Broadcast comedy has long followed their tried-and-true rule: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In other words, if a formula for a sitcom worked once, it will work again. Streaming and over-the-top (OTT) services, cable networks, video on demand (VOD), and the DVR, however, have served up an extensive menu of original programming, with over 400 original scripted series produced annually, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Add this to the fact that viewers now have access to favorite sitcoms after they air, and networks find themselves competing with not only the current fall lineup but any show that has has been broadcast in the history of television, as Christopher Miller, one-half of the creative team behind the new Fox comedy Son of Zorn, explains.
One of the motivators behind sticking with the “knowns”—reboots, movie spinoffs, and copycats—has been their ratings. Broadcast comedies were tasked with appealing to the masses in order to attract the broadest audience possible. Streaming services and cable networks, however, have been a haven for edgy content and risk-taking, in part due to different revenue models and shorter seasons.
The malaise of the broadcast comedy in recent years is illustrated by the fact that Nielsen’s ratings for the week of October 3 ranked only one comedy, the Big Bang Theory, in the top 10. The show’s network, CBS, increased its comedy slots this season from four to eight, but has returned to the well with series captained by sitcom pros, like Kevin James (Kevin Can Wait) and Matthew Perry (The Odd Couple). For part of 2015, NBC did not air comedies on Thursday night, for the first time since the 1980s.
The struggle of the big three (NBC, CBS, and ABC) and Fox to break out of their formulaic strategies has led to a debate in the entertainment world about whether the demise of the broadcast comedy is nigh. How dire the situation is varies by analyst, with one Washington Post columnist calling network sitcoms “kind of unwatchable.” She goes on to say that networks have to take more creative risks. Otherwise, they’ll fail to regain the magic that once was “must-see TV” and could be rendered obsolete by their streaming and cable counterparts.
To create a future in which broadcast comedy still has a place in the TV lineup, culture news site Vulture says networks should look to attracting strong, passionate niche audiences. Fox’s The Mindy Project has low overall ratings but is strong with women between the ages of 18 and 34, which is a sought-after demographic. Networks often abide by a cast-a-wide-net-and-accept-failure mentality; imagine the great content they could creative if they thought through their game plans and produced only comedies they truly believed in.
Jennifer Salke, NBC director of entertainment, agrees. ”Instead of ending up in the not-so-special middle, do comedy that is specific and sophisticated. That might mean that it’s not for everybody. But a big group of people will love it, and those people will become advocates and help build a broader audience over time,” the New York Times reports.
The 2016 fall lineup suggests the networks are listening: All are testing so-called “high-concept” shows. NBC’s The Good Place, for example, centers around a woman who arrives in heaven by mistake and ends up causing weird phenomena like flying shrimp and gigantic French grasshoppers. Thirteen episodes were made up front, something which can help work out the kinks and provide traction. But will flying shrimp save broadcast comedy? Only time will tell.