TV News

Am I Somehow Partially to Blame for the Death of the American Sitcom?

It’s rough out there for the American TV sitcom, especially after CBS’s surprising decision to cancel The Millers 4 episodes into its second season. It was the third highest rated sitcom during the 2013/2014 TV season, and now it’s gone, exposed as a timeslot hit that couldn’t carry enough viewers once it was robbed of the luxury of airing behind The Big Bang Theory. There are now only two truly popular network sitcoms on TV right now, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, the ladder being the newest of the two and it debuted 6 years ago. Of this year’s new broadcast crop of comedies, four out of the nine which have premiered have been canceled (A to Z, Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, Bad Judge), two are most likely soon to follow (Mulaney, The McCarthys), two improbably earned what amounts to full season orders (Marry Me, Cristela) leaving room for only one true hit, Blackish. The networks don’t seem at all confident about any of the midseason comedies on the way. NBC’s actually already given up on two of them, pre-emotively canceling the Will Ferrell-produced Krysten Ritter project Mission Control, and letting Netflix take the Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt off of their hands. Netflix then immediately renewed Kimmy Schmidt for a second season before any of us have even seen the pilot. Who do you think Tina Fey wants to pitch her next comedy to now?

The Millers, from third biggest sitcom on TV to canceled in less than a year

All of this led to one TV executive telling The Hollywood Reporter that the current dry spell for the American sitcom has officially reached what the industry regards as “a state of emergency.” It’s not just network TV either. TV Land has somewhat quietly been churning out traditional multi-camera sitcoms for years now, but it just canceled Hot in Cleveland (albeit after 5 seasons) and its first single-camera sitcom (Jennifer Falls) failed to make it to a second season. USA’s first ever batch of original half-hour comedies has thus far resulted in one second season renewal (Sirens), one which aired its most recent episode in June and still does not know if it has been canceled or renewed (Playing House), and another which just premiered this past month (Benched). The network, broadcast or cable, which appears to be in the strongest shape with sitcoms right now is FX (Always Sunny…, The League, etc.), and that’s partially because they can/will go darker with their shows (You’re the Worst) than the competition and also because they created an entirely new network (FXX) which is absolutely desperate for programming.

There are a great many reasons why this has happened. As Pajiba argued earlier this month, many of the new shows on the broadcast side of things are high concept comedies, i.e., based on gimmicks. That doesn’t really work for a sitcom. How I Met Your Mother pulled it off, but it did so in the long run not because of its gimmick but because it turned into Friends for a new generation.

The reaction to that series finale definitely indicates people cared about the gimmick (who’s the mother) but were more invested in the characters

In fact, sitcoms historically have 3 default templates: workplace comedy, friends hanging out comedy, and family comedy. The problem from a marketing standpoint is that those have been done to death, although the continued existence of The Middle and The Greenbergs and new success of Blackish indicate family sitcoms still play fairly well on network TV. FX can do fundamentally traditional sitcoms but still feel fresh because its characters can behave in ways network standards & practices never would have allowed on something like Seinfeld, and they can center sitcoms around comedians even if the sitcom doesn’t present the comedian as being particularly likable or even all that funny (Louie, Legit). On the opposite end, TV Land can continue acting like a retirement home for sitcoms stars of years past, giving us new, very traditional multi-camera affairs featuring Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, 3rd Rock from the Sun’s Kristen Johnston, 3rd Rock/Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, and Scrub’s Donald Faison, to name a few. The now-departed Hot in Cleveland was the pinnacle of this model, gathering together an absolute dream team of sitcom veterans, anchored by the peerless Bette White.

That doesn’t mean the broadcast networks can’t make traditional sitcoms with familiar stars. In fact, they’ve tried and failed spectacularly, audiences continually rejecting Matthew Perry (most recently with Go On) and Sean Hayes (Sean Saves the World, The Millers) while proving resistant to the feel-good, come-back story that was supposed to be The Michael J. Fox Show. Those specifics moves were made by NBC as an attempt to broaden the appeal of its comedy brand, a directive handed down by its then newly hired boss Bob Greenblatt.  He inherited a network with reliable performers in The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community, and he understandably favored going for a bigger piece of the pie rather than a consistent smaller piece. As such, the network sunk millions into luring back legends of the Must-See TV era, but this bid for a broader appeal didn’t just result in a couple of failed sitcoms. No, it also resulted in a not insignificant brain drain by alienating up-and-coming writers/producers who’ve never forgiven them, like Tad Quill (his Bent was burned off in just 3 weeks) and Stephen Falk (his Next Caller never aired; he’s now the man behind FX’s You’re the Worst). More established vets were also pushed away, with 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon and The Office’s Greg Daniels having since left to work for rival TV studios.

brooklyn nine nine
Brooklyn Nine Nine is not a ratings smash, but it has exactly one more Best Comedy Golden Globe than NBC lately

NBC has since somehow passed on The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, their loss being Fox’s gain. Neither of those are ratings hits, but they at least earn more critical respect as well as slightly more viewers than almost every comedy on NBC right now.

Not that NBC seems to particularly mind because while its comedy brand is pretty much non-existent at this point it has still managed to become the reigning ratings king thanks to football, The Voice, and The Blacklist. The fact that NBC’s ratings surge has coincided with it gradually abandoning the sitcom is probably not coincidental. It certainly has fewer low-rated sitcoms pulling it down than either Fox or ABC.

The problem, in general, is that sitcoms are not imperative viewing the way a heavily serialized drama might be. So, even if a sitcom is actually pretty good it will consistently lose out in the on-going game of deciding which shows to watch first. That’s partially why we’re in the mess we’re in now. The networks responded by trying to eventivize the sitcom this season, prioritizing concept over character, resulting in a batch of sitcoms that appear to have been designed to make it through the pilot process, not to a full season of TV let alone 100 episodes and syndication.

The two reasons to watch Selfie

Case in point: Selfie. It’s like My Fair Lady for the Twitter generation. Oh, cool. I get it. How do you actually make that into a long-lasting TV show? Umm, you mostly have the Henry Higgins stand-in slut-shaming poor Eliza for way too long. The frustrating thing, though, is that Selfie actually turned into a decent show because of two strong central performances from John Cho and Karen Gillan. The same thing is true of A to Z and Marry Me with its central pairs, Cristin Milioti/Ben Feldman and Casey Wilson/Ken Marino respectively. All three shows have highly suspect supporting casts, with both A to Z and Marry Me seriously suffering from oddly similar and equally noxious bearded best friends. In fact, all three shows have the appearance of being sold on gimmicks and then awkwardly building outward from that point forward, with often random results (Marry Me’s cast, in particular, feels less like a collection of genuine human beings who are friends and more like a “Hey, what if so-and so was a…[black lesbian]/[airhead blonde]/[set of gay dads]/etc.”).

The two reasons to watch Marry Me

I say all of that because I watch all of those shows, and not because someone is paying me to do so. I watch them because I love sitcoms, raised on Cheers re-runs, guilty pleasure Wings, Frasier, and Friends, and these are actually worth watching. Karen Gilan, Cristin Milioti, and Casey Wilson are actresses worth watching and rooting for. However, I haven’t watched a single episode of Selfie, A to Z, or Marry Me live. In fact, I’ve only watched one or two episodes of any of them through my cable box. I watch all of them on Hulu.

Last night, I finally watched Marry Me’s Thanksgiving Day episode which first aired nearly 7 days ago. By the close of the episode I felt a sudden tinge of guilt. I am not a Nielsen viewer meaning anything I watch on traditional TV simply does not matter as far as ratings are concerned. However, Hulu’s different. As far as I know, they share their data with the networks, who are increasingly curious to catch data for all points of exposure to their programming, live, DVR, On-Demand, online streaming, etc. In some incredibly minor way I can help these shows by supporting them on Hulu, yet I’ve been waiting to watch them until several episodes have built up. I do that because some other heavily serialized show I like, such as The Flash or Vampire Diaries, always takes priority. But according to Lonestar and Awake creator Kyle Killen, TV advertizers only truly care about ratings within the first 3 days of a show’s airing. He said that in relation to Nielsen, but does that also extend to Hulu even though Hulu’s ads are more flexible and less time-sensitive? I don’t actually know.  It still occurred to me that in some small way I might actually be helping to kill the American sitcom, or am I simply watching sitcoms the way most all of us will years from now, even if by that point most sitcoms are airing somewhere other than network TV?


  1. I wouldn’t feel bad. I look forward to the death of the American sitcom, particularly Big Bang Theory. Anyhow, I have a box set of Monty Python DVDs to go through.

  2. You are correct. TV advertisers only care about the C+3, which we don’t have access to. They seem to be similar to the L+3 numbers, which is why the released overnight ratings are frequently helpful (L generally aren’t much different than the L+3). You can watch on Hulu all you want, networks will get that data. But at the end of the day, Advertisers still work off C+3 which hulu does not factor into.

    Personally, I love Selfie. I’m glad that Hulu will be airing the remainder of the episodes. Marry Me, something was always off for me, and the more I watched, the less I liked it. It seems viewers are feeling the same as it actually matched Mindy Project numbers and it has The Voice as a lead in. (FOX actually beat NBC with it’s comedies last night) NBC comedies are entirely dead.

    There’s going to be a massive change within the next five years. People are not watching live TV like they used to. Currently a show getting a 1.1 is passable. There are only a handful of shows that get ratings about even a 3.0. They are oddities in this new TV landscape. Interestingly enough, the ratings have dropped dramatically over all networks, except the CW which has remained stable (I believe it may have actually rose slightly year over year, but I don’t feel like digging it up). Things are being rattled, new normals are being set. Shows that would have been considered failures five years ago are hits. It’ll be interesting to see how the next five years plays out.

    1. Your explanation of the ratings is identical to how I have understood them too. At this point, I do not know how much advertisers pay attention to Hulu, but it’s clearly not a point of emphasis.

      It was odd timing that I would write that article, and read immediately afterward that Selfie was getting a Hulu burn off. As for Marry Me, I just watched last night’s episode and did not laugh once. If Casey Wilson’s storyline isn’t great in every single episode that show does not have a lot else to lean on.

      Agreed. NBC’S comedies are clearly dead.

      The question is whether or not all network sitcoms will some day be dead, shuffled off to somewhere else which caters to better creators/writers. The sitcom has almost died before and come back, but everything about how we watch TV today so penalizes the sitcom that it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where this downturn never turns around long term.

      1. I believe that it will rebound, but the networks need to work more on finding sitcoms that work. Then they need to be willing to allow those shows to grow. That will likely mean them finding different target audiences and changing how they air their shows. Fox and NBC are crumbling comedy wise. CBS isn’t far behind (Big Bang Theory is holding it together). ABC is the only one doing well with comedies and their stand out night is only Wednesday. So, yes, sitcoms will survive, provided the networks decide to go with a new strategy and better shows.

      2. Sitcoms have been so central to network TV for so long it’s hard to imagine them going the way of the Variety Show, i.e. a once prominent genre pushed to the grave. I agree with everything you said, but the concern is that the networks’ strategy in the next development cycle is currently freakishly dominated by old movies being turned into sitcoms. That does not inspire confidence. ABC actually might have been on to something this year with its move into diversity. I will be curios to see how fresh off the boat does when it premieres

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