CarterMatt Extended: Is the age of great network TV comedy over?

Extended -There are few things as depressing as a longtime comedy fan than looking at the ratings for the genre on any given night. Just two years ago, “The Big Bang Theory” was generating more than a 5.0 rating in the ad-friendly 18-49 demographic. Meanwhile, “How I Met Your Mother” was pulling more than a 3.0 consistently for its final season, “Modern Family” was at a 4.0, and “2 Broke Girls” was at least generating around a 2.5. When you add “Two and a Half Men” to the list, this is a modest roster of comedies that you can call definitive “hits.”

What’s happened since that time? A decline … and a massive one. “The Big Bang Theory” has only pulled more than a 4.0 once this season (the premiere), “Modern Family” has below a 3.0 since the premiere, and there are no other comedies that are getting anywhere near this number. ABC has done a commendable job with “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “black-ish,” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” but can you consider any of them runaway “hits”? A 2.0 is suddenly the new standard, and networks will be begging for their new comedies to reach it in the live + same-day viewing figures.

There are many factors that are to blame for the comedy genre teetering off a cliff: Viewing fatigue, Netflix, more families with DVRs, and simply so many more options to watch comedy than there once were. However, one that tops the list for us is originality, and the lack thereof when you look across what is a barren wasteland. It’s not always the fault of the content creators; instead, you can lay the blame more at the feet of risk-averse, franchise-seeking, and producer-loving network executives who would rather greenlight a “Truth Be Told” than comedy with a largely-unknown casting trying out a new idea. Familiar ideas can still get good ratings; however, the only way to hit one out of the park is to do the same in the creative process.

The failures

To start to dive into this, it is important first to analyze first where networks are going criminally wrong: They are clinging to an idea of what was once successful, high-rated TV. Take, for example, when NBC decided going into the 2013-14 season that their time with “experimental comedies” like “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Community” was starting to fade. They ordered a Thursday-night lineup consisting of “Parks and Recreation” (near the end of its run), “Welcome to the Family,” “Sean Saves the World,” and “The Michael J. Fox Show.” Of the three new “family comedies,” how many of them lasted longer than a season? The answer’s a big-ol’ goose egg.

More than a year after this catastrophe, NBC has now only one hour of scripted primetime comedy a week: “Undateable” (a show that succeeds despite its slightly-dated premise thanks to a stellar cast) and the aforementioned / truly abysmal “Truth Be Told,” a show that would be un-hip when it comes to race discussion in 2005, let alone 2015. You could say that they are in a rough patch, or that some of the experimental comedies weren’t drawing huge ratings. However, they were at least generating syndication dollars, DVD sales, and streams / DVR viewing. There’s no word of mouth surrounding the TV equivalent of sawing a log in half, even if it caters to a wide demographic of people-not-interested-in-watching.

What makes the NBC failure all the more embarrassing is this: In the fall of 2014, they allowed a show that they had at the ready to move over to Netflix. That show? “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which went on to become a huge hit. Sure, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and Universal Television as a studio are making big bucks, but where does that leave NBC’s reputation?

Meanwhile, over on CBS the network has established a fascinating new strategy for shows following “The Big Bang Theory”: Pair it with some sort of family-concept show starring some relatively big names, and then watch it get canceled within a season or two. Ask “The Millers” about this; or, ask “Life in Pieces” at the end of the season. Sooner or later, you have to realize that the same just doesn’t work, and the interest is not there in watching a show about goofy dads and their impossibly-good-looking significant others who get everything done.

CBS, like NBC, has had chances to change things up, but for some reason decided not two. Leading into the 2013 season, they had a chance to get Rupert Grint, not long after his “Harry Potter” fame, for a quirky Greg Garcia show in “Super Clyde” about a young fast-food worker dreaming of being a superhero. It had the charm of “My Name Is Earl,” the quirks of “Pushing Daisies,” and it even had Stephen Fry. Yet, the network went with “The Millers” instead, thinking it was a better fit for the programming around it. Maybe “Super Clyde” would’ve bombed (CBS declined to pick up a new version earlier this year with Charlie McDermott from “The Middle”), but at least it had an unpredictable road. With about 80-90% of new comedies, you can easily telegraph where they are going.

The successes

What major networks have to realize now is that comedy as a format is not necessarily dead; it’s just changing, and you’re not going to see monster live ratings anymore. Instead, the questions you need to be asking are “how do I build a strong live audience,” but then also “how do I get people talking after the fact?” and “how do I convince people to put this on season pass?”. If you can keep buzz and time-shift well, you’ll make a good career for yourselves. Just look at ABC.

Is the network reinventing the wheel with most of their content? Hardly, but they’ve been smart enough to use familiar sitcom names (Neil Flynn, Tim Allen), come up with creative, nostalgic angles (“The Goldbergs”), or use diversity to bring in different demographics (“Fresh Off the Boat,” the increasingly funny “black-ish”). You would think that given the family-friendly label the network often has (sometimes wrongly so), they would not be the ones finding a way to create edgy but still mainstream programming. Yet, they are close to flourishing while NBC drowns, Fox disappoints thanks to poor scheduling decisions, and CBS looks for a way to make “The Big Bang Theory” still successful for another ten years.

Here are a few other honorable mentions: “Angel From Hell,” a CBS comedy with Jane Lynch starting this midseason, ABC’s attempt at “The Muppets” (a comedy that actually would have probably been better suited for Netflix), and “The Carmichael Show” on NBC, which was given only six episodes this summer. We chalk it up to pure dumb luck on the network’s part that this show happened to be good and people wanted to see more of it.

The common threads

Look at the ABC model right now. Other than “The Muppets” (which is falling in the ratings anyway), every single hit comedy is an original property. There are no spin-offs, and the majority of their hits on Tuesday and Wednesday night are not banking on a single star or producer. They’re about concept, selling viewers on said concept, and then building a brand. They’re not getting cute with the scheduling of them.

There is something simple that another network could choose to look at here, provided that they wanted to. It’s about creating a show not as a vehicle for a person, but as an idea from someone who wants to do something fun. Also, don’t be afraid to push the envelope slightly, whether it is by having a strong minority presence or taking on a controversial plotline here or there.

Also, there’s another part of this that we know networks really don’t want to do anymore: Give a show time. “The Big Bang Theory,” “Seinfeld,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “The Office” are all examples of shows that struggled creatively or commercially in their first year. Yet, something in the past three or four years has convinced network executives to not want to give something a second look if they believe in it. Unless you want to see more lineups devoid of comedy or Netflix getting all the good stuff, you have to stop (at least somewhat) with the one-and-dones.

Ultimately, there is good comedy still on network TV, contrary to what you may think. You just have to look harder in order to find it, and you also have to have more faith than ever than a network is not going to cancel you for “family comedy starring former family comedy star” the next season. That’s getting harder and harder to do, especially when you know there are fifty or sixty other options out there, especially on cable networks you can trust to give things a second chance. (What are the odds that “Man Seeking Woman” would get a second season on broadcast? Think 0.000001%.)

The hope that remains is that somewhere in a studio office, a network executive possesses the foresight to still not prioritize a dollar sign or a big name over an idea. If that is the trajectory, we all might as well stop watching now.

CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.

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