Sitcoms: a changing medium adapts to a changing audience

Change: It’s a good thing, right? So how come everybody in the TV biz is so dang worried about it?

pic by Gustavo Morales
pic by Gustavo Morales

by Stephanie Kocer

NBC canceled a sitcom in 1989 due to low ratings. A year later network executive Rick Ludwin ordered four episodes of that same show. He liked the young comedian it starred. Those four episodes were shown during the summer season on NBC. It then scored a few viewers. Those new viewers, mostly young men, prompted the network to pick up the show for a second season. That struggling sitcom: Seinfeld.

It’s hard to tell whether a sitcom will be a smash hit or a giant flop. Seinfeld had everything working against it: scheduling, ratings and an unknown star. Today it is considered the greatest sitcom of all time. Many shows don’t get that lucky, though. There’s no secret formula for making a great comedy. Whether a show makes it or not depends on more than just being funny.

It depends on ratings, scheduling and style.

Network Television: A Changing Medium   

Networks release new comedies every fall and mid-season hoping one will connect with viewers. If the shows don’t score high enough in the Nielsen ratings, the audience measurement system developed to track how many viewers a show receives every week, they could easily be canceled.

CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” is the highest rated comedy on TV right now. The show averages about 17 million viewers every week, while ABC’s highest rated sitcom “Modern Family” only averages 11.18 million viewers. These shows, however, still don’t even come close to the Nielsen ratings of “Friends” and “Cheers” back in the 1990s — averaging about 25 million viewers per episode with each episode.

While networks agonize over how to get more coveted Nielsen ratings, younger viewers are becoming less concerned with watching a show when it airs and more concerned with convenience.

Online video streaming sites like Hulu offer a convenient way for people to watch their favorite half-hour comedies whenever they want. Television is changing. People are watching shows on their smart phones. People are no longer concerned with watching a show when it airs. Which holds down ratings. It’s almost impossible for new shows to have a chance in the ratings.

No one is watching when the networks want them to.

There’s a much larger audience to account for when considering who is watching shows online at a later time, but that audience may not be helpful when it comes to the ratings problem.

“We don’t even know yet how much these other audiences matter because advertisers pay for these shows and advertisers mostly want to pay for the live viewers, so a show can build its audience online but it doesn’t necessarily matter in keeping it on the air,” Jaime Weinman, a TV writer for Maclean’s magazine, said.

Online viewers are also making it hard for networks to keep up, which may result in poorly crafted sitcoms. Networks tend to spend more time promoting their shows instead of making sure it’s a quality show.

“Part of the problem is there’s this rush to get things onto the Internet because of an income flow,” David Anthony Higgins said. Higgins has acted on sitcoms like “Ellen” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and currently works on “Mike and Molly.”

“There’s a tendency to cheapen the product,” Higgins said.

If a show isn’t making the network money from the very beginning, networks have no hesitation killing it.

“The audience is spread out more than it was,” Higgins said. “You have to have shows that have legs that give them a chance to get an audience.” “It’s hard for a network to keep something on air if it’s not succeeding.”

Sitcoms also meet the challenge of network scheduling. Viewers can’t be everywhere at once. If a show is scheduled at the same time as a popular show on a different network it may lose to the bigger show. If networks don’t do enough to market their shows they could be losing potential viewers.

Boston University professor Michael Loman spent years working as a writer and producer for pioneering multi-camera shows like “All in the Family,” “Happy Days” and “The Cosby Show.”

He said the show scheduled before a sitcom is a huge factor.

“If the network schedules a show behind a very popular show like “Big Bang Theory” or “Modern Family” like the way they’ve done “Black-ish” after “Modern Family” you’re going to get a much better sampling than you would have if it wasn’t behind a very popular show,” Loman said.

Read it all at Times Delphic