Heading into last month’s broadcast upfronts, multi-camera comedies appeared primed for a renaissance on broadcast. NBC was actively looking for a new series to pair with its forthcoming “Will & Grace” revival. ABC, which was already home to a Friday-night block of multi-cameras, was in the mix for a “Roseanne” revival miniseries, and was pondering a new show starring Carol Burnett. CBS was primed to order several shows as it sought to find a successor to ratings champ “The Big Bang Theory.”

But post-upfronts, only CBS now appears to be a safe place for multi-cameras. NBC found no new show to pair with “Will & Grace,” and instead nestled the limited-run revival at 9 p.m. Thursdays, where it will be surrounded by returning single-camera comedies. ABC successfully outbid Netflix for “Roseanne,” which will air after midseason, but then canceled its Friday-night multi-cams “Dr. Ken” and “Last Man Standing” to clear the way for a night of speculative-fiction dramas with “Marvel’s Inhumans” and “Once Upon a Time.” Fox, whose studio produces “Last Man Standing,” considered rescuing the Tim Allen comedy from the scrap pile, but decided against it, feeling that despite the show’s solid ratings performance, a multi-cam family show would be too off-brand for a network known for its youth-skewing animated and single-cam laffers.

Barring a last-minute schedule change, CBS will be the only network airing an ongoing multi-camera comedy series this fall. The state of affairs reflects a viewing trend that has been brewing since single-camera comedies such as “30 Rock” and “The Office” more than a decade ago began drawing awards attention and taking up schedule space typically afforded to multi-cameras — a trend that has been accelerated by shifts in the television business.

“In recent years, I think single-camera comedies have been better received by viewers than multi-camera — the old, traditional type of comedy,” says media consultant Brad Adgate. “I know ‘Big Bang Theory’ is still the most popular comedy. But I think there’s a look and there’s a style to single-camera comedies that might be a little more appealing these days.”

“As someone who grew up loving and watching multicams, I am a big fan.”
Pearlena Igobkwe

CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” indeed remains far and away the highest-rated comedy on television, having averaged a 4.9 rating in the 18-49 demo and 19 million total viewers last season in Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers. CBS, in anticipation of the show leaving the air after the end of a recently finalized two-season renewal deal, ordered four multi-cameras this season as it searches for a new comedy to fill the coming void.

But “Big Bang” is an outlier, a multi-cam that delivers in 18-49. Of the nine shows rounding out last season’s top 10 comedies in the demo, only one — CBS’ “Kevin Can Wait,” which enjoyed a “Big Bang Theory” lead-in for part of its run last season — was a multi-cam.

CBS has more latitude to pursue a multi-cam centric strategy, focusing on total viewers more so than 18-49. But the rest of the Big Four rely almost exclusively on single-cams in the pursuit of the younger demo.

That has been true for some time, though recent years saw NBC, ABC, and Fox each continue to experiment with multi-cameras. Fox had a high-profile washout in 2014 with “Mulaney,” which former network chief Kevin Reilly billed at his upfront that year as “another ‘Seinfeld.’” NBC has had short lived efforts such as “Whitney,” “Undateable,” and “People Are Talking.” Its one lasting multi-cam, “The Carmichael Show,” nearly died last year when producer 20th Century Fox Television balked at NBC’s proposal to renew the series for a 10-episode season, rather than the 13 it had previously enjoyed. NBC ultimately blinked and gave it the three additional episodes.

ABC had made multi-cams a small but consistent piece of its strategy on Friday nights, where “Last Man Standing” drew the second-largest total audience of any comedy on the network. That success led to a high-profile outcry from fans and conservative media who alleged that only star Tim Allen’s Republican political affiliation could explain the cancelation of show with such robust viewership, and an unsuccessful bid by 20th Century Fox Television to find a new home for the show. ABC has denied any anti-conservative conspiracy, citing scheduling concerns.

ABC also passed this season on Universal Television’s “Household Name,” a high-profile multi-cam pilot starring Burnett that enjoyed strong early buzz.
“I think with the ABC Friday-night multi-cams, people felt like, ‘Oh, wow, they’re gone,’” says Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe. “They had kind of created a beachhead there. But as someone who grew up loving and watching multi-cams, I’m a big fan. And we will still endeavor to try to develop ones that work for the networks.”

For studios, the potential upside for multi-cams is significant. Typically less serialized than single-cams, they syndicate well. Warner Bros. Television’s “The Big Bang Theory” has earned more than $1 billion in revenue from local stations and cable channel TBS.
But syndication, though still lucrative, is a diminishing field with more outlets relying more heavily on original programming to compete with digital offerings.

“You wonder what the off-net marketplace is for these types of shows,” Adgate says. “Producers have a lot of alternatives to make money off-net other than syndication now.”

The failure of any network to launch a breakout multi-camera hit since the “The Big Bang Theory” — now entering its 11th season — may have cooled networks on the prospect of devoting prime schedule real estate to another attempt. Meanwhile, the flattening of broadcast series ratings, which has seen the margins between canceled and renewed shows become slimmer than ever, appears to have made broadcasters increasingly risk-averse.

“There was talk last year of so many networks having so many needs,” says ABC Studios president Patrick Moran. “This year when you look, there was a lot of stability on these schedules. ABC has many nights that are largely staying intact. Same at NBC, same at CBS.”

A popular sentiment at broadcast nets is removing even a marginal ratings performer from the schedule is a risky move, as it is unlikely to be outperformed by a new series.

In that climate, programmers are inclined to stick with what’s popular. And for the moment, at least, what’s popular is not multi-cams.