TV Comedy's Sad Decline: 'A State of Emergency'

"This season is going to go down in history," bemoans one rep as the ratio of hits to flops shrinks and audiences ignore new shows in favor of more "urgent" dramas
CBS
'The Millers'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

CBS' decision to call it quits on a struggling comedy came as little surprise. But word of the network canceling sophomore The Millers on Nov. 14 had many in the industry wondering if there had been a mistake: CBS meant low-rated newcomer The McCarthys, right?

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Millers stars Will Arnett and Sean Hayes were similarly surprised, having spent several hours earlier that day doling out interviews about the show to international press. But the unconventional decision to cancel a comedy four episodes into its second season was no mistake. After being moved out from behind juggernaut The Big Bang Theory, the CBS TV Studios-owned show's ratings had plummeted 33 percent — and the syndication prospects slid with them. "Middling shows owned by a vertically oriented studio/network are not going to last," says one top agent. "If you don't think there's a syndication sale after four years, why produce 22 [episodes for four seasons]?"

The retreat is as much a commentary on the larger comedy genre, which has failed to produce a monster breakout hit since Modern Family in 2009 and is 10 weeks into a particularly dismal season. Of this year's new broadcast crop, four of the nine series that have premiered already have been canceled, with two of the remaining entries, Fox's John Mulaney vehicle Mulaney and ABC's Cristela (starring Cristela Alonzo), each hovering around a 1 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic. A recent airing of NBC's A to Z, which was canceled but is burning off its final episodes, generated a 0.6 rating — unheard of for prime time. And prospects look equally grim for midseason, causing at least one network to rethink its choices. (NBC preemptively killed Mission Control and traded the Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was all but destined to be niche, to Netflix before its premiere.)

Studio and network executives surveyed suggest they are still determined to find the next comedy hit, but each acknowledges that the genre's current dry spell is keeping them up at night. "It's a state of emergency," notes one exec, with another top rep adding: "This season is going to go down in history."

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Among the genre's biggest challenges is its innate lack of urgency, the driving force behind hit serialized dramas (see Scandal) and competition reality shows. That dilemma is prompting top execs to ask: How do you make comedy feel like a must-see event? "Broadcast comedies aren't considered appointment TV," notes Sam Armando of media-buying firm SMGx, adding: "Viewers aren't setting their DVRs or searching comedies out on VOD the way that they do for their drama counterparts, [so] you don't see the same bump."

Other obstacles, say insiders, include a dearth of onscreen talent, a heap of derivative offerings and myriad low-commitment distractions for viewers that range from YouTube to Funny or Die. Many execs bemoan the lack of established comedy writers, too, with the current landscape offering few consistent training grounds outside of Chuck Lorre's CBS hits and ABC's Modern Family, where writers are known to pay their dues. Still more complain about the niche appeal of even the most critically favored series, and the fact that the vast majority of comedy writers are drawn to the narrower, if sexier, single-camera format despite what often are middling results. (Take Fox's The Mindy Project, which is averaging a 1.6 rating even counting a full week of DVR playback. It's a sign of the times that Fox ordered six more episodes Nov. 14, a move that would have been inconceivable five years ago.)

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Looking ahead to the 2015-16 season, one potential solution being considered at the networks is a harder lean on those multicamera offerings. What the format lacks in prestige, it makes up for in cost-savings (as much as $1 million per episode), live ratings (proof: The Big Bang Theory) and international and syndication sales. Other execs note an increased focus on proven titles, star vehicles and experimental ideas like NBC's live comedy project from Hayes that has the potential to get noticed. Family-centric projects also are on the rise thanks to fall's lone comedy standout, ABC's Black-ish, which benefitted from a strong point of view and word of mouth, plus a plum lead-in from Modern Family. What likely won't be heavy in the mix are female-skewing romantic comedies, with 2014 bets — A to Z and ABC's Manhattan Love Story and Selfie — among the first series pulled.

"The comedy business is not going away," notes ABC Studios executive vp Patrick Moran, adding, "And the person who can figure out how to reinvent the multicam comedy will be in a very good position this year."

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