Inside 'Modern Family's' Billion-Dollar Winning Formula and How Season 4 Might Change Everything

9:00 AM PST 09/19/2012 by Lacey Rose
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Art Streiber

The cast and creators of TV's biggest scripted hit, which recently saw a high-profile salary negotiation and has one of the least conventional writers rooms in the business, tell THR about holding onto viewers' interest and the upcoming plot changes that could cost them their ratings crown.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Always look people in the eye -- unless they're blind. In that case, look their dog in the eye." Ty Burrell's character, Phil Dunphy, is flipping through the pages of a homemade book of wisdom titled Phil's-osophy that he plans to share with daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) before she heads off to college. "If you get stopped for speeding, tell the policeman your spouse has diarrhea," Burrell continues, flashing his signature smirk of childlike confidence as a cadre of producers hover over a bank of screens cackling. "Phil's-osophy," he adds with a nod.

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It's a funny scene, part of Modern Family's upcoming season being filmed Aug. 13 on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. But Dunphy's wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), struggles with the next line: "I want a Phil-vorce."

It doesn't sit right with the actress. "It's too mean," Bowen announces somewhat sheepishly as co-creator Steve Levitan makes his way to the set to tweak it for her. The episode's co-author Dan O'Shannon later will acknowledge that there had been a debate over the line in the writers room, with some believing the mere suggestion of divorce among the tight-knit Dunphy-Pritchett family might be off brand for television's top-rated comedy. Levitan suggests an alternative: Claire simply will stare at her husband without uttering a word. Everyone approves, and the director calls for another take.

Bowen now is noticeably more comfortable in her delivery, and viewers will be too. About 13.3 million of them tune in to Modern Family each week to see a comedy that is, at its core, extremely uplifting. Eye rolls and bickering are featured plenty, but the series ultimately is about a blended family that -- gasp! -- really likes one another. "In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of cynicism in comedy, especially in network sitcoms, where you had a lot of people trying to out-snark each other. I think the time was right for a show like this to come in and be the antidote to that snarkiness," says executive producer Danny Zuker of the show's sweetness, which serves as its secret weapon.

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The tone -- plus a pitch-perfect, multigenerational ensemble of actors and an ability to present such themes as homosexuality, adoption and nontraditional families in the context of relationships rather than archetypes -- has earned the series the rare combination of class and mass, with such diverse fans as CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, sitcom legend Norman Lear, the Obamas and the Romneys agreeing on one thing: They really enjoy it. So much so that Modern Family has grown its audience in each of its three seasons on the air, rounding out the third as TV's number-one scripted series and the top comedy in the key adults demo. At the same time, the show has won the outstanding comedy series Emmy two years in a row. And, unless those proverbial pigs fly, it likely will win a third Sept. 23. (All six adults are nominated in the supporting actor category, too.) On top of all this, Modern raked in $164 million in spot ad revenue in 2011, making it the second-most-lucrative comedy behind only Two and a Half Men, according to Kantar Media, thanks to its appeal among younger, affluent and highly educated viewers.

The commercial success of the series -- sources suggest it's a $1 billion asset for producer 20th TV and network ABC -- is even more surprising considering the situation comedy was considered all but dead before it premiered in 2009. "This really is the show that reinvigorated the genre," notes 20th TV chairman Dana Walden. Adds fellow chairman Gary Newman: "It just seemed America was ready to embrace a comedy. Whether that was a sociological factor based on people going through a recession, it took on a life of its own."

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That success begat friction this summer as the adult cast -- Burrell, Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O'Neill, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara -- sued 20th TV in a heated all-for-one, one-for-all salary renegotiation. After a series of nasty headlines and a canceled table read, the actors reached deals in a matter of days (proof of the ensemble cast's power) that will pay them about $170,000 an episode for the fourth season, which begins Sept. 26, plus a small cut of the show's backend profits that could be worth millions. Salaries will escalate to about $350,000 an episode in the show's eighth season. (The kids got raises, too.) "It was a distraction more than anything, and I think the cast feels the same way," co-creator Christopher Lloyd, 52, said at the time. "Now other people can go on with the numbers, and we'll go on with the letters."

But after three years of nearly unanimous praise, the inevitable, existential fear of backlash looms as the show's cast and creators introduce key changes, including a baby for Vergara and storylines involving maturing kids. "It would kill me if I heard people say, 'That show has really gone downhill' or 'I'm just not interested anymore,' " confesses Levitan, 50, who says it's that concern that pushes the 13-member writing staff to work harder. "When moments come up where we feel like a story beat or a joke feels a bit familiar, we keep going because we're not going to give the cynics anything to grab onto."

Lloyd is equally determined to stay on top. "We're incredibly grateful for the attention we've gotten already," he says. "We're also incredibly greedy for more."

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