Network TV Is Suffering Through a Great Sitcom Recession. Here’s How to Pull Out of It

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by CBS, ABC, FOX and NBC

November was another bad month in what’s been a pretty awful couple of years for the once-mighty network sitcom. NBC, which dominated the TV business for nearly two decades based on the strength of its comedy bench, announced it was ceding custody of an already-filmed Ellie Kemper half-hour from producer Tina Fey and selling the project to Netflix. The decision had nothing to do with the show’s quality — Netflix liked it so much, it has already ordered a second season — but instead was a depressing admission by the Peacock that it felt there was virtually no chance it could make the show a success given the network’s lack of even a single sitcom hit. This week’s announcement that NBC would also burn through the final season of the Amy Poehler–led Parks and Recreation in under two months added an exclamation point to the declaration of surrender: Rather than use the swan song of its longest-running and most critically admired half-hour to launch a successor sitcom, the network (probably correctly) decided it would be better off giving Parks a semi-dignified send-off and quickly moving on.

A similar come-to-Jesus moment was likely behind CBS’s unexpectedly early cancellation of the Will Arnett–Margo Martindale sitcom The Millers, just weeks into its sophomore season. The same network that had always managed to make America fall in like with middle-of-the-road sitcoms such as Rules of Engagement, Still Standing, and Mike and Molly seemed to be conceding even it no longer had the power to force us to sit still for whatever mediocrity it slotted behind a monster hit (in this case, The Big Bang Theory). By themselves, the NBC and CBS decisions didn’t dramatically alter the small-screen landscape. Taken together, they’re symptoms of something far more depressing: Network TV is suffering through a Great Sitcom Recession, and there aren’t many signs of recovery on the horizon.

At first blush, the downturn in the sitcom economy might appear to just be part of the larger crisis facing the overall linear TV business — the oft-documented challenges posed by audience fragmentation, time-shifting, and the growth of streaming networks such as Netflix. But while times are tough all over, it’s different with comedy. Even as TV transforms itself in real time, broadcasters have still managed to find a way to restock their shelves with new drama hits: The Blacklist, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Chicago Fire, and, possibly, this season’s Gotham and Scorpion. By contrast, the last time the networks launched an enduring, game-changing comedy smash was way back in 2009, when Modern Family exploded out of the gate for ABC. And it’s not just that there haven’t been a lot of new blockbusters. Scan Nielsen’s list of this season’s top 20 most-watched shows (below), and you’ll find just two comedies, period: Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. This paucity of half-hour hits has left networks insiders “confused” and reeling, according to one top TV agent with deep ties to the comedy community. “It’s not quite dread, but more a sense of ‘What the fuck?’” he says. “There’s a question of ‘What do people want?’”

For those who subscribe to the “everything is cyclical” theory of television, the answer to that last question is simple: Viewers just want more good comedies. “Comedy will be dead until it isn’t,” says one broadcast veteran, who believes the genre is simply stuck in one of its periodic droughts. Industry insiders have called a code blue on comedy many times before. Most recently, more than a few small-screen pundits thought Friends would mark the end of the Universally Beloved Sitcom, until Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady made The Big Bang Theory a weekly obsession for more than 20 million Americans. But just as the economic crisis of 2008 was more than a standard-issue recession, comedy’s current troubles register as deeper than past downturns. NBC, which at one point in the 1990s had a weekly lineup packed with a whopping 18 sitcoms, could very well enter the 2015–16 TV season without a single returning half-hour. CBS cut back to a single hour of sitcoms on Mondays this fall for the first time in decades (and might even drop half-hours on the night altogether next season). Over at Fox, its biggest live-action comedy, New Girl, struggles to get to 5 million viewers each week.

The array of issues plaguing sitcoms right now suggests the traditional means of resurrection — making better shows — might not be enough. So how should networks battle back? In its announcement regarding its canceled Kemper comedy, NBC said it was focused on its “drama-heavy” midseason schedule, indicating retreat would be its short-term solution. But comedy is too essential a genre for networks to abandon altogether. Broadcasters have to come up with new strategies to deal with the comedy crisis. Based on our conversations with a number of TV-industry veterans, Vulture would like to suggest this modest list of four simple rules for pulling out of this recession and avoiding a depression:

1. Don’t launch a comedy you don’t believe in and aren’t willing to get behind
The incredibly brief lifespans of ABC’s fall comedies Selfie and Manhattan Love Story (both of which will burn off their unaired episodes on Hulu), along with de facto cancellations of NBC newbies Bad Judge and A to Z, were easily predicted before the shows even debuted, mostly because of how their respective networks handled their launches. ABC slotted Selfie and Love Story Tuesdays from 8 to 9 p.m., depriving them of an established lead-in and pitting them opposite the biggest hits on both NBC (The Voice) and CBS (NCIS). NBC bundled the thematically dissimilar Bad Judge and A to Z together on Thursday nights opposite ABC’s juggernaut Scandal while simultaneously announcing their 9 p.m. time slot would be filled by The Blacklist come February. Add in the fact that none of the four shows got much of a promotional push over the summer, and it was pretty clear Alphabet and Peacock execs weren’t counting on long lives for any of the shows. Historically, such obvious burn-offs have been accepted as an unavoidable by-product of a broadcast business model in which widespread failure is baked in. Unlike cable nets, which generally have the luxury of focusing on just one or two big scripted premieres every quarter, the Big Four can find themselves rolling out upward of two dozen new and returning shows over the course of a single month. That’s by design: Networks take a lot of shots because, the theory goes, the more at-bats you take, the better the chance of getting a home run.

But, at least with comedies, maybe it’s time for networks to get out of the assembly-line business. The old model relied heavily on the idea of audience flow, where a sizable percentage of the viewers who tuned in for Friends or The Big Bang Theory would automatically stay tuned for the next one, two, or three comedies on a lineup. Lead-ins are still important — maybe more so than ever before — but we’re now in an age where, save for Big Bang and Modern Family, there simply aren’t blockbuster comedies that can reliably serve as launching pads for newer shows. With a shortage of comedy hits, networks shouldn’t be wasting their energies on shows they don’t believe in, and if they do love a show, they need to have a better game plan for it. Reasonable people can disagree about whether NBC’s lack of faith in its Kemper comedy was justifiable, but this much is certain: Wasting time and money on a show it didn’t believe in would’ve been a far bigger mistake. 

2. Stick with good comedies that have a passionate audience rather than cycle through a series of untested shows.
This is a corollary to Rule No. 1: In addition to not green-lighting shows they don’t absolutely love, networks should demonstrate extreme patience with those they do order — as long as those shows are connecting with at least some segment of the audience. This philosophy partially explains why Fox just committed to additional episodes of The Mindy Project, ensuring the low-rated show will survive for at least three seasons. While its overall ratings are minuscule, even by Fox standards these days, a closer look at its demographic composition reveals that among younger women, Mindy is a minor juggernaut. This week’s episode, for example, scored the same rating among women 18 to 34 as lead-in New Girl while handily beating ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and NBC’s About a Boy in that demo. “If I’m a network, I would rather have a show that does a 2 rating with young women than a show that does a 1.4 rating across all demos,” our TV agent says. “The audience has become so fragmented that it’s rare to have a show that hits that quadrant of the audience.” The super-loyal young female fan base for Mindy is also appealing to streaming providers such as Netflix, which has demonstrated it’ll pay top dollar for the right to stream shows with passionate core audiences. If a network owns the syndication rights to a show — as Fox does with New Girl, but not Mindy — it can offset the loss in advertiser revenue that comes from sticking by a lower-rated show.

Historically, one argument against being overly patient was that sticking by a Nielsen laggard, a network was reducing its odds of finding the next big hit or, at the very least, accepting that it couldn’t be doing better with something else. But that was back in an era when it was much easier for networks to launch hits of any kind. “Big broadcast hits take a lot longer now to find their audience,” one network exec says. Plus, many in TV land are now convinced that viewers have become increasingly savvy to how the industry works and might even be holding off before committing to a new series. “There are so many comedies launched each year that we’ve trained viewers to expect [quick cancellations],” another top network suit says. “There’s no reward for viewers to start a habit with a new comedy early on.” None of this is to suggest that some shows don’t deserve a quick death. “If a show isn’t doing what you want it to creatively and it’s going nowhere in the ratings, fine, cancel it, move on,” the agent says. “But you really need to know you can do better.”  

3. Figure out a way to get good writers interested in making multi-camera comedies again.
For most of the past decade, Hollywood’s best comedic minds have largely been focused on creating Very Cool Comedies that are shot like films (so-called “single-cam” shows). Traditional “multi-cam” sitcoms — ones taped “live in front of a studio audience,” à la Big Bang or Cheers  — have fallen hopelessly out of favor among comedy elites. Even multi-cam vets such as Modern Family creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (who cut their teeth on Frasier and Wings) and The Middle’s DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler (Roseanne) have now become converts to the gospel of single-cam. This exodus has resulted not only in TV’s best writers largely ignoring a form, but also a diminished number of opportunities for younger scribes to get training in the ways of old-school sitcoms. “Writers are being groomed and schooled on single-camera comedies,” one network exec laments. “They’re not doing multi-camera. And multi-cam is a real skill and a real art. These people are real craftsmen in the art of story structure and joke writing.” While networks — particularly CBS — have tried to keep multi-cams going, they’ve been doing so largely without the help of the genre’s best veteran talent and with a collection of younger writers who haven’t had enough training in the form.

It’s tempting to think that maybe this isn’t really a problem, that perhaps market forces and viewer evolution are simply conspiring to push multi-cams to extinction. But if networks are serious about producing hit comedies that can live forever in syndication and streaming, it seems silly to limit the odds of success by focusing their efforts on one type of half-hour (single-cam) while neglecting a format that still clearly has an ability to draw big crowds (as demonstrated each week by The Big Bang Theory and its audience of 20 million viewers). This doesn’t mean broadcasters should produce multi-cam comedies just for the sake of doing multi-cam (see The Millers or Dads). Instead, networks ought to beg creators who’ve hand single-cam success — think Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), Greg Daniels (The Office), or Liz Meriwether (New Girl) — to focus on multi-cams for a couple of years. Why not a Manhattan Project for multi-cams, where the best and brightest comedy minds are encouraged and empowered to freshen up the format, to find the next Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, or Frasier? At the same time, nets should shore up their support for existing multi-cams with even the hint of a pulse. CBS’s Mom and ABC’s Cristela, for example, boast solid writing and strong points of view at their centers; they need to be supported in every way possible. 

As part of a push to take more multi-cam chances, some observers also believe network development execs need to stop gravitating toward projects that appeal to their own personal tastes rather than mesh with what else is working on a given network. This, they say, is how NBC ends up programming quirky shows such as Go On or About a Boy behind a broad-based smash such as The Voice, or why ABC spent years banging its head against the wall trying to convince the Modern Family audience to embrace the sex-crazed singles of Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, and Super Fun Night. “Too many people who work in comedy develop shows they like rather than the shows a network needs,” says one network exec frustrated by his colleagues’ inclinations.

4. Take more chances on unproven talent and ideas.
As networks have become more desperate for hits, they’ve started emulating their peers in the film business — relying more and more on established writers/producers and developing an endless parade of remakes and reboots of past movie and TV hits. Want to get depressed in a hurry? Check out the long list of movie and TV titles currently being eyed as possible TV comedies: Bewitched, Hitch, The Greatest American Hero, Real Genius, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Problem Child, Bachelor Party, Big, Marley & Me, and Monster-in-Law. Networks seem convinced they need instantly recognizable titles to help them cut through the programming clutter, even though they know better than anyone that TV’s biggest hits have been wholly original. The problem is even worse when it comes to who works on shows: Stars still trump unknowns most of the time, and established showrunners are far more likely to get the best time slots.

“There’s such risk aversion,” says a longtime broadcast warrior depressed by the fear-based philosophy that guides so many decisions. “We should be taking chances on new voices, but the talent pool we choose from is too thin. And we’re recycling a lot of the same stars on shows. You want to find the next Ray Romano or Sofia Vegara.” This doesn’t mean broadcasters should turn over their futures to folks just starting out in TV: ABC’s Black-ish and The Goldbergs both come from writers who are pushing 40 but didn’t have a long list of created-by credits. Rather, execs ought to worry less about managing “relationships” with current business partners (sorry, Chuck Lorre and Tina Fey) and focus more on giving a shot to folks who haven’t had as many at-bats creating comedies. Or, if network suits just can’t stand the thought of handing over prime-time real estate to someone totally untested, maybe they ought to compromise by letting writers and producers from other genres bring a fresh set of eyes to comedy. We’d check out a Shonda Rhimes sitcom in a heartbeat.