Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"A Perennial Question"

Included among other perennial questions such as, “Why are avocado pits so big?”,  “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” and “Who put the ‘Bomp’ in the ‘Bomp-sh-bomp-sh-bomp?’”– the answers to which are respectively:  “I don’t know”,  Nobody knows.” And “I also don’t know, but I’d like to shake his hand.” – is the age-old and equally perplexing TV question,

“Whither the sitcom?”

The most successful half-hour comedies on the air today are:  The Big Bang Theory which debuted eight years ago and Modern Family which hit the airwaves six years ago. 

That makes it six years without a monster hit.  Leaving television networks – where they most highly-rated programs are still broadcast – and media watchers alike wondering if the situation comedy format itself has terminally run its course.   


(The last time this premature death notice was posted was in the early 1980’s, when comedies were floundering until a currently reputationally-damaged comedic genius single-handedly resuscitated the genre with The Cosby Show.)

First, a few words about why it matter if the sitcom is dead?

Two words exactly:  Syndication Motherlode.

Reality shows are cheap to produce, so that’s good (for the networks.)  But nobody wants to see them over again in syndication (which is bad for the networks, since they now participate in the syndication windfall.) 

(They didn’t used to, the networks’ profits deriving exclusively from selling commercial airtime.  But it apparently wasn’t enough for them, so they got the rules changed and now they make more.)

Hour dramas do not syndicate as profitably as half-hour shows – I used to know why but I forgot. 

This leaves, among all the programming alternatives, the successful situation comedy the undisputable Golden Goose.  So, if that Golden Goose is molting and possibly dying,   

It matters.

Financially.  (Which is what people in business care about.)

Also, America likes to, wants to, needs to laugh, and there is little merriment in shows about brooding protagonists with dark, personal secrets. 

America needs new hit comedies, and that does not seem to be happening.

What’s going on? 

The answer may simply be that it’s cyclical, in which case, thank you and goodnight.

It could be – and significantly is – that not only have the media outlets fragmented, but so has the fundamental idea of “What’s funny?”  This was, at least partially, always the case.  Comedy was often fragmented, for example, on a racial basis.  But now, even white people don’t laugh at the same thing.

With niche broadcasting comes numerous new comedies reflecting particularistic, niche sensibilities.  The economic template has altered.  You do not need “everybody” anymore.  You just need everybody, or as many people as possible, from that niche. 

“Mass appeal” is no longer the standard you’re shooting for.  A show can be “big”, though it’s lacking big numbers.
As a result of this proliferation of outlets, many of our most creative practitioners have opted for the non-network-interfering, albeit financially less rewarding option, thus siphoning away from the major networks some of the most innovative comedic talent around, talent that might have provided them with precisely what they are looking for – the next “Big Thing” – if they had only eased up a little on the reins.

Who’s left to create the major network shows?

Writers with “mainstream sensibilities” in collaboration with intensely scrutinizing network participation, who are apparently delivering what the audience, demonstrated by its consistent viewing apathy, doesn’t want.

Let me now add the third contingency.  (I think it’s the third; I may have to go back and count.)

For some time now, networks have generally preferred the habitual viewership of a younger audience.  It’s what the advertisers prefer, and networks are in business to keep the advertisers happy.  The possible exception may be CBS, on whose behalf David Letterman once suggested the promotional slogan:

“CBS – Your grandparents like us.  Why don’t you?”

Wait.  This is all very interesting.  But I think we should start at the beginning.

Situation comedies originated on radio.  In the early days of television, many of them – Our Miss Brooks, The Jack Benny Program, among others – were simply radio “transfers”, now with pictures. 

The early TV sitcom writing style derived almost entirely from radio.  You can still identify some vestigial elements.  On radio, it was necessary for a character to begin virtually every speech by mentioning the other character’s name, because, being radio, you could not see who the character was talking to. 

They continued doing that on television, even though you could easily see who the character was talking to.  Why did they do that?  See:  Fiddler on the Roof


“Name repetition” was one of the less significant “carry-overs.”  But I thought it might whet your appetite.  Or is it “wet you appetite”?  It has to be the first one, doesn’t it?  “Wet you appetite” doesn’t mean anything.  

Your appetite now having been – I am virtually certain – whetted – I am not certain I have whetted it; I am certain that’s the right word – I shall continue this investigation tomorrow.    

“Whither the sitcom?”

As they used to say on radio – and perhaps on television as well…

Stayed tuned.
Note:  It is possible that I have published this post this already.  Sometimes, I move posts around the schedule and I accidentally mess up.  I wanted this one to precede tomorrow's post, so I moved it again.  If you have already read it, I apologize.  Consider it as a preview into the future, where you can no longer recollect with any certainty what you have read and what you haven't.  Try it.  It'll be good to have the company. 


JED said...

I'm so glad you said that we might have read this before on your blog because I was pretty sure I'd read this before but I wasn't sure it was while reading your blog.

Up until your disclaimer at the end of the article, I was worrying that I'd read this somewhere else and that my hero, Earl Pomerantz, was plagiarizing posts. It's so good to know that Earl Pomerantz: Just Thinking... is still a trusted source of erudition and comedic dissertation.

metrocard said...

I'm going out on a limb here, but I've heard James Burrows' father was in radio, and that Jimmy listens to the shows he directs as if they were a radio show as well. I always fall asleep to a Cheers re-run because I (mostly) don't need to worry about missing out on sight gags. I know the voices, and it's comforting to know what's going on without having to be watching the TV. There's certainly a place for shows with visual cues, and I watch them too, but there is something really comforting to me about the shows where "if you've seen them once, you can listen to them the second time." I'm not a viewer of any of the current multi-cam shows, and maybe my thesis still proves true with them, but I credit James Burrows (and probably others) for making television that you can listen to without missing out, and I think that's been a gap over the recent years. I can't listen to a MODERN FAMILY without looking at the TV and needing to know what location they're in, and etc. Maybe this comes partially from the fact that the NBC affiliate where I grew up simulcasted the audio on AM radio, so that was just how I grew up in the mid-90s.