Multicam comedies offer rich afterlife

Format often proves more financially lucrative than singlecam

To many, the socko success of ABC’s “Modern Family” and Fox’s “Glee” this past season underscores that single-cam is the predominant comedy format du jour.

While CBS continues to draw larger overall audiences with its Chuck Lorre multicamera series “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” execs at other networks seem convinced that comedy’s future lies in the more quirky stylings of laffers shot with one camera. They point to their critical success and the ability of such skeins to bring new, younger viewers to the genre.

But as evidenced by the recent sale of “Big Bang” to TBS and Fox Television Stations — Warner Bros. TV will net roughly $1.5 million per episode — traditional multicam comedies are still the best bet for collecting rerun coin.

Comedies that have been the most successful syndie cash-cows have almost always been multicams: “Cheers,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Will and Grace” and “Two and a Half Men,” to name a few.

While “MASH” is one of the few single-cam laffers that saw high levels of post-network viewership, the list of under-performing single-camera syndie sitcoms is notable.

Malcolm in the Middle,” a Fox staple for seven seasons a decade ago, never reached prominent off-net success, and “My Name Is Earl” didn’t do much after its NBC run. “Entourage,” which has been on HBO since 2004, has drawn smallish numbers on Spike, even though the guy-skewing net seemed an ideal off-net outlet.

NBC’s “The Office” is doing well enough in syndication (currently the No. 3 sitcom behind “Two and a Half Men” and animated “Family Guy”) and the Peacock’s “30 Rock” is set to launch next year, fetching a nice $800,000 per episode from separate deals with Comedy Central and Tribune-owned WGN — even though some insiders question its long-term syndication prospects, pointing out that the show is a modest performer that hasn’t played well in repeats.

It’s doubtful viewers make a choice based on camera format, but the two have different storytelling styles: Multicams tend to have fewer sets and different pacing, with a style that goes back to “I Love Lucy.” Single-camera comedies, on the other hand, vary wildly in pacing and have unlimited settings.

“These days, my job is to get shows to where the money is, and that’s syndication,” says one network exec. “We’re guarding to keep the value of these shows. The network run is important but it’s only a qualifier for the marketplace, and that’s the case for comedy. Over the years, we’ve seen that multicam comedies are the gold standard for syndication.”

During repeat season this summer, multicam comedies (along with animation) are faring better in the ratings than single-cams. “Big Bang,” “Two and a Half Men” and Fox’s “Family Guy” have held up well opposite scripted originals on cable and firstrun reality fare on the broadcast webs — drawing nearly half their typical in-season rating — while “Modern Family” and “The Office” have struggled to amass a third of their firstrun averages.

Jeff Ingold, comedy development topper at the Peacock, says he has to struggle between current necessities of garnering ratings and finding shows that will work best in an off-net afterlife.

“We’ll continue to develop a schedule of single-cam comedies because they’ve done well for us and are part of our comedy brand, but at the same time, the success of ‘Big Bang’ is undeniable,” he says. “Our priority is to execute single-cams well, but we need to get back into the multicam business. Whether it’s a new hour of multicams somewhere, or figuring out a way to create a multicam that feels contemporary enough for the Thursday night lineup, it’s a challenge for us.”

NBC was the comedy king for much of the 1980s and ’90s but eventually hit a speed bump. The last time the net opened the season with a multicam comedy on its sked was in 2006, but the John Lithgow-Jeffrey Tambor starrer “Twenty Good Years” lasted just a few weeks.

ABC and 20th Century Fox Television are feeling good not only for the strong ratings for “Modern Family,” but also for a syndie deal the series recently made with USA Network (valued at roughly $1.4 million per episode), despite the fact it is neither multicamera nor quite as close-ended as “Big Bang” or “Two and a Half Men.”

Media programming analyst Steve Sternberg, author of the Sternberg Report blog, says he’s expecting “Modern Family” to fare well once it strips.

“I think the difference between multicam vs. single-cam is something our industry likes to talk about, but really means nothing to viewers when it comes to whether a show will succeed,” Sternberg says. “?’Modern Family’ has all the makings of a hit in syndication — not in the top tier of ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’ or ‘Raymond’ — but certainly toward the top of the next tier (which includes ‘King of Queens’ and ‘That ’70s Show’).”

Bill Prady, exec producer of “Big Bang Theory,” says multicams still attract more viewers because of the historical nature of the storytelling.

“It’s an old format that goes back to radio, and they started doing comedies on TV in the same way,” Prady says. “It’s the quintessential American form, and its closest cousin is a play. Single-cam are like 30-minute movies, while multicams are plays.”

Samie Falvey, ABC’s head of comedy development, says multicams may fare better in syndication because of the “comfort food” factor, where there is an inherent likability and familiarity with the characters.

“There is a popcorn factor and community experience in watching a multicam comedy that could lend itself to repeatability,” Falvey says.

The Alphabet exec says there’s always concern if one format is taking precedence over another, and that eventually, over a few seasons, the scales usually tip back so that single-cams don’t dominate over multicams, and vice versa.

“From a network perspective, it’s important for us to do both well. We can all agree that comedy is difficult enough, whatever form it comes in.”

History dictates that if a writer-showrunner is able to muster a multicam hit that resonates with auds during its network work, syndie success is highly likely.

“Look who’s laughing all the way to the bank,” says one programming exec. “People like Chuck Lorre and (“Raymond” creator) Phil Rosenthal. They don’t have to pick up a pencil again if they don’t want to.”