Drastic changes to the distribution, consumption, and production of television may mean the feel-good comedy is of a bygone era
In August 2018, Warner Bros. Television announced The Big Bang Theory, broadcast & cable TV’s most watched series, would end after its current 12th season. Having premiered on September 24, 2007 to little fanfare (finishing its first season ranked #68 in Nielsen’s A18–49 ratings), TBBT will end its run as the longest-running multi-camera comedy in television history, just ahead of Cheers.
Since The Big Bang Theory premiered 11 years ago, momentous shifts in television production, distribution, and consumption have made it all but impossible to launch a comedy with such endurance. As it turns out, television comedy is unique in that it requires patience, familiarity, and repetition to reach its full potential. Once an audience is hooked however, there is little loyalty like that of a sitcom fanbase such as those belonging to The Office, How I Met Your Mother, or Seinfeld.
To be certain — “the death of the sitcom” has been a call repeated over decades, dating back at least to 1983 when Warren Littlefield, then NBC Entertainment President, reminisced that the season before The Cosby Show launched, “The conventional thinking among the entertainment press was that the half-hour comedy was dead.” In more recent times, TV comedies have been pronounced dead in 2007 (NY Times), 2014 (The Hollywood Reporter), 2016 (Vulture), and 2017 (Reddit), where a user complained: “In the 80’s and 90’s there were so many greats (Friends, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld etc) but now I can’t think of a single one that is genuinely hilarious that came out in the last couple of years.” Many of these proclamations were premature (Modern Family was credited with starting a “Sitcom Renaissance” after premiering in 2009) or lacked the context and explanation for why comedies specifically are suffering during “The Golden Age of Television” and “Peak TV.” From my perspective, there’s a clear explanation — and it doesn’t inspire much hope moving forward.
For most of television’s history (prior to streaming, video on-demand, and DVDs) heavily serialized TV fare was difficult to pull off. Viewers had one opportunity to catch the live airing of a show every week, and didn’t have options to catch-up if they missed an episode. Therefore, most shows were procedural dramas (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, CSI) or episodic comedies (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Cheers). Each episode was a self-contained story arc that didn’t require having viewed all previous episodes in order to understand and enjoy the story. Viewers could come and go in a given week without worrying about what they missed. Since linear viewing was the only option, a loyal viewer would sit down each week to watch their favorite show throughout the television season, which traditionally ran from September — May. For eight months every year, fans would join their favorite characters week after week, often for 24+ episodes a year. This ritual of spending the better part of a year consuming the same content bred familiarity to the point that the characters began to feel like our Friends.
With the launch of both Hulu and Netflix streaming in 2007, viewers consumption habits slowly (and then quickly) began to change. Coinciding with the adoption of streaming was the growing popularity of serialized dramas such as Mad Men (2007), Breaking Bad (2007), and Sons of Anarchy (2008) among many others. A feedback loop began to emerge from these converging trends: viewers caught-up on heavily serialized fare available on streaming platforms, and subsequently tuned-in to linear broadcasts to watch the new seasons. This was dubbed “the Netflix effect,” and led to increased content consumption, incentivizing networks, studios, and streaming platforms to heavily invest in serialized content. This content was addictive, and designed to be so with high-stakes and cliff-hangers to keep viewers hooked and coming back. Eventually, the ability to binge-watch won over consumers viewing preferences entirely, and they stopped returning to linear viewings on broadcast and cable, instead waiting for a season to become available for streaming in order to binge through it in a matter of weeks (or days) instead of months.
As linear ratings declined, networks doubled-down on one criteria for producing content: urgency. What would make a show can’t-miss, “appointment viewing” on a weekly basis? The answer was simple: high-stakes and unpredictability. The Walking Dead, Scandal, and Game of Thrones set the tone with episodes like “The Red Wedding.” The success of these examples led to significant changes in the production ecosystem:
- Shorter seasons: high-stakes and unpredictability aren’t sustainable over a 24 episode season (instead becoming exhausting or ridiculous). TV seasons shrunk to 18, 12, and even 10 or fewer episodes.
- More series (and therefore more noise): in addition to having additional shelf-space to fill due to shorter seasons, the injection of streaming revenue into the entertainment ecosystem (on top of surprisingly high DVD and EST sales) made original scripted television production an attractive business, and everyone jumped in the game — from WGN to E! and Yahoo. The number of original scripted TV series rose from 216 in 2010 to 487 in 2017.
- Higher quality (and bigger budgets): with a record volume of original scripted content, one way to break through the noise was to put more money on screen with higher production values. Netflix paid $100 million for a two-season straight to series order of its first original series, House of Cards in 2011. Meanwhile, HBO spent a reported $10 million on the pilot episode for Game of Thrones, and will spend $15 million per episode on the upcoming final season.
These changes weren’t confined to dramas — networks similarly sought to serialize television comedy with high-stakes and darker material. While not necessarily reflective of the entire slate of TV comedy — Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series shifted from primarily episodic network sitcoms in 2010 (Modern Family (ABC), Glee (FOX), The Office (NBC), 30 Rock (NBC)) to serialized cable & streaming series in 2018 (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon), Atlanta (FX), Barry (HBO), Glow (Netflix), Silicon Valley (HBO), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix))
“Here is a short list of some of the best-reviewed or most buzzed-about television comedies of the past few years: BoJack Horseman, Louie, You’re The Worst, Transparent, High Maintenance, Baskets, Girls, Orange Is The New Black, Love, Master Of None, Getting On, Catastrophe, and Atlanta. These shows are at the forefront of prestige comedy, earning magazine profiles and Emmy nominations and spots in discussions of culture at the highest level. They also aren’t, necessarily, especially fun.”
Comedy is special. More specifically, great television comedy requires familiarity. Familiarity allows expectations to be subverted, running gags to land, and affection for characters and their relationships to develop.
Fans of classic feel-good television comedies had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their characters and universes over time. Running gags, such as “That’s what she said!” (The Office), “How you doin’?” (Friends), and Major / General (How I Met Your Mother) allow viewers to feel included in inside jokes and anticipate their delivery. Specific character traits learned over multiple seasons like Cliff Clavin’s knowledge of useless facts (Cheers), George Costanza’s neuroticism and pettiness (Seinfeld), and Liz Lemon’s “New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for…a week”(30 Rock) provided everlasting circumstantial humor. “Memes” from all of these series persist across the internet to this day, despite the fact that none of these series have been on-air for years.
This familiarity itself was fostered by repeated exposure over time (8+ months every year for 5+ years) and a high volume of episodes (often 100+). In today’s content-glutinous world, viewers don’t have the same relationships with TV shows. Specifically, the shifts from weekly “appointment” to on-demand viewing, episodic to serialized episodes, and long to short seasons removed the effectiveness and ability of these comedy tools to land and stick.
To highlight this point — what are the most successful comedies launched by streaming platforms? Transparent, Amazon’s Golden Globe winning comedy is ending after five seasons (50 episodes). Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s Emmy nominated comedy is ending after only four seasons (51 episodes). Streaming networks have produced other comedies, but even the most notable of these have not penetrated the cultural zeitgeist or been particularly “feel-good.” With the pervasiveness of binge-watching, consumers watch new seasons of a TV show over a matter of days or weeks instead of months, and then must wait nearly a year to watch new episodes. By this time, they’ve forgotten the running gags, must re-familiarize themselves with the characters, and likely have new series that they are more heavily invested in.
Linear and streaming networks alike have realized the importance of familiarity in comedy and have resorted to rebooting classic comedies, enticing viewers to jump right back in to new episodes with the characters they love as a tactic to break through the content clutter. Linear networks have rebooted Rosanne, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, and Last Man Standing, while streaming platforms have rescued or rebooted Arrested Development, The Mindy Project, Community, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Despite their once rabid and loyal audiences, these have returned with mostly mixed results, painting an even bleaker picture of the future of television comedy.
The question at this point remains: is television comedy dead (for real this time)? Is it still possible to create a long-lasting, feel-good comedy in the age of binge-watching and ephemeral viewership? The verdict is out — but just like Ross and Rachel — we’re definitely on a break.
If you enjoyed this, please check out some of my previous posts: Who are you?; The Cameras are Coming; and I deleted every app from my phone for 30 days. Here’s what happened.
I’m currently an investor at Sinai Ventures in San Francisco. I previously worked in digital TV strategy at 21st Century Fox in Los Angeles. Northwestern Alum. Chicago Native. Feel free to reach out here, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.