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Sitcoms: a changing medium adapts to a changing audience


NBC canceled a sitcom in 1989 due to low ratings. A year later network executive Rick Ludwin ordered four episodes of that same show. He liked the young comedian it starred. Those four episodes were shown during the summer season on NBC. It then scored a few viewers. Those new viewers, mostly young men, prompted the network to pick up the show for a second season. That struggling sitcom: Seinfeld.

It’s hard to tell whether a sitcom will be a smash hit or a giant flop. Seinfeld had everything working against it: scheduling, ratings and an unknown star. Today it is considered the greatest sitcom of all time. Many shows don’t get that lucky, though. There’s no secret formula for making a great comedy. Whether a show makes it or not depends on more than just being funny.

It depends on ratings, scheduling and style.

Network Television: A Changing Medium   

Networks release new comedies every fall and mid-season hoping one will connect with viewers. If the shows don’t score high enough in the Nielsen ratings, the audience measurement system developed to track how many viewers a show receives every week, they could easily be canceled.

CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” is the highest rated comedy on TV right now. The show averages about 17 million viewers every week, while ABC’s highest rated sitcom “Modern Family” only averages 11.18 million viewers. These shows, however, still don’t even come close to the Nielsen ratings of “Friends” and “Cheers” back in the 1990s — averaging about 25 million viewers per episode with each episode.

While networks agonize over how to get more coveted Nielsen ratings, younger viewers are becoming less concerned with watching a show when it airs and more concerned with convenience.

Online video streaming sites like Hulu offer a convenient way for people to watch their favorite half-hour comedies whenever they want. Television is changing. People are watching shows on their smart phones. People are no longer concerned with watching a show when it airs. Which holds down ratings. It’s almost impossible for new shows to have a chance in the ratings.

No one is watching when the networks want them to.

There’s a much larger audience to account for when considering who is watching shows online at a later time, but that audience may not be helpful when it comes to the ratings problem.

“We don’t even know yet how much these other audiences matter because advertisers pay for these shows and advertisers mostly want to pay for the live viewers, so a show can build its audience online but it doesn’t necessarily matter in keeping it on the air,” Jaime Weinman, a TV writer for Maclean’s magazine, said.

Online viewers are also making it hard for networks to keep up, which may result in poorly crafted sitcoms. Networks tend to spend more time promoting their shows instead of making sure it’s a quality show.

“Part of the problem is there’s this rush to get things onto the Internet because of an income flow,” David Anthony Higgins said. Higgins has acted on sitcoms like “Ellen” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and currently works on “Mike and Molly.”

“There’s a tendency to cheapen the product,” Higgins said.

If a show isn’t making the network money from the very beginning, networks have no hesitation killing it.

“The audience is spread out more than it was,” Higgins said. “You have to have shows that have legs that give them a chance to get an audience.” “It’s hard for a network to keep something on air if it’s not succeeding.”

Sitcoms also meet the challenge of network scheduling. Viewers can’t be everywhere at once. If a show is scheduled at the same time as a popular show on a different network it may lose to the bigger show. If networks don’t do enough to market their shows they could be losing potential viewers.

Boston University professor Michael Loman spent years working as a writer and producer for pioneering multi-camera shows like “All in the Family,” “Happy Days” and “The Cosby Show.”

He said the show scheduled before a sitcom is a huge factor.

“If the network schedules a show behind a very popular show like “Big Bang Theory” or “Modern Family” like the way they’ve done “Black-ish” after “Modern Family” you’re going to get a much better sampling than you would have if it wasn’t behind a very popular show,” Loman said.

The “Mulaney” Problem

John Mulaney committed a crime. This past fall the former Saturday Night Live writer made a show called “Mulaney” about a stand-up comedian and his wacky friends. The ultimate sitcom sin is stealing from other shows. Critics and Mulaney’s fans alike said “Mulaney” was a “Seinfeld” rip-off.

Screenplay writer Nadia Madden says the worst thing a show can be is a copycat.

“If ‘Two Broke Girls’ is a hit on one network, the others will try their versions that feel like, well, copycats,” Madden said. “It seems like networks try to come up with a mixture of demographics that they think audiences will like and forget that the writing also needs to be top notch.”

“Mulaney” ran all of those offenses and now awaits its imminent doom of cancellation. Critics and audiences agreed the sitcom wasn’t well written.

It was trying too hard for gag laughs. “A lot of the time, a show is written toward jokes, and the story suffers because of it,” Madden said.

The struggling sitcom’s biggest problem might have been it was just done too many times before.

“It can be hard to write a multi-camera show that feels new and fresh just because that format has been done so many times,” screenplay writer Amanda Pendolino said.

“Will your sitcom about parents and kids hanging out on the couch feel original at all, for example, when we’ve seen so many?” Pendolino said.

Mulaney’s show had everything audiences have seen before, including a multiple-camera setup.

There are two types of sitcoms: single-camera and multiple-camera.

Single-camera setup involves one camera filming several independent shots that will be edited together to make one scene.

Think “Arrested Development” and “The Office.” Multi-camera shows — the “Seinfeld” and “Friends” of the world — have several cameras shooting simultaneously to record the scene. They have a live audience. They operate almost as miniature plays.

Since the wild popularity of “The Office,” single-camera shows like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” have become the norm on network television.

They’re fast-paced, mocumentary comedies. They rely on quick jokes instead of cheesy physical comedy.

“I think there’s always been, in want of a better word, elite TV viewers or people who don’t have mass-market tastes that tend to prefer shows without laugh tracks,”  Weinman said.

Although single-cam shows like “Sports Night” and “Freaks and Geeks” were not popular when they began, single-camera is now the mainstream.

Weinman says he thinks viewers tend to turn away from shows with laugh tracks now because they break down that comedy wall.

“They sound artificial because they shatter the illusion of reality and they change the timing of a show to more traditional comedy timing,” Weinman said.

Loman said laugh tracks bother viewers because they present a false idea about what’s being shown.

“People get annoyed because what was said was not funny or what was said was not as funny as the laugh track pushed it to be,” Loman said.

This artificiality tends to alienate viewers.

For this reason, it might appear that single-camera shows have become more well liked by viewers.

Higgins says single-cam shows can do more for an audience.

“They let you do things you can’t do and perfect things you can’t perfect on a multi-camera. It gives you a lot more opportunity in what you’re showing the audience. They’re much more controlled. It’s like doing a mini film,” Higgins said.

Although laugh tracks can have their place, they have to be used with caution.

“I don’t mind a live audience when there’s a source for it. But once you put one on a show you can’t take it off,” Higgins said.

The Big Bang: Getting Everything Just Right

With all the factors that stand in a sitcom’s way, how do shows that do survive keep their viewership?

Loman said it’s not whether or not a sitcom is single-cam or multi-cam. It’s as simple as the characters.

“The reason the show succeeds or sells is how well the characters have been developed and what the character traits of those characters are,” Loman said.

If characters are written well they will have easily identifiable traits that will help create the conflict in every episode and, more importantly, the comedy.

“Sheldon in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ would be funny in any situation you put him in,” Loman said.

“If he was the bank teller, if he was an airline clerk, if he worked in a super market, he would be funny because of the character traits they have created for him.”

“Cheers” had mass appeal because viewers related to the bar’s characters. “It’s hard to sell a show now in this day and age with losers.

People want everybody to be successful. But if you look at “Cheers” — they’re all losers.

There’s not a successful one in the bunch. Maybe Frasier Crane, but even then he’s so damaged and so imperfect that he’s just one of the guys,” Higgins said.

“It’s the idea that you know a person like that or you want to know a person like that.”

If viewers don’t feel that connection and security with a show they won’t watch, which may be why multi-cam shows like “The Big Bang Theory” are still so popular.

“There was something about the edition of the laugh track that, annoying as it was to some viewers, made a lot of other viewers feel comfortable watching a show,” Weinman said.

Even some single-cam shows use the “mocumentary” style to establish connection.

“One reason ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The Office’ have been more successful than the other single-camera shows is that both use the documentary format almost like a laugh track to create that feeling that we are watching a show with somebody else,” Weinman said.

No Duplicating “Seinfeld”

Although every network wants to recreate the mass audience appeal of “Seinfeld” it may not be possible.

“They had this huge appeal while also being this personal, unusual show. The fact that it was both, a huge hit and a little quirky show is one of the things that makes it so interesting,” Weinman said.

“Now we have huge hits and little quirky shows, but we don’t have a combination of the two.”

Every so often a sitcom can have a larger appeal like “Seinfeld,” but with today’s changing television landscape these comedies may be becoming obsolete.

Comedies may be better off with a small audience that will appreciate what’s being done.

“Good sitcoms are personal and have a style of their own that goes beyond that mass market style,” Weinman said.

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