Thursday, April 24, 2014

Laughing Matters: The State of the Network Sitcom

A few weeks ago - well, over a month ago, really - Vulture put up an article about why smaller-rated comedies like FOX's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Mindy Project, or NBC's Parks and Recreation and Community, were better for the long-term future of the network sitcom than blockbusters like ABC's Modern Family. The article argues that these shows are smart and funny, and though they garner small overall ratings, they score high in key demographics that the networks can then parlay into enticing specific advertisers for each show. Essentially, writer Josef Adalian argues that thinking like cable networks will help keep the broadcast networks afloat, at least when it comes to programming comedies.

Shortly afterward, veteran sitcom writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier) wrote two separate responses on his blog: one a direct rebuttal to the Vulture article, the other a "defense of jokes." The first post argues that not aiming high in the ratings will always be detrimental, and that FOX and NBC would never keep these shows around if they had a ratings juggernaut on their schedules. The latter makes the argument that these shows aren't funny because "telling jokes" has become passé, and notes that the shows that still follow a traditional sitcom format - CBS' The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family - are the ones who are still dominating the ratings. In short, he defends the old-school he hails from, arguing that the form isn't dead yet.

The cast of New Girl

So naturally, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and say that both sides have points that are good and bad.

More after the jump.

I have to disagree with Levine on his assessment of the shows in question. I personally think that New Girl is one of the funniest shows on television right now, as well as one of the best shows on television, period (the same goes for Girls - which Levine also calls out - and Parks and Recreation). Similarly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine started off promising and, over the course of its first season, coalesced into one of the strongest ensemble comedies on the air - and could easily join the ranks of the best next year. These shows don't rely on classic "joke" set-ups, but instead operate in a different form of humor: rapid-fire one-liners and slapstick physical comedy that make them feel like 21st-century versions of the vaudevillian comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra. Levine makes some valid points about jokes, but that style isn't the ONLY kind of comedy. Having a variety of comedic styles on television is enormously beneficial for comedy, because it allows for a number of different voices and provides more options for viewers.

At the same time, though, Levine makes a very valid point that the networks aren't keeping these shows around because of their quality, necessarily. FOX may boast about the passionate niche audiences these shows pull in, and NBC may be very close to making Community's "six seasons and a movie" dream a reality, but Levine is right that if either of these networks had a hit of the magnitude of The Big Bang Theory, these shows would have already been shown the door. It's true that these shows' presence on the primetime schedule does make for a more diverse and interesting landscape, but they also benefit from their respective networks' ratings woes. The result is better quality shows, since shows are given more time to grow and find their voice (most sitcoms need at least a season to do so), but the networks are still businesses, and if FOX or NBC had other, higher-rated options, they likely wouldn't be as forgiving for lower ratings.

Except maybe in the case of FOX: the network's entertainment chairman, Kevin Reilly, recently told a panel of critics at this winter's Television Critics Association press tour that he was looking to transform the network into something more like a cable network, with regular series quickly moving through their episode orders and special "limited-run events" helping pad out the television throughout the calendar year, rather than the traditional September-to-May schedule. It's a bold idea that implies that the network is looking to, if nothing else, keep viewership at a consistent level throughout the year. Under this kind of model, a comedy like New Girl won't need to have blockbuster ratings, but just perform well enough to keep the schedule afloat.

The cast of The Big Bang Theory

I bring this up because, if there's any lesson to be learned from all of this, it's that the television landscape has reached a critical turning point. The old network model has been revolutionized in the past few decades by the rise of cable networks, premium networks like HBO, DVR usage, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. The way people watch TV has changed significantly in just the past five years, and it's left the broadcast networks scrambling to find a solution to plummeting "live" ratings. It's a different world now, and while it can be uncertain from a business prospective, creatively shows that would never be given the chances they've received are flourishing. It's exciting to think about what the future could hold.

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