Decline in multi-camera sitcoms sparks career changes

If sitcoms are indeed dying a slow death, then it only stands to reason that there would be mourners.

Among the folks in the below-the-line realm most affected by the gradual decline in multi-camera shows are members of the camera crews, many of whom have seen their jobs dry up.

“I’ve had friends leave the business. I’ve had friends lose their houses,” says Deborah O’Brien, who is one of the luckier ones. She is a camera operator who is currently employed on “Girlfriends,” which was renewed for the fall on CW. She has a long list of credits as an operator/assistant that includes “The Drew Carey Show” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.”

“For the network of friends that I have, yes, it has had a great impact,” she adds. “Many of them just took it as time to move on.”

At a time when NBC, which once reigned as sitcom monarch with such hits as “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” has no new sitcoms scheduled for the fall, theories abound as to why multiple-camera sitcoms are passe and single-camera comedies are in vogue. But John Amodeo, a veteran producer whose credits include “Titus,” “Arrested Development” and the new Christina Applegate starrer, “Sam I Am,” feels it isn’t about budget.

“For the most part I hire roughly the same number of people at the same salaries,” he says. “The principle differences are the camera crews. In multi-camera, we hire more operators. In single, we have two, an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ camera.

“The rest of the crew — costumes, hair, props, construction — are either fairly unaffected, or in some cases we’re hiring more people. An example is in grip and electric; we need bigger crews in single camera because we have more physical real estate to cover, more sets, we go on location more. In half-hour multi-camera, we never leave the stage. In single, there’s a lot more transportation, dressing rooms, honey wagons.

“The vast majority of below-the-line crew is not affected greatly by it.”

Amodeo also points out that multiple-camera shows only shoot one or two days a week, whereas single-camera shows shoot most of an entire week. Members of camera crews in multi used to be able to make up the days by working on two shows at the same time, until sitcoms went the way of the dinosaur.

Bruce L. Finn is a director of photography who has done both single- and multi-camera shows that include “8 Simple Rules” and “Blue Collar Comedy Tour.” He says the shift from multi- to single is simply one symptom of a changing business overall that also involves the proliferation of single-camera reality shows.

“I’m a little luckier than most because I also shoot single camera,” he explains. “I can cross over into other areas. But there’s a lot more competition now and a lot less work.

“A lot of it is volume. Whether a d.p. does single or multiple cameras, there seems to be a lot less production out there that needs guys who can light in a dramatic kind of way. There are very, very few sitcoms. There aren’t even that many single-camera comedies.”

John Simmons, another veteran d.p., says some of the problem is pigeonholing. “For example, there might be a guy who shoots incredible commercials,” he says, “but he might not get a call for multi-camera even though he’s capable of doing the job.” He says a lot of colleagues with mostly multi-camera experience often aren’t considered for single-camera jobs.

But Simmons says the drift from multi to single is probably cyclical, and isn’t that much of a shock to him. “It pretty much falls into the freelance lifestyle I’ve had for the past 30 years,” he says.

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