There’s an old showbiz axiom that states: Dying may be hard, but comedy is harder. Nowhere is that more true these days than on prime-time TV, where sitcoms are losing ground to drama and reality shows.
Coinciding with the recent demise of such marquee television comedies as “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City,” one of the more notable trends in programming unveiled by the major networks on Madison Avenue this week is the growing scarcity of situation comedies compared to years past.
The upcoming fall lineup of the Big Four broadcasters — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — boasts 26 comedies combined, down from 35 a year ago. Even junior networks UPN and the WB are going lighter on laughs.
Enduring as a small-screen staple for 50 years, the sitcom accounted for seven of the top 10 shows a decade ago. This season, there were only two in the top 10 — “Friends,” which just ended its 10-year NBC run, and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which is returning for a ninth and final season on CBS. So far, nothing has really emerged to replace them.
“It’s been a rough time for sitcoms,” CBS President Leslie Moonves acknowledged this week during his network’s “upfront” presentation to advertisers. “They’re not as successful as reality or dramas.”
Mass audiences, especially young, upscale adults most coveted by advertisers, are flocking to cop and courtroom franchises such as “CSI” and “Law & Order,” as well as to unscripted, high-concept hits like “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”
“It is worth noting that reality, in some respects, does play as comedy,” NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker suggested this week.
Sitcoms and the vanishing rerunsThe sitcom slump in turn is related to another big change sweeping the U.S. television landscape — the vanishing rerun.
With the approach of the 2004-05 season, networks are shying away from repeats in favor of more original programming as they seek to stem the defection of viewers from broadcast to cable. The decline of comedies, which have always played better in reruns than serialized dramas and closed-ended reality formats, is a big part of that equation.
Networks also are making way for limited-run dramas that can plug short-term gaps in their schedules while serving as trial runs for full-fledged series. That strategy further curtails the need for reruns and squeezes out comedies.
Whether the sitcom is headed the way of the buffalo, like the once-popular TV western, or is merely undergoing a temporary dip in its manifest destiny, network executives and media critics say evolving viewer tastes play a big role.
“Particularly for the younger generation, the traditional sitcom seems kind of corny,” said TV Guide senior correspondent Bruce Fretts. “It’s like the variety show, in a way. It just kind of died out because the format seemed old-fashioned.”
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly dismissed the notion that the sitcom was on the verge of extinction, but said getting a good comedy off the ground is more challenging in today’s crowded media marketplace.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft.)
“A well-executed sitcom with the right sensibility and talent out front still works like a charm,” Reilly said, adding the caveat that mass audiences are tough to cultivate. “It is certainly harder than ever to find that comedic voice that rings true for a housewife in Des Moines and a young hipster in the East Village,” he said.
Former “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer expressed rueful pessimism about the immediate future of TV comedies.
“Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on what your opinion is, audiences are responding to people behaving badly, and as long as people find that entertaining, there will be no room for sitcoms,” he said.
But Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, was more upbeat.
“The sitcom is perfect for the kind of inattentive viewing that we do most of the time with television, and there’s a demand for them out there,” he said. “Sitcoms have the survivability of cockroaches.”