By Jonny Rasch
In 2001, Sex and the City became the first ever non-broadcast comedy to take home an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. It was only the second HBO show to be nominated for an Emmy in this category, and only HBO’s third show ever to be nominated for an Emmy in general. Before that, broadcast comedies had reigned supreme, and in the next 14 years after Sex and the City’s win, the broadcast comedies would continue to win. However, since 2015, the broadcast networks have been shut out from the comedy awards conversation, with it going to HBO for Veep and Amazon for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This year, only one broadcast comedy, The Good Place, is even nominated for the award, with the rest going to HBO, streaming services, and outlier Pop TV, which has Schitts Creek. The broadcast comedies are being phased out from our cultural zeitgeist. Unless something changes, it won’t be long until broadcast channels are no longer considered for the top television awards. Fox hasn’t received a nomination since 2011, CBS since 2014, and ABC since 2017. With the changing television landscape, no genre has changed more rapidly in the past decade more than TV comedy, with shows attempting more and more to be “prestige”. Gone are the days of the traditional sitcom. Now, comedies are more complicated, creating characters that are dynamic and change with the show.
In the early years of TV sitcoms, the shows were basic and easy to understand. Usually revolving a family or a workplace, each episode would follow a singular storyline and wrap up nicely at the end of a 22 minute episode. Then, everything would reset for the next weeks episode. The characters would never change, and that was intentional. Norman Lear, one of the pioneers of television who created shows such as All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, used these platforms to talk about controversial issues in a way that Americans could easily digest. His most famous character, Archie Bunker, was a bigot, which Lear used to confront many thought that Americans had to a changing culture. In the years to follow, television shows would continue to follow a similar format, with only the locations changing. Instead of 704 Hauser Street, it became a Boston bar, with the traditional family become bar patrons. From the 70’s through the 90’s, the traditional 4 camera sitcom was what worked.
In 1993, The Larry Sanders Show aired on HBO to critical acclaim. It wasn’t a traditional sitcom: it wasn’t filmed in front of a live studio audience, it didn’t have a laugh track, it used many different settings. The Larry Sanders Show became the first non-broadcast show to receive an Emmy nomination, and it did so bucking many of the traditional tropes of the sitcom. After it’s success, broadcast networks started to take risk with sitcoms that were different stylistically and soon after, a new phase of sitcom trope started to emerge: the mockumentary. Starting with Arrested Development in 2004, the fake documentary became all the rage in the 2000’s. The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Veep, all shows that had a lot of success, used this similar style of storytelling, to different effects. But one thing that did emerge from this style was a feeling of continuity in storyline. Unlike the shows of the 70’s, stories didn’t end when the 22 minute episodes were up. Storylines from one episode started to carry over to the next. The serialization of the TV comedy came at a time when online streaming started to become popular. Serialized comedies started to become the most hyped and talked about shows. Shows like Veep, Silicon Valley, and Girls, all HBO shows, all received Emmy nods and critical acclaim. HBO, once again, changed the way the comedy television would be done. Now, in the age of streaming, the highly serialized comedy is what is mostly made. Episodic sitcoms have fallen to the wayside. And with it, so has broadcast televisions reign on comedy.
Looking at the 8 shows that are nominated for the Emmy this year, it’s clear how far the TV comedy has come. There is a show about a hitman turned actor, a show about a woman forced to relive her death over and over, and a show about people trying to escape the afterlife. In general, TV comedies have become way more high concept. And while that works well for streaming services or premium channels, the broadcast networks are still a long ways away. ABC is still making their family comedies, CBS is still making the 4 camera sitcoms, and Fox is busy creating another Simpsons knock-off. NBC, which, historically speaking, has always created the shows with the most critical success, is the only broadcast network that has a show nominated for an Emmy. Broadcast networks can make strides into the new comedy landscape — just look at The Good Place, the lone broadcast show that has been nominated for an Emmy. The show is one NBC’s highest concept comedies to date. But because NBC was willing to take a risk on a show from a Show Runner they know well (Michael Schurr, creator of Parks & Rec), they have been able to reap the rewards in the streaming age.
While the critics may love “prestige comedies”, the viewership tells a different story. CBS still owns the ratings game, with Big Bang Theory being the highest rating comedy on television. Creating shows with mass appeal like CBS or ABC does helps them get the highest ratings, especially with the older demographics. As for the coveted 18–49 demo, NBC has begun to lose its stronghold on the market, as more and more young viewers begin to move away from watching live TV. That is why, this week, NBC announced that they were getting into the streaming game, joining CBS as the broadcast networks with streaming services. On these services, the broadcast networks have the opportunity to try higher concept shows that wouldn’t normally make it to their broadcast channels. If broadcast channels want to come back to award shows, they will need to adapt to the changing landscape. Comedies are no longer something that you can watch and unwind with. They have changed with the rest of television, becoming more complex and more interesting to watch. And it’s time the broadcast channels catch up.