The television sitcom, once the foundation of any successful broadcast network’s schedule, seems to be on a downward spiral.
Over the past several years, as long-running hits such as Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, and Everybody Loves Raymond ended their broadcast runs, no comparable successes have emerged to fill the void.
In fall 2003, there were a record 50 comedies on the broadcast networks. By fall 2007 there were an all-time low 21 hours (and it was the first time that NBC had no new fall comedies). Last fall, there were just 22 comedies on the broadcast networks (only three of them new, none of which will return this fall). And none of the comedies that debuted this mid-season are performing well.
Every year at this time, the networks start revealing their program development plans for the new season. Press stories abound about how they might try to revive the network comedy. Seldom noted in these stories, however, is the fact that people still like watching comedies, and are in fact watching them more than ever.
Viewers are Watching More Comedy Than Ever
The early 1990s might be considered the modern “golden age” of comedies. Topping the ratings charts from 1990-1995 were, Cheers, Roseanne, Cosby, Golden Girls, Home Improvement, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier.
It may surprise you to know that people are actually spending more time watching comedies on television today. Many of the hit comedies that ended their broadcast runs are, of course, still on television—in syndication and on cable (not to mention full seasons being available on DVD).
What are the most popular comedies on television today?
Would you believe, the top 15 are Family Guy, George Lopez, Two and a Half Men, Home Improvement, Fresh Prince, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Family Matters, That ‘70s Show, King of Queens, Friends, Frasier, Andy Griffith, Roseanne and M*A*S*H? Of these, only two, Family Guy and Two and a Half Men, will be on a broadcast network this fall.
This is part of the problem in developing new network comedy successes. As viewing options proliferate, and the shelf-life of a classic comedy expands by many years, it is far more difficult for new sitcoms to catch on. Viewers are spending more time watching Seinfeld, Friends, and Everybody Loves Raymond today than when they were at the height of their first-run popularity on broadcast television. It makes putting something on broadcast to draw those viewers all the more difficult, because they’re still being compared to those comedy classics.
In 1993/94, combining broadcast, syndication, and ad-supported cable, there were about 180 hours per week of comedies on television. During the 1999/00 season, this rose to 390 hours. It was more than 600 hours during 2006/07, and roughly 790 hours in 2008/09 (this season).
Looking at the amount of time spent with comedies on broadcast, syndicated, and ad-supported cable television combined, shows that viewers are watching more than ever.
Let’s take a look at some comedy trends in syndication and cable. We’ll start with the 1993/94 season, the first in which Nielsen began reporting individual cable programs.
More High-Profile Comedies in Syndication
Back in the 1993/94 season, there were only eight comedies in syndication, six of them off-network series. Only four, Roseanne, Married…With Children, Family Matters, and Empty Nest, aired simultaneously on broadcast and syndication.
Six years later, in the 1999/00 season, there were 21 comedies in syndication (20 off-network). Five comedies, including four of the five highest rated—Friends, Frasier, Drew Carey, and 3rd Rock From the Sun—were airing on broadcast at the same time. Nine other syndicated comedies had been on broadcast the previous season.
During the 2005/06 season. eight comedies—That ‘70s Show, King of Queens, King of the Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, Bernie Mac, Will & Grace, Yes, Dear, and Girlfriends—aired on both broadcast and syndication, with an additional six also having aired on broadcast during the previous season.
In 2006/07, there were 22 comedies in syndication, 20 off-network, 2 off-cable—just four, King of Queens, According to Jim, Scrubs, and Girlfriends, aired on both broadcast and syndication, with six having aired on broadcast during the previous season.
During the 2008/09 season, there have been 25 comedies airing in syndication (20 off-network, 5 off-cable). Four, Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, According to Jim, and Scrubs, aired on both broadcast and syndication. Only two additional comedies also aired on broadcast the previous year.
More Past and Recent Comedies in Cable
On the cable front, during the 1993/94 season, comedies from pre-to-mid-80s accounted for the bulk of all cable comedy telecasts.
As recently as the 1999/00 season, there was only one comedy on cable that was still airing in syndication (Roseanne).
By contrast, during the past few seasons, while comedies from the 60s, 70s, and 80s still proliferate on cable, they have been joined by more recent hits, such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Friends, and HBO’s Sex in the City. Popular comedies from the early 90s, Full House, Fresh Prince, and Roseanne, have now become cable staples.
Let’s take a look at which off-network comedies aired on various cable networks this season (in order of household ratings for each network).
ABC Family: That ‘70s Show, My Wife & Kids, Fresh Prince, 8 Simple Rules, Sister, Sister, Step by Step
Adult Swim: Family Guy, American Dad, King of the Hill
BET: Family Matters, The Game, Smart Guy, One on One, Steve Harvey, Diff’rent World
FX: King of the Hill, That ‘70s Show, Bernie Mac, Malcolm in the Middle, Spin City
Hallmark: M*A*S*H, Golden Girls, Cheers, I Love Lucy
Lifetime: Reba, Frasier, How I Met Your Mother, Still Standing, Golden Girls, Will & Grace, The Nanny
Nick-at-Nite: George Lopez, Family Matters, Home Improvement, Roseanne, Cosby, Fresh Prince, Full House, Mad About You, Designing Women
Oxygen: Roseanne, Grace under Fire, Living Single
Sci-Fi: Mork & Mindy
Spike: Married With Children
TBS: Family Guy, The Office, My Name is Earl, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, King of Queens, Sex and the City, Yes, Dear, Home Improvement, Married With Children, Fresh Prince, Saved by the Bell, Just Shoot Me, Steve Harvey, Cosby
TV1: Martin, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Living Single, For Your Love, Half & Half, The Hughleys, All of Us, Eve, Parenthood, PJs, Where I Live, Amen, The Andersons, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Good News, Wanda at Large, Between Brothers, Roc
TV Land: Andy Griffith, Cosby, Hogan’s Heroes, I Love Lucy, Green Acres, 3rd Rock From the Sun, M*A*S*H, The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Sanford & Son, Designing Women, Mad About You, The Jeffersons, Murphy Brown, Cheers, Just Shoot me, Scrubs, Good Times, Night Court, All in the Family
WE: Golden Girls, Dharma & Greg, Girlfriends, Hope & Faith, Kate & Allie
There are also now more original cable comedies than ever (although still not many). Of course there’s Comedy Central’s South Park, and several Adult Swim entries, along with TBS’s Meet the Browns, House of Payne, My Boys, and Bill Engval, as well as FX’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Just as we’ve seen an influx of original cable drama, the next few years may bring a number of new scripted cable comedy series.
Family, Not Edgy Comedies Please
We hope the networks and studios finally start to realize that most people do not seem to be looking for “edgy” comedies.
Despite the ever-expanding universe of channels and other viewing options, roughly 80 percent of homes during the primetime only have one television set turned on. Families do want to watch television together, and are looking for comedies that fit that mold.
You just need to look at the charts above to see that the most popular comedies on broadcast, syndication, and even cable have been mostly comedies that not only focus on families, but also that most family members can watch together.
Several comedies that were considered more “edgy,” including such well publicized (at the time) series as Public Morals, Action, The Job, Coupling, Father of the Pride, Method & Red, Arrested Development, Emily’s Reasons Why Not, Sons and Daughters, many quite funny, were either quickly canceled or hung on by a thread for a season or two. The bulk of viewers are not looking for the next Arrested Development, they’re looking for the next Everybody Loves Raymond.
Like most successful comedies, they need to be character, not plot or plot device driven. They have to contain an ensemble of characters that people want to see week after week. What they’re actually doing in a given episode (or how many cameras are filming them) is largely irrelevant.
Comedy viewers haven’t disappeared, they’re just biding their time, happily watching the comedies they’ve loved for years—just waiting for a new one to join the club.