6 reasons why comedies are failing on network TV

Big bang theoryMichael Yarnish/Warner Bros.CBS’s ‘Big Bang Theory’ is the highest-rated comedy on TV.

The struggle for successful network TV comedies is real.

TV has been a black hole for successful comedies for at least two seasons now. In the fall 2014-2015 season, “Black-Ish” was the only freshman comedy to survive. Earlier this year, NBC canceled all of its comedies but one (keeping “Undateable” if it shot only live shows). And this fall, the Peacock Network will air only one-hour of comedies — something it hasn’t done since 1978.

CBS and Fox have had similarly hard times with cancellations for low-rated freshman comedies, such as “Mulaney” and “The McCarthys,” as well as three-season vet, “The Mindy Project.”

“There’s a lot of buzz about the [hardships for scripted comedies] and I think it’s pretty undeniably an accurate assessment,” the Paley Center for Media’s television curator, David Bushman, told Business Insider.

So, what’s going on? The experts we spoke to say that there are several reasons why network comedies are suffering. Here are six reasons:

The Cosby ShowYouTube‘The Cosby Show’ aired on NBC for eight seasons.

1.) It’s just isn’t their time.

“Certainly one argument is that there’s a cyclical nature to television and that this is not the first time that sitcoms have been in this position,” Bushman said. “Everybody talks about how ‘The Cosby Show’ rescued sitcoms back in the ’80s… “The Cosby Show’s” first year at No. 1 was ’85, and if you look at the Top 10 in ’84 there’s one sitcom in the Top 10, which was ‘Family Ties.’ Everything else is a drama. So the year before that, the same thing.”

Seinfeld2NBC‘Seinfeld’ aired on NBC for nine seasons.

2.) Networks aren’t giving comedies enough time to find their creative sea legs.

“Some of the most successful sitcoms in history, shows like ‘Seinfeld,’ and ‘Cheers,’ and many others took a while to evolve both creatively and commercially to the point where they became successes,” Bushman pointed out. “And, I think certainly we are in a much less patient age now than we were then, and I think there is something to the argument that comedy may take a longer time to find its flow.”

Veep mike 2HBO/’Veep’Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won three Emmys for ‘Veep.’

3.) Targeting broad audiences is getting harder and harder for today’s viewers.

“I think it’s generational in a lot of ways,” Bushman said. “I think when you look at cable you see a lot of comedies that are generally edgier and successful enough to be renewed year after year. Now again, they’re not ‘Modern Family’ and they’re not ‘Big Bang,’ but they must be doing well enough for their networks because they’re going on like their fifth, sixth seasons. I’m talking about shows like ‘Louie’ or ‘Veep,’ ‘Broad City’ now has become very popular. These shows are successful for their networks, for their platforms. ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ was just renewed for a second season at Netflix and NBC wouldn’t even put it on the air because they saw that they had nothing to surround it with.”

Friends nbcNBC‘Friends’ spanned 10 seasons on NBC.

4.) Hollywood’s need to copy successful shows makes for bad copies.

“There was this whole time where the whole urban sitcom that NBC was pioneering back in the day when they had ‘Mad About You’ and ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ … so every network was trying to do it. But the problem is it wasn’t working and it wasn’t working because a lot of it is not about formula. It doesn’t matter whether the show is about a family or a workplace or whatever. If it’s not well written and well cast then it’s not going to succeed no matter what formula you’re tapping into.

Sean Hayes The Millers CBSCBS‘The Millers’ was canceled in its second season at CBS.

5.) Stars don’t automatically make a hit sitcom.
“It helps to have somebody who has a following, because that’s a built in audience that at least is going to give it a try, but it’s not enough,” Bushman said. “If the show is not funny, if the characters are not endearing, if you’re not compelled to come back because of the content of a show then it’s not going to work, and we’ve seen that.”

“I’m not making judgement on the shows, but the viewers did,” he continued, pointing at failed shows with big stars such as Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller’s “The Crazy Ones” and Sean Hayes’ “The Millers” for CBS, NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show,” and “Mulaney” at Fox.

This fall, we’ll find sitcoms with well known leads like Rob Lowe, John Stamos, Jane Lynch, and Ken Jeong.

Chrisley knows best usaUSATodd Chrisley, center, will go to great lengths to keep his children on the straight and narrow.

6.) The definition of comedy has become blurred.

Once again, the networks are just catching up with what cable already knew: Comedy can be found in a lot of different forms. For example, USA calls its family show, “Chrisley Knows Best,” a comedy. Others have found comedy in game shows and in one-hour dramedies like Lifetime’s “Devious Maids.” NBC may be on to something with its upcoming Neil Patrick Harris variety show, “Best Time Ever.”

“You’re seeing kids who have grown up on YouTube content and pranks and laughing at things that are maybe in a different form for them,” former MTV programming president and founder of production studio, DiGa, told BI.

“I guess when you think about it, things like ‘Jackass’ is a comedy. You think about ‘Impractical Jokers.’ These are probably the things that a lot of people are defining as the comedy that they’re watching and I think that stuff is actually growing and growing an audience and working for people, so I think for me when I look at comedy across all the networks I don’t necessarily think comedy is down.”

With all these factors working against them, Bushman said that innovation may be the genre’s saving grace.

“There’s not a lot that’s new in terms of sitcoms on,” he said. “The really interesting one to me is that NBC is going live with ‘Undateable.’ You must readjust or adapt to a changing landscape, one thing that you need to do is be innovative, and try new things, and somehow stand out from the crowd, and I think that no matter what happens to ‘Undateable’ that NBC deserves a tremendous amount of credit for trying.”

“Like anything it’s cyclical,” DiSanto said. “Somebody will break through with something that’s going to be loud and cut through and sort of reinvent the model.”

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