The plight of the sitcom

Those were the days: CNN is airing “History Of The Sitcom” Sunday nights. While the genre has a robust past, its present isn’t so great right now.

 

What’s happening to the cherished genre these days isn’t funny as it could be reduced to nothing

Seven weeks ago, CNN launched The History Of The Sitcom – an unnecessary eight-part documentary on a subject covered to death through books, PBS, and other media celebrating the form stretching from the days of I Love Lucy on your black-and-white mono Zenith TV with Space Command to The Big Bang Theory on your 65-inch Samsung QLED set with HDR and Dolby Atmos sound (couldn’t we have an eight-part documentary on The History Of The Drama instead?) 

But here’s something you won’t see in CNN’s overhyped and disappointing docuseries – the genre has seen better days.

Once a dominant force in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, sitcoms – especially those of the multi-cam variety – i.e. shows filmed or taped with three or four cameras and in front of a studio audience, gave way to more “single-camera” efforts in the last decade, i.e. sitcoms filmed with no audience with one camera and with no laugh tracks. But with linear TV dwindling away, the sitcom may now be on life support.

Nowhere this was more evident than this year’s fall schedules as very few sitcoms were picked up. NBC – once home to a Must-See TV staple of Thursday shows such as Friends and Seinfeld, is airing all-dramas (two Law & Order series – and The Blacklist, which replaced L&O: For The Defense in a last-minute scheduling change) marking the first time in 41 years there will be no comedies on the night.

Fox also passed on any new sitcoms this fall, shelving new live-action Call Me Kat until midseason while sticking with its durable but low-rated Sunday animated block.

The state of the sitcom is so bad now, a 25-year-old program is currently the hottest show on TV. (Warner Bros.)

Meanwhile, The CW hasn’t had any sitcoms on its schedule since 2009, aside from improv sketch comedy Whose Line Is It Anyway? And cable networks are also moving away from new sitcoms with only TBS airing new projects and TV Land shifting original sitcom Younger to new streamer Paramount Plus to finish out its run.

It wasn’t always this way. Although the 1949-56 version of The Goldbergs was widely credited as being the first sitcom, the genre didn’t come to form until Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball pioneered the format by filming I Love Lucy with three cameras and in front of a studio audience. This way, their programs – unlike live shows of the era – would be preserved and sold into syndication years later. Other series such as Our Miss Brooks, The Honeymooners, Make Room For Daddy (The Danny Thomas Show), The Phil Silvers Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show would later follow suit. The result was a billion-dollar industry built off of simple reruns. 

As sitcoms became more gimmicky in the 1960s, the networks started airing more shows shot with a single-camera with manufactured “canned laughter” added in post-production. During the 1968-69 season for example, Here’s Lucy and The Mothers-In-Law were the only sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience. When All In The Family and Sanford and Son arrived in the 1970s, the pendulum started swinging back the other way toward the multi-cam format with studio audiences and became the dominant form for the next three decades – sitcoms such as Happy Days and The Odd Couple switched from a single-cam to a multi-cam format. Even It’s Garry Shandling’s Show incorporated the studio audience into storylines from time to time.

Multi-cams were dominant in the 1980s, but a handful of sitcoms – Sledgehammer, The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, The Wonder Years, and Doogie Howser, M.D. filmed with one camera without the use of a laugh track – the form now dominant today.

In 2000, another single-cam – Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle – became a huge hit. In the decade that followed, single-cam sitcoms such as Scrubs, My Name Is Earl, The Office, 30 Rock, The Bernie Mac Show, and Modern Family dotted network schedules and the shift was underway.

Single-camera shows became the dominant sitcom form for the last decade or so, drawing advertiser-friendly younger viewers and pushing multi-cams out of the picture as they were drying up on the networks, save for a few titles like Two And A Half Men. But the numerous single-cams hitting the market in off-network struggled. 

With more and more sitcoms becoming available on numerous platforms (DVD, cable, and streaming), local stations – historically a major client for off-network sitcoms – cut back on buying and scheduling such fare as they no longer had exclusivity as ratings dropped. The off-network sitcom craze reached its peak in 1986 when stations paid Viacom a then-record $4 million per episode of air The Cosby Show, followed by stations shelling out tons of money for Cheers, The Golden Girls, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, and Seinfeld, and then paying Warner Bros. top dollar for Friends. After Big Bang wrapped up off-network sales in 2011, stations felt sitcoms were no longer worth the cost. 

The freshest new sitcom on TV? A reboot of “Punky Brewster”, which ran from 1984 to 1988. Really. (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)”

Even the repeal of the much-derided Primetime Access Rule in 1996 didn’t jump start the off-network sitcom business as stations stuck with first-run shows such as Wheel Of Fortune and Entertainment Tonight instead. The rule went into effect in 1971 banning Big 3 affiliate stations (CBS, NBC, and ABC) in the 50 largest markets from airing off-network or any network programming (excluding network newscasts) from airing in the 7-8 p.m. ET time slot, an hour before prime-time. It was issued along with the FCC’s financial interest and syndication rules, created in 1970 and expired in 1995. 

In recent years, WGN-TV eliminated its entire early fringe and prime access sitcom blocks (4-7 p.m.) and filled them with local news. WFLD stopped airing sitcoms in early fringe in 2007 and filled slots with first-run programs instead (and since 2016, local news.) Many of these sitcoms are now shoved into less lucrative late-night slots in many cities and some of them – notably The King of Queens, Simpsons, Friends, and Seinfeld – have quite a bit of mileage on them. The next two years see Young Sheldon (this fall) and American Housewife (in fall 2022) come to market, but they won’t have much of an impact.

One major group – Sinclair Broadcasting – has mostly stopped buying off-network sitcoms altogether, preferring to air local programming, first-run shows, and National Desk newscasts – in slots once reserved for comedies.

So is there a sitcom savior? With television viewing now fragmented – even more so than when you throw streaming into the equation, the industry will have to prepare for life after the sitcom since they lack the same buzz as say, any Disney Plus action drama. Anyone talking about the new Saved By The Bell or the since-canceled Punky Brewster reboots or Jamie Foxx’s throwback sitcom Dad Stop Embarrassing Me, I didn’t think so (maybe these projects are part of the problem.).

Sadly, the only thing the sitcom is good for these days is the nostalgia racket – perfect for digital subchannels and CNN, and of course endless reboots. Unless studios invest in high-quality talent to write and produce potential projects, sitcoms could meet the same fate as the western – a genre that’ll soon be forced to ride into the sunset.

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