No Laughing Matter: TV Networks Need New Sitcoms

Newtworks need new Sitcoms
Mark Matcho

Big Four struggle to find breakout hits amid mixed returns for fall’s heaping helping of half-hours

It’s been four years since ABC’s “Modern Family” came along and seemingly put the half-hour comedy back on the map, but the TV biz has hardly been a laugh-a-minute since. Not only has the Alphabet been unable to find a companion to its megahit comedy, but nothing new on any network has really connected with audiences in a comparable way.

It’s not for a lack of trying. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC felt they had the goods heading into this fall — even if none of the 13 new sitcoms was as well reviewed as some of the frosh dramas. In all, the Big Four networks served up 26 half-hours at the start of the season, the most for any fall slate in 10 years.

But so far, the results have been lackluster — even when factoring in DVR playback — so much so that they’ll probably start further discussions about why, at a time when the television drama is more popular and revered than ever, it has become so difficult for viewers to coalesce around comedy.

Sitcoms don’t have the same serialized stickiness with viewers as do dramas, such as “Breaking Bad” and “Scandal,” which overcame slow starts as more viewers found them over time via on-demand platforms.

Some half-hours still rank among TV’s top shows, but the well could soon run dry. Last season was the weakest in memory for the comedy genre (only the modestly rated “The Mindy Project” and “The Neighbors” are back this year from that class), so the only new half-hour hits of the previous two years have been CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “New Girl” — and both have faded some since their hot starts in September 2011.

CBS has been the comedy ratings leader for years, but it has also been the most aggressive network in the genre this fall because “How I Met Your Mother” is wrapping in May, and “Two and a Half Men” may soon follow, based on its sluggish ratings start this fall.

Fortunately for the Eye, three of its four new comedies — “The Crazy Ones,” “The Millers” and “Mom” — have fared well enough to earn back-nine orders. The fourth new CBS laffer of the fall, “We Are Men,” is already in the discard heap.

The Robin Williams-fronted “Crazy Ones,” averaging a 3.5 rating in adults 18-49, and “The Millers” (3.4) are the top new comedies on any network this fall, but these averages are about a point lower than the top new dramas: ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (4.5) and NBC’s “The Blacklist” (4.3).

Brad Adgate, senior research veep at Horizon Media, thinks the quality of comedies in recent years hasn’t approached the level of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” which remain TV’s top-rated half-hours, in their seventh and fifth seasons, respectively.

“I also think the networks were relying on familiar faces to capture their sitcom past this year,” Adgate says, pointing to new shows with Williams, Michael J. Fox (“The Michael J. Fox Show”) and Sean Hayes (“Sean Saves the World”). “The result is an unusually older audience profile for these sitcoms.”

But for now, that older skew is working for CBS, which has a schedule of eight viable half-hours for the first time in years. CBS also has the luxury of two midseason shows, “Bad Teacher” and “Friends With Better Lives,” and may have to rest shows (perhaps “2 Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”) to find the newbies homes.

NBC is on the other end of the comedy spectrum these days. The network that at one point in the late ’90s opened a season with 18 half-hours on its sked is down to four slots — and the Peacock is finding even those hard to fill.

NBC rolled the dice this fall by sticking to its four-comedy Thursday template — even though “The Office,” the net’s strongest performer last season, is now gone. But “Parks and Recreation” and three rookies (including the shows fronted by Fox and Hayes, former NBC Thursday-night comedy stars) have produced tiny ratings, and been trounced by CBS’ comedies head-to-head.

NBC’s strategy for now is to do what it can to give “Sean Saves the World” and “Michael J. Fox” with stronger, broader lead-ins from specials like “Saturday Night Live” clip shows and “The Voice.”

ABC and Fox have had minor victories this fall with their new comedies, whose ratings have stabilized of late.

The Alphabet’s Tuesday combo of “The Goldbergs” and “Trophy Wife” have done OK behind “Agents of SHIELD,” as have Wednesday’s “Back in the Game” and “Super Fun Night” behind “The Middle” and “Modern Family,” respectively.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see “Goldbergs” get a shot behind “The Middle” at some point, while “Trophy Wife” seems a perfect fit with “Modern Family.” Meanwhile, returnee “Suburgatory” is waiting on the midseason bench.

Fox’s Tuesday laffers aren’t doing much ratings-wise but, as the youngest-skewing live-action block, they’re gaining by larger percentages in DVR playback than shows on other networks.

“Dads” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are putting up similar ratings on Tuesday nights, though “Brooklyn” has recruited more DVR fans, and its fi nal tally builds more on “Dads” in L7 ratings. “Mindy Project” is hanging in there behind “New Girl,” which is no longer the tentpole propping up the night.

Fox has committed its most precious real estate — the post-Super Bowl slot in February — to “New Girl” and “Brooklyn,” in the hopes of gaining sampling with a broader audience. That’s a notable choice given that it also has a budding hit on its hands with drama “Sleepy Hollow.” But as any network executive would have to admit, it’s going to take a Super Bowl-size effort to grow a new comedy hit these days.

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  1. 198ml says:

    I’m no simpleton who laughs at every retarded, juvenile attempt at humor, and I can say that the Mindy Project and New Girl are superb comedies. Once you get past the fact that Mindy isn’t at all attractive, it is a wonderful show with one of the most lovable casts around in recent memory. Give it a shot. You’ll thank me.

  2. Toni James says:

    I long for a funny comedy. There simply are not any comedies out there that are not full of sex, or profanity or both. NOTE TO WRITERS: Just because it is about sex does NOT mean it is funny. And swearing isn’t funny either. What ever happened to the great comedies of yesteryear like “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and in the 80’s, “The Cosby Show.” Those shows are still hysterical now, but no one wants to do anything like them. I don’t understand. Instead of being funny, they insist on being filthy and just say it’s funny. I’m not saying we need to go back to the fifties, but good grief…funny is funny and those shows were hysterical. And they were clean so you could watch them with your children or your grandparents and no one was going to be uncomfortable. New shows…not even remotely. It’s sad. So so sad.

  3. Jess says:

    I think they should bring back TGIF. Shows that families can sit down and watch. Like Boy Meets World, it wasn’t just for kids my whole family would sit down and watch all those shows. They need to do something like that again. And bring back Saturday Morning Cartoons..Good ones. If they can’t come up with a good concept the should show older cartoons that were good, not the crap that’s on tv now like SpongeBob Square Pants. Seriously, bring back family comedies bring back Friday night!

  4. Mel Smith says:

    The current management of NBC apparently can’t recognize a successful sitcom. Their new ones
    are often painful to view!

    • wks9370 says:

      Mel, especially the Michael J Fox show, it looks painful, not becuase of Fox’s debilitating ailment. it was time to make fun of it – while doing what he loves – comedy! Problem is, they forgot to bring along some real writers w/ funnier-than-thou situations to put him in.

      This show will die a slow death, due to the fact it has a guaranteed commitment for what, 13 eps? Po Mike…

      • Bobbie says:

        I hate to tell you this , but NBC ordered 23 episodes ! Which I believe is a full season ( I’m talking about network tv,). I think network tv should follow the examples of the “other” networks and stick to 12 episodes a season, that way they would have more time to develop better scripts, though I don’t think anything could help MJF or the Sean Hayes shows. Those shows simply aren’t funny or clever, however, kudos to MJF for not doing the same thing he did before, he just needs better scripts.

  5. Maybe it time to open the doors to new comedy writers / showrunners … before it all goes to pay channels, netflix, amazon and the Tube… “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

  6. Rito says:

    New girl is gonna pick up this next arc with the return of coach then the Super Bowl spot. Can’t wait for that’s also Brooklyn is doing much better. Hope fox keeps all four shows next season.

    • Jeff Forshan says:

      Nice for Fox PR to check in, “Rito.”

      Seriously, Brooklyn 99 may have a future. New Girl will certainly be back. Dads has a SLIGHT chance, if ratings improve.

      “Mindy,” on the other hand, has become a low-rated embarrassment, and threatens to damage the brand of anyone associated with it. Kaling has already used up her post-OFFICE good will. Ike Barinholtz is as funny as a toothache. And Tracy Wigfeld and Jack Burditt — both Emmy-winning writers for 30 Rock — would do best to leave Kaling’s show off their resumes.

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