Sunday 21st January 2018,

The Sitcom Returns! If So, For How Long?

The Plain Dealer has quoted me in a nice article out today on the return of the classic sitcom, “Death of sitcoms, it turns out, was greatly exaggerated,” which basically states that cable and broadcast networks are returning to the form after bailing post-Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld and Will & Grace.

Most of the people in article attribute the return of the sitcom to a change in the national mood, both the ten-year distance from 9/11 and the economy — people are sad and out of work so need to laugh — which is certainly a key cultural factor. I talk about the industrial component, i.e. comedy as a way to diversify network portfolios in a period of instability:

Aymar Jean Christian, a doctoral student studying new media and Web series at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the networks also have remembered that comedy plays particularly well with the demographic group they most prize, viewers 18 to 49 years old.

“Comedies have great demographics,” Christian said. “I think another reason you’re seeing comedy making a comeback is that it’s cheaper and less risky than, say, a big fantasy drama. And the half-hour comedy sells better in syndication, an important revenue stream that the networks sort of lost sight of.”

That’s pretty much common wisdom, but before the interview I did a quick check at TVbytheNumbers and looked at the top scripted shows for CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC. Sure enough, for nearly all the networks, especially struggling NBC, comedy delivered the highest 18-49 ratings (TVbytheNumbers’ nifty Renew/Cancel index ranks shows proportionally based on the network’s own 18-49 ratings).

It isn’t that dramas don’t have good economics too. Dramas might not do well in syndication and cost more money, but they do sell internationally and on DVDs, so the return of the sitcom has more to do with diversifying portfolios.

It’s also true that the 90s and early 00s brought a glut of comedy, particularly urban/ sophisticated comedy. By the time Friends ended, Americans were done and not as high as in the 1990s.

Today, success inspires copying: How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family have all renewed confidence in the genre. On cable, Hot in Cleveland and now Melissa & Joey are bringing in small audiences big enough for the niche networks to feel inspired. I swore Melissa & Joey would fail, but I watched it and it was just fine. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. I wouldn’t be surprised if smaller nets on TVGuide and ABC Family’s level enter the sitcom game. MTV’s apparently pleased with RJ Berger.

But we’re still a long way away from Friends days. Sitcom production is still down, and double-digit 18-49 ratings are like reaching for the moon if you’re not American Idol. The network’s audiences are still aging. Young people seem uninterested in almost everything, save reality shows and maybe Fox’s animated block.

So I’m not sure if the demographics for any particular genre today will inspire an all out frenzy in Hollywood. TV channels went for serialized dramas in 2000s because they were new, shiny, and brought in wealthy, early-adopter audiences. But the market is increasingly diffuse, and with more and more cable networks entering the scripted content game. Blockbusters are hard to come by. Fifteen years ago, Glee could’ve been canceled in its first season; now it’s a top player.

Instead, it seems we’ll simply get a vast array of different kinds of shows as every channel hedges their bets. The rise in the sitcoms may just be the networks covering their bases. We shall see!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.