How Network TV Can Pull Out of Its Great Sitcom Recession

…Or, you know, not:

by Joseph Adalian

tragedy-maskNovember was another bad month in what’s been a pretty awful couple of years for the once-mighty network sitcom. NBC, which dominated the TV business for nearly two decades based on the strength of its comedy bench, announced it was ceding custody of an already-filmed Ellie Kemper half-hour from producer Tina Fey and selling the project to Netflix. The decision had nothing to do with the show’s quality — Netflix liked it so much, it has already ordered a second season— but instead was a depressing admission by the Peacock that it felt there was virtually no chance it could make the show a success given the network’s lack of even a single sitcom hit. This week’s announcement that NBC would also burn through the final season of the Amy Poehler–led Parks and Recreation in under two months added an exclamation point to the declaration of surrender: Rather than use the swan song of its longest-running and most critically admired half-hour to launch a successor sitcom, the network (probably correctly) decided it would be better off giving Parks a semi-dignified send-off and quickly moving on.

A similar come-to-Jesus moment was likely behind CBS’s unexpectedly early cancellation of the Will Arnett–Margo Martindale sitcom The Millers, just weeks into its sophomore season. The same network that had always managed to make America fall in like with middle-of-the-road sitcoms such as Rules of Engagement, Still Standing, and Mike and Molly seemed to be conceding even it no longer had the power to force us to sit still for whatever mediocrity it slotted behind a monster hit (in this case, The Big Bang Theory). By themselves, the NBC and CBS decisions didn’t dramatically alter the small-screen landscape. Taken together, they’re symptoms of something far more depressing: Network TV is suffering through a Great Sitcom Recession, and there aren’t many signs of recovery on the horizon.

At first blush, the downturn in the sitcom economy might appear to just be part of the larger crisis facing the overall linear TV business — the oft-documented challenges posed by audience fragmentation, time-shifting, and the growth of streaming networks such as Netflix. But while times are tough all over, it’s different with comedy. Even as TV transforms itself in real time, broadcasters have still managed to find a way to restock their shelves with new drama hits:The Blacklist, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Chicago Fire, and, possibly, this season’s Gotham and Scorpion. By contrast, the last time the networks launched an enduring, game-changing comedy smash was way back in 2009, when Modern Family exploded out of the gate for ABC. And it’s not just that there haven’t been a lot of new blockbusters. Scan Nielsen’s list of this season’s top 20 most-watched shows (below), and you’ll find just two comedies, period: Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. This paucity of half-hour hits has left networks insiders “confused” and reeling, according to one top TV agent with deep ties to the comedy community. “It’s not quite dread, but more a sense of ‘What the fuck?’” he says. “There’s a question of ‘What do people want?’”

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