from Netflix and other OTT sources. Why watch a rerun when there are so many first-run options? Even if you only watch the really good stuff, there simply aren't enough hours in the day, it seems to me.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 20, 2016 at 5:40 p.m.

    Sitcoms are lucrative because their episodes can be aired repeatedly for decades on a variety of platforms, including digital as well as independent TV stations and cable channels, in the process acquiring new fans---often younger ones--- who never saw them on the TV networks. Like all other program types, sitcom reruns are being affected by rating fragmentation, but their amazingly long "shelf life" more than makes up for that. Every program producer  in his/her right mind would die to get a sitcom to run on one of the broadcast networks long enough to acquire 100 or more episodes "in the can". The broadcast network run would probably go into the "red" but the reruns would be worth many, many millions of dollars of pure profit, shared with the producer's network "partner", of course. 

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