inventing abbott

Abbott Elementary Is the New Model for Network-Sitcom Success

Quinta Brunson’s breakout ABC series might change the way we watch TV comedies.

“I wanted to hit this universal humor, to have this thing kids and teenagers could watch with their parents and grandparents,” says Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson. Photo: Prashant Gupta/ABC
“I wanted to hit this universal humor, to have this thing kids and teenagers could watch with their parents and grandparents,” says Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson. Photo: Prashant Gupta/ABC
“I wanted to hit this universal humor, to have this thing kids and teenagers could watch with their parents and grandparents,” says Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson. Photo: Prashant Gupta/ABC

Over the past five years, as linear ratings collapsed and superstar showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy decamped to streamers, taking top-tier writers and actors with them, the phrase “network show” morphed into a pejorative in Hollywood, particularly among younger writers and execs. But despite the medium’s allegedly fading fortunes, former BuzzFeed meme queen Quinta Brunson only had one destination in mind when she began formulating her hit comedy Abbott Elementary: network TV.

It’s not that Brunson, 32, is immune to the lure of streaming. One of her first Hollywood sales went to HBO Max, where she developed a comedy pilot that never took flight. But she designed Abbott to fit snugly into the network template, specifically to appeal to the millions of people who still watch broadcast shows every week. “I wanted to hit this universal humor, to have this thing kids and teenagers could watch with their parents and grandparents,” she says. In the era of Too Much TV and endless rows of scrolling content, streaming felt like a risk not worth taking. “I mean, I could have sold to streaming, but I just felt like, why?” she says. “I really wanted to follow my instincts on where Abbott would belong.”

Brunson’s desire to get into the network-sitcom business wasn’t just based on a hunch. She has a particular affection for the genre, having come of age in the 1990s and early aughts when half-hour primetime hits still dominated. “I was raised on them and still watch them with my family when I go home,” she says, pointing to an eclectic mix of favorites from The King of Queens, Martin, and Dinosaurs to boomer throwbacks such as The Bob Newhart Show and The Real McCoys. She also used her family as an informal focus group, noting that her mom and other relatives still made appointments to watch network shows as they aired in primetime. And she recalls being shocked to learn a few years ago that her then-14-year-old niece had become a fan of late-’90s and early-aughts sitcoms. “She’s like, ‘Quinta, have you heard of this show called Friends?’ And I’m like, what?” Brunson laughs. “She doesn’t care about the streaming wars. She just found these shows enjoyable.”

Brunson also realized that, as ubiquitous as streaming has become, it’s not nearly as universal a medium as broadcast TV, thus leaving out millions of potential viewers. “Any person, even an inmate in prison, can turn on the TV and watch a [network] television show,” Brunson says. “Streaming, even though we know it’s massive, still requires a subscription. Not anyone can pick up a remote and turn on a streaming platform. But you can do that with ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.”

As confident as Brunson felt in her decision, Abbott’s out-of-the box success did not materialize overnight. It’s mostly the product of a four-year collaboration between the writer-performer and Warner Bros. TV. In 2018, the studio cast Brunson as one of the leads in the CW pilot The End of the World As We Know It, written by future Abbott exec producers Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. Though the project didn’t go to series, it planted the seed for additional partnerships between Brunson and the studio. “When you meet somebody who has such a singular voice and a great perspective, you want to keep taking a bite at the apple,” says Channing Dungey, chairman of the Warner Bros. TV Group. “It’s very rare to have somebody who is as talented behind the camera as in front.” After the CW pilot went nowhere, the studio cast Brunson in a recurring role on another CW project, the dramedy iZombie; then in late 2019, Brunson co-created a workplace-comedy pilot with then-WBTV-based writer Michelle Nader for HBO Max. Brunson says the strength of her relationship with WBTV, particularly comedy chief Adrienne Turner and her lieutenant, Shannon Howard, created the environment that sent her back to the studio when she started seriously developing Abbott in 2020. “Everyone is excited about what can be television instead of what is television,” she says of the WBTV execs. “That’s really, really important, especially for newer and younger creators. It feels like they have my back.”

Interestingly, Brunson also credits a development detour at CBS for helping pave her way. Back in 2018, between the CW and HBO Max projects, she teamed up with fellow writer-performers Larry Wilmore and Jermaine Fowler for a half-hour comedy. Though CBS made a hefty production commitment to the project, it ultimately opted against taping a pilot, killing the idea in the script phase. Yet the experience of developing for the number-one network provided Brunson an invaluable education in making TV for the masses. “CBS is the big network, still getting the big ratings. They make big monster hit comedies that appeal to most of America,” she says. “Where I could have taken a lot of disdain from that process, I instead learned so much about what it takes to make a network comedy, as opposed to a streaming comedy or even a digital project.” Plus, the CBS script presented an opportunity to work with Wilmore, a producing vet pivotal in the launches of series such as black-ish and Insecure. “I want it to be in print somewhere, how vital Larry is to so many people’s experiences,” Brunson says. “He’s this behind-the-scenes person who never takes credit, even though he gets so many creators off the ground.”

These previous development experiences showed Brunson “the value in network television,” so when it came time to find a home for Abbott, she and her collaborators at Warner Bros. TV didn’t bother taking the project to streaming platforms. Instead, during the first week of August 2020, they shopped Abbott to the broadcast networks and generated interest from multiple outlets. After stepping up with a promise to produce a pilot, Disney-owned ABC won the rights to what was then known simply as the Untitled Quinta Brunson Project, with (also Disney-owned) production company 20th Television coming on board, along with director and exec producer Randall Einhorn. It was the outcome Brunson and her partners had been hoping for. “We knew it belonged at ABC. We understood their place in the family-comedy world,” she says, pointing to the network’s track record with comedies such as Happy Days, Full House, Modern Family, and black-ish. Though Abbott is sometimes referred to as a workplace comedy — and there are certainly elements of that form in the show — Brunson and ABC execs see otherwise. “This is very much a family show,” says Craig Erwich, a network-TV veteran who currently serves a dual role as president of Disney units ABC Entertainment and Hulu Originals. “The teachers are parents of a sort to the children, and the teachers themselves are a family. There are emotions and stakes that are sometimes hard to find in office comedies but are very much alive in Abbott given the mission of these teachers and the specificity of their characters. It’s the perfect ABC show.”

Of course, the network graveyard is littered with the corpses of shows deemed “perfect” by execs and then canceled after 13 weeks. Making sure Abbott connected with its intended audience was the next challenge the show needed to overcome to avoid the fate of the dozen or so promising ABC comedies that never took off in the past decade. Fortunately, ABC conducted a near-perfect launch strategy on behalf of Abbott. The rollout began with a decision to preview the show on December 7 behind a star-studded installment of the Jimmy Kimmel- and Norman Lear-produced retro sitcom celebration Live in Front of a Studio Audience. This scheduling was designed first and foremost to expose Abbott to sitcom-loving viewers who, like Brunson’s mom, still watch TV in real time and would thus be most likely to tune into a star-studded sitcom throwback special. And it worked: Among ABC’s target demo of adults under 50, Live in Front of a Studio Audience was easily the number-one show on TV the night it aired, and Abbott held on to about two-thirds of its ratings.

But there was a second part of the plan. “We premiered the show after Live knowing it would not just be a sneak peek for the ABC viewers, but would then be on Hulu for a month so other people could discover it at their convenience,” Erwich says, referring to the four weeks between the preview and Abbott’s official premiere on January 4. “We were able to tap into both the power of the broadcast platform as well as the audience served by a streaming network.” Plus, Erwich says ABC made sure to air “a bunch of episodes in a row at the start of the year” without pausing for reruns, a network habit frustrating and even confusing to viewers, particularly younger ones used to full seasons of a show dropping on Netflix at once. Abbott ran for eight uninterrupted weeks in January and February, took three weeks off, then returned in late March for its final four episodes of the season. “We really were dedicated to doing what was best for the show, regardless of our larger schedule,” Erwich explains. “We wanted a really bespoke launch strategy.”

The ratings suggest that tailored approach paid off. In addition to its strong linear showing, Abbott’s so-called “multi-platform” numbers are soaring. Five weeks after it first aired, the pilot saw its audience grow from 2.9 million same-day viewers on December 7 to 7 million viewers, while its demo audience quadrupled, according to ABC Research. Neither ABC nor Hulu publicly reveal Hulu-specific data, and some of those additional 4.1 million viewers came from DVR replays or the ABC app, but industry sources say the bulk of Abbott’s post-premiere viewing almost surely comes from the Disney-owned streamer. What’s more, Erwich says Abbott’s subsequent episodes averaged 8 million viewers in the cumulative multi-platform tally, while in the key adults-under-50 demo, the show is now tied with The Conners as ABC’s number-one sitcom — and ranks as one of the top comedies on all of network TV. “It’s a bona fide hit show,” he says.

While Abbott is very much encoded with the DNA of traditional network storytelling, Erwich doesn’t think the TV industry needs to draw a sharp line between platform viewership. “The idea of a binary choice, that one show is a network show and one is a streaming show, is just not true,” the Disney exec says. “Three hours after airing on ABC, Abbott goes on Hulu, where it’s enjoyed by millions, and to them it’s just as much a Hulu show.” Brunson agrees that shows today need to be platform-agnostic. “Hulu is a plus,” she says. “We have an audience who wants to view the show live; it’s a schedule and routine that makes them happy. Then we have the streaming people who love to watch it whenever they want. We’re getting the best of both worlds.” Later this summer, Abbott might get one more streaming boost, this time from HBO Max: Industry insiders believe WBTV quite likely retained the streaming rights to library episodes of Abbott, allowing it to license complete seasons of the show on its own streamer. This would mean season one of the series could join the Max lineup anywhere from two to six weeks before season two premieres while continuing to live on Hulu. (Hulu would retain exclusive next-day streaming rights during the broadcast season.)

Abbott’s success may also come down to timing. Modern Family, ABC’s signature comedy of the 2010s, ended two years ago this month; another landmark Alphabet half-hour, black-ish, wraps its eight-season run next week. And ABC’s current longest-running comedy, The Goldbergs, is now in its ninth season; even if it does get renewed, it’s unlikely to last more than another year. Brunson sensed this opening during the pitching process. “One of the reasons I was interested in going to ABC was because it felt like they were about to enter a transformative period of redefining what comedy could look like on their network,” she says, crediting ABC comedy chief Erin Wehrenberg for that evolution. “I wanted to be a part of that, as opposed to trying to fit into molds that were already set at other networks. It’s much easier to get a show like Abbott off the ground when people are already seeking a new direction.” She also points to CBS’s success with the season’s other big comedy hit, Ghosts, which suggests networks are now ready to accept concepts and creators they might’ve rejected even a few years ago. “What’s refreshing about Ghosts on CBS is also what’s refreshing about Abbott on ABC: It was unexpected and kind of a risk,” she says.

The twin triumphs of Abbott and Ghosts has prompted talk that the network sitcom has been miraculously resurrected. But despite having every incentive to push that narrative, Brunson rejects the idea that viewers ever lost interest in traditional half-hours or that networks have become a comedy wasteland. “Look at Young Sheldon — the thing is bringing in Super Bowl ratings,” she says. While the comedy writer in Brunson exaggerates the actual Nielsen numbers for the Warner Bros.–produced CBS series, Sheldon remains one of TV’s most-watched entertainment programs. It’s also one of several half-hours — including The Goldbergs, CBS’s The Neighborhood, and Fox’s Sunday animated lineup — still quietly drawing healthy audiences even before the so-called network-sitcom comeback. “I think the press loves to write that story, but I don’t think there’s ever been a point where the public has said, ‘We don’t want to watch new comedies,’” Erwich says.

And according to Dungey, streaming execs have taken notice of audience interest in traditional sitcoms, as well as how much digital viewing older shows such as Friends continue to generate. They’re now very much looking to develop shows that might easily be mistaken for “network” fare. “That’s definitely the ambition in the conversations we’ve had with HBO Max and Netflix,” she says. “Everybody wants to figure out how to make that particular business model work for them in streaming.” Comedies such as Abbott are “comfort food for people, and they want to have that. We’re trying to figure out what that looks like in the streaming space and how to build up that dynamic.”

One person who probably has the chops to solve that riddle is Brunson, who’s created a series equally at home on a broadcast network as on streaming. Dungey says she “absolutely” believes Brunson could join the studio’s roster of talent with development deals: “She has big ambitions for herself, and we have them on her behalf.” Brunson is a bit more circumspect about her long-term plans, even if she doesn’t rule out an eventual move to moguldom. “I have a couple of other things in the works, and there are things I’m passionate about,” she says, quickly clarifying that those other projects won’t be happening anytime soon. “I’m a one day at a time person, and right now I have my hands full with Abbott. I’m happy we’re having a successful first season; I would like to make sure all seasons coming run just as well. That means I have to be really present.” For now, Brunson rejects the notion, still prevalent in TV, that happiness and success can be measured by the number of shows which carry your name. “I’m pretty simple,” she says. “With this show, I get to go to work and then come home. I know that sounds crazy, but I like that and I want to keep that for now. I don’t want to overwork myself. I want to make good stuff. I don’t want to start making trash.”

Abbott Elementary Is a New Model for Network-Sitcom Success