Why Comedy is the last hope for Broadcast TV

Hill Street Blues.

Dallas.

Dynasty.

Thirtysomething.

Beverly Hills 90210.

Melrose Place.

NYPD Blue.

Lost.

Desperate Housewives.

You might recall a few of these broadcast network dramas that were hugely successful, finding their way into the homes of millions of viewers week after week. It was a great time for TV with characters living opulent lives (Dynasty), mysterious shootings (Dallas), and broadcast-approved curse words with the occasional booty shot (NYPD Blue), gradually paving the way for mildly provocative content.

But then little known networks like HBO, AMC and Showtime started to enter the fray where cursing, nudity, drug use, and gratuitous sex and violence began to pull those viewers in week after week, steadily taking them away from the watered down legal/forensic/cop procedurals that ceased to be innovative. They had the freedom to develop richer storylines with flawed characters that allowed viewers to root for anti-heroes otherwise despised in real life. Their expanded production costs and shorter episodic orders also allowed them to delve into these new stories without the constraints and a smaller timeframe to produce the content at a fraction of the broadcast networks’ cost.

Viewers began to affect this paradigm shift and so did the television community as evident in the Primetime Emmy Awards. These new dramatic storytellers have won the Primetime Emmy’s Best Drama category for the past 8 years, yet broadcast networks still feel they can churn out dramas that can compete with the likes of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

It’s a sign of the times that doesn’t give the broadcast networks hope to compete in the current landscape. There is a solution and final stand in the vein of one General Custer that these networks can make however, and that my friends, is in Comedy.

People like to laugh. Laughter is contagious. Laughter helps us relieve the stress of the day. It helps take us out of the larger problems we’re facing in our lives.

Viewers also enjoy being able to catch a rerun of their favorite comedy at the most surprising of moments since they can almost always find a way to view a show on either cable, broadcast or through a streaming service. People aren’t as interested in catching an old episode of a drama since most series are serialized, making it harder to enter the lives of these fictional characters for only an hour at a random moment.

And one network is already listening.

CBS has made a big step in this direction by doubling its comedy load from 4 to 8 shows for the 2016–2017 season, as announced at their upfront presentation in May. Now they might be sticking with familiar faces to headline some of their new shows, most of whom viewers already know — Matt LeBlanc and Kevin James, but it’s at least a sign that they’re taking notice.

It’s their first season where no CSI spin-off will be on the air, thus hopefully giving rise to new content that is cheaper to produce and easier to sell off in blocks to syndication.

I wouldn’t count cable out of the Comedy game entirely as they have the ability to produce half hour comedy well as displayed by HBO’s Veep and FX’s Louie, with the former recently winning the Emmy for Best Comedy. However, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Modern Family has won 5 Best Comedy Emmys and only 2 cable comedies have ever won Best Comedy in the past 15 years.

There’s still hope to maintain the glory the networks had by testing new comedies and seeing what people are drawn towards for the future of broadcast television. In a risk-averse business, it’s the least risky venture to take, and why not double down on what you can still excel at by giving people a chance to escape into a world that puts a smile on their faces.

I sign off with staying hopeful that this is a great step in the direction of our broadcast networks. Because the days of the reruns of Cheers, Will & Grace, Friends and Seinfeld still remind us of how well the broadcast networks can make us laugh.

Andrew Fryer is a writer and digital marketing professional living in Los Angeles.

He’s working on his debut novel, but you can read about his other musings at his website here

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