Friday, April 13, 2012

Quantifying the Return of the Sitcom

I've gone on record quite a bit over the last seven months or so that this is the "year of the sitcom" and that it's pretty much a no-brainer for every network to increase their comedy presence. It's easy to come up with arguments against (or at least complicating) such expansions on a micro basis. Is a two-hour CBS block on Thursday risking Person of Interest's growth? Does ABC have enough anchor-worthy shows to expand? Can Fox expand with just one strong comedy?

Those are questions that will certainly be considered, but I think ultimately the macro is gonna trump the micro. Or, at least, it should. This post will use my recently introduced A18-49+ number to chronicle the sitcom upswell of the last few years and, I hope, make the case why everyone should be scheduling accordingly. If you follow the industry, I don't think any of the larger ideas will be incredibly new, but hopefully the numbers will be neat!

Before we begin, lemme recommend you read my intro to A18-49+ as well as last week's development of the hit/flop labels (or at least the bottom part where I put all the numbers together). I use these numbers along with the hit/big hit/megahit labels a lot, so you kinda need to at least know my own frame of reference.

As I said in a previous post, it's unfortunate that I only have these numbers for six seasons, but I think it's all we really need. This post is about the genre shifts of the last few years, so we want to start with where they were coming into 2006-07. And we know the last big sea change in primetime before the 18-49+ era that made that happen: the 2004-05 season. That was probably the best development season of the last decade, in which ABC had three legitimate breakout dramas in Desperate Housewives, Lost and midseasoner Grey's Anatomy. Fox also got a game-changing drama by the name of House. CBS ended up doing OK with CSI: NY too. 2004-05 also turned out to be the peak season (or very nearly the peak season) for incumbents like CSI, Law and Order: SVU and CSI: Miami. ER was declining but still a relative monster.

Meanwhile, on the sitcom side, things were deteriorating fast. Friends had just ended, it was the last season for CBS tentpole Everybody Loves Raymond, and the last dregs of ABC's generation of family comedy (According to Jim, George Lopez) were fading fast. Everything was setting up perfectly for primetime scripted TV to become a hugely drama-driven society. And so it was, leading into the beginning of when I've got all these 18-49+ numbers:

2006-08: The Tail End of Drama Dominance

The Once and Future Megahits

Grey's Anatomy House Desperate Housewives Two and a Half Men The Big Bang Theory Modern Family
2006-07 251 212 202 128

2007-08 218 215 204 151 99

In the 2006-07 season, ABC boldly moves Grey's Anatomy to Thursday, where it ascends to its biggest ratings ever and knocks competing CSI down a very noticeable peg. That leaves us with three megahit dramas: Grey's Anatomy (a whooping 251 A18-49+), House (212) and Desperate Housewives (202). CSI (185) is still pretty close to megahit status. Season one of Heroes (164) is a breakout big hit drama. Lost (156) is still a big hit, and CSI: Miami (149) is right there on the verge of big hit-dom. ER (130) and 24 (128) are still legitimate hits.

The biggest sitcom that season? Two and a Half Men at an astoundingly low 128. Below all nine of the above. The phrase "hit sitcom" is almost an oxymoron; only Men and the final season of King of Queens (126) qualify by my 125 standard. The best most networks can hope for is something solid. Fox does OK with animated anchors Family Guy (115) and The Simpsons (114), NBC's on the map with My Name is Earl (102) and ascendant The Office (110), while CBS' How I Met Your Mother (89) buckles down for another year on the bubble.

Then comes the 2007-08 season. The drama megahit triumvirate holds up, as Grey's (218) comes back to earth a bit but still leads House (215) and Desperate (204). Lost (164) and CSI (176) are still big. All's peachy, right?

Appears so, except for this one little thing called the WGA writer's strike, Step One in the return of the sitcom.

Why does this matter? Because the sitcom is much better equipped than the largely serialized dramas to withstand this three-month hiatus in the middle of the season. Grey's Anatomy hit 8.0's in November but is well below 7.0 for most of its spring episodes. House only went below 7.0 once in the fall but never even breaks 6.0 in the spring. Desperate Housewives went into the strike with a 7.3 and is consistently below 6.5 in the spring.

Could just be overall viewing level differences between fall and spring, though, right? Could be. But the sitcoms didn't really take that drop. In fact, the heart was made fonder. Two and a Half Men returns at season high levels. The Office comes back with its second-biggest mark of the season. But the biggest story of all was How I Met Your Mother, a perennial low-3's bubble show in the fall. It moves up to 8:30 and returns with a ridiculous 4.3 demo, then gains another two ticks the next week as Britney Spears guest-stars. It moves off the bubble pretty much for good. Fueled by those big spring results, 2.5 Men (151), The Office (138) and HIMYM (107) all pick up huge steam from an 18-49+ standpoint that season.

More importantly, those post-strike trajectories carry over into the next season. The above sitcoms would keep trending up, even if they're still not Grey's/Desperate/House-sized hits. Meanwhile, the 2008-09 season sees those megahit dramas all take big dives and drop from megahit status. So what's there to replace them? Well, nothing. And that means we've entered...

2008-11: The Scripted Dark Age

The Once and Future Megahits

Grey's Anatomy House Desperate Housewives Two and a Half Men The Big Bang Theory Modern Family
2008-09 192 175 177 171 127
2009-10 173 174 152 177 188 135
2010-11 161 141 136 177 158 174

For three consecutive seasons, broadcast primetime goes without a single scripted show breaking the 200 A18-49+ "megahit" plateau. The megahit triumvirate of the mid-aughts remains pretty strong; both House and Desperate Housewives go another couple years as bonafide "big hits," while Grey's Anatomy keeps inching downward but to this day is a borderline big hit. But their days as landscape-overwhelming shows are over.

Having huge hits is crucial for primetime. But the lack thereof is not the only reason I call this period a dark age. The other important and demoralizing thing about this stretch is that two of the three seasons were basically development disasters. Don't want to spoil too much of the upcoming post on new shows, but 2008-09 really only gave us two long-term solid shows (Castle and The Mentalist), neither of which has really ended up being a hit. And the biggest new scripted show of the wretched 2010-11 season by far was Mike and Molly, now CBS' distant fifth-biggest comedy. That kind of drain on new product creates a lot of depression about the state of primetime and is more important in the bigger picture than the veteran shows' drops. (In other words, veteran shows have been dropping since time immemorial; the real problem is not having something to replace them with.)

That said, there were some key things going on during this period, most of them centered around the least dark year of this age: 2009-10. Fall 2009 debut Glee was really the only bonafide drama hit (even if it'll likely be short-lived as a hit) to come out of the Dark Age, and in the 2010-11 season (174) it was very nearly the top scripted show on TV. Some other dramas ground out some value during this period, like Bones, Criminal Minds and most prominently NCIS, but not even NCIS is near the heights of the mid-aughts drama triumvirate.

I'd say the development of The Big Bang Theory was one of the key steps in the return of the sitcom, but it hasn't had multiple-show ramifications the way some of these other things have. It's just been one really, really good but kinda isolated example. After posting just a 99 A18-49+ in its 2007-08 rookie season, it skyrocketed to 127 in 2008-09, then got moved after Two and a Half Men and in 2009-10 (at a 188) was the top scripted show on TV. But the development of Bang hit a bit of a snag in raw numbers terms as it handed the top scripted honor back to Men in 2010-11 and dropped big in its move to Thursday. And it couldn't create a new success with lead-out $%*! My Dad Says. But it at least gave the network a comedy foothold on a second night. Maybe we could call it Step 1a.

What was a big step? ABC Comedy Wednesday was definitely Step Two in the return of the sitcom. This is so important because of how completely dead in the water ABC was in this genre. In the 2007-08 season, they unfathomably renewed According to Jim (47) and then in 2008-09 they brought back Better Off Ted (59). I loved it, but it was a huge reach for a new show. Except for a brief run of decent ratings from Samantha Who?, which could never gain any traction apart from Dancing with the Stars, solid sitcoms were a relatively distant memory for this net. But Modern Family (135) is a bonafide hit out of nowhere in fall 2009, and it joins The Middle (81) in creating two sitcom anchors for a network that had nothing even remotely close to being an anchor for years. That's a huge deal, and then both shows grow big in season two (The Middle (96) and Modern Family (174) in 2010-11). But even the impact of this is not fully realized immediately, as Cougar Town continues to look worse by comparison after Modern and pretty much all of ABC's comedy development stumbles in 2010-11.

One other important seed is planted. Step Three in the return of the sitcom: Charlie Sheen's meltdown. As it's happening in early 2011, it actually appears this could go in the complete opposite direction and be something of a death blow to the genre. The comedies left behind as Men airs repeat after repeat in spring 2011 sag big-time. More importantly, this throws the fate of Two and a Half Men completely up in the air. We're talking about TV's biggest sitcom almost every year since its former lead-in Everybody Loves Raymond left the air.  But the doomsday scenario does not come to pass. Instead...

2011-12: A New Megahit Triumvirate

The Once and Future Megahits

Grey's Anatomy House Desperate Housewives Two and a Half Men The Big Bang Theory Modern Family
2011-12 151 107 116 210 210 214

...Ashton Kutcher signs up for Two and a Half Men and the show posts unimaginably high numbers in Kutcher's premiere, including the biggest A18-49 numbers for a scripted program since Grey's Anatomy in 2007 and for a sitcom since Raymond in 2005. And we're not talking A18-49+ here either. Raw numbers. A 10.7 demo.

The funny thing here is that history probably won't look back on the Men boost as the real story. Yes, those early numbers have lifted the overall average for Two and a Half Men (210) so much that it achieved megahit status for the first time in its nine seasons. But that will probably be short-lived, as the show has shed more than 60% of that premiere audience and was actually down year-to-year in the last few eligible comparisons (before the 2010-11 run ran out of episodes due to the meltdown). The real story will be the boosts for everything else. How I Met Your Mother (172) this season has been almost as big in + as Men ever was previously. 2 Broke Girls (180), which launched after Men on premiere Monday to the biggest sitcom premiere numbers in a decade, looks like it'll be the biggest rookie scripted series in A18-49+ since (I'm guessing) Desperate Housewives, but certainly bigger than anything in my A18-49+ data. Bigger than Heroes! It feels potentially poised to take Men's place in the megahit triumvirate next season. And maybe full-time Men lead-out Mike and Molly (158) is a "timeslot hit," but really it's a "timeslot big hit."

@aplusk alone does not a comedy resurgence make. The other two pieces of a new generation of megahit come elsewhere. First, CBS also gets stronger on Thursday, with The Big Bang Theory (210) benefiting massively from its 3,000 hours per week of reruns on TBS. It's regularly up about 30% year-to-year nowadays.  

Modern Family (214) has also taken the next step to megahit status and manages to hold off a strong-finishing Big Bang and Men for top scripted honors this season (though I think Bang is Truly stronger). Also on ABC, The Middle (110) keeps ticking up, and ABC seems to have finally found a couple more legitimately solid pieces in Suburgatory (110) and Last Man Standing (102). An interesting note here is that as with Big Bang, ABC has still never really developed any kind of meaningful hit airing right after Modern Family. If that happens: watch out.

Fox, basically unmentioned in this piece to date from a live-action standpoint, put themselves back in the sitcom game this season for practically the first time since Malcolm in the Middle on the back of one hit, New Girl (137). They've gotta be regretting their decision to completely half-ass their midseason 4-sitcom block with all this other sitcom ascendancy going on, leaning on a complete dud from last year (Breaking In) and a pretty bad multicamera newbie (I Hate My Teenage Daughter). But, as with ABC two years ago, they've created a building block out of basically nothing and also an OK secondary option in Raising Hope (92). Good start. Perhaps next year we'll look back on New Girl's launch as the fourth big step in the return of the sitcom. But we're not there yet.

The only bad comedy year was had by (you guessed it!) NBC, where a post-Steve Carell The Office (117) has dropped considerably from its consistent 140's level in the Dark Age and brought all boats down with it. Still, it's their biggest scripted show by a mile, because their drama presence is far more pathetic. And until Voice-fueled Smash came along, they could say that Whitney (79) and Up All Night (79) were vastly outperforming their complete dud new dramas. Even on this disaster network, the comedies are less disastrous.

What's It All Mean?

The moral of this very long story is (SURPRISE!) everyone should be adding more sitcom hours. These categories are cyclical across the history of TV, and right now, sitcoms are trending up big time. In 2006-07, nine dramas ranked ahead of the strongest sitcom in adults 18-49. Five years later, five sitcoms will comfortably outrate the biggest drama. They haven't been this strong in the relative landscape since at least when Friends was still around. When dramas surged back in the first half of the aughts, network schedules adjusted and loaded up on dramas. It's time for these still fairly mid-aughts schedules to adjust back. Most of these networks have expanded only a little bit from their lowest points during the drama boom. Bottom line: they need to adjust back, almost regardless of how risky it may seem right now. Practically every network has more depth and strength in the comedy realm right now, so why continue to dedicate, in some cases, well over three times as much air time to the drama?

I guess this is a matter of personal taste, but maybe broadcast is just better equipped to make sitcoms than dramas right now. I'm sure a "real" TV critic can tackle (and probably has tackled) that better than I can on the content side. All I can say is that almost all of my favorite dramas are on cable, and almost all my favorite comedies are on broadcast. I think that's there in the ratings too, though. Despite all the talk about cable overtaking broadcast, cable still hasn't really developed a big hit sitcom.

The Quick Version

OK, so this is approaching 3,000 words, and I (and maybe even you?) will want an easy way to refer back to this and look things up. So here are the key takeaways.

First, the three big steps in the ascent of the sitcom:

1. WGA writer's strike (2007-08)
2. ABC Comedy Wednesday (2009)
3. Charlie Sheen's meltdown (2011)

And here's the full table that I included in chunks above. I'll throw in one more table with the biggest comedy/drama of each year, and I think those combined illustrate pretty well the fairly reliable drama decline/sitcom ascent trajectory.

The Once and Future Megahits

Grey's Anatomy House Desperate Housewives Two and a Half Men The Big Bang Theory Modern Family
2006-07 251 212 202 128

2007-08 218 215 204 151 99
2008-09 192 175 177 171 127
2009-10 173 174 152 177 188 135
2010-11 161 141 136 177 158 174
2011-12 151 107 116 210 210 214

Biggest Drama Biggest Comedy
2006-07 Grey's Anatomy (251) Two and a Half Men (128)
2007-08 Grey's Anatomy (218) Two and a Half Men (151)
2008-09 Grey's Anatomy (192) Two and a Half Men (171)
2009-10 House (174) The Big Bang Theory (188)
2010-11 Glee (174) Two and a Half Men (177)
2011-12 NCIS (159) Modern Family (214)

I actually meant to include unscripted TV within this post, but early on it became clear that was far too ambitious for one post. So next week, we look at the evolution of broadcast reality TV over the last six years!


Spot said...

My first time commenting...

Outstanding work! I especially like how rational your analysis is, no "dramas have breathed their last!" panic. TV is cyclical, and it's great to see someone who finally understands this!

Spot said...

Thanks, Liz! I agree, but I will say that I think broadcast dramas have a problem with the content restrictions that will be tough to overcome relative to cable.

Spot said...

Excellent post!

I think that, if The Big Bang Theory move to 9pm next year, we will see even more stellar numbers, and it will almost guaranteed be top program for next year.
I expect growing to 17-18 million viewers and above 6.0 in the demo.
I hope CBS realized the power of TBBT with yesterday's numbers.

As for other two megahit sitcoms, I expect Two and a Half Men to be around 4's next season, similar ratings like 2009/10, and CBS should immediately move 2 Broke Girls to 9:30pm to prepare it for next 9pm anchor.

About Modern Family, I don't know what to say about it, but I don't expect growing next season, perhaps it will post similar ratings like this season.

Greetings from Macedonia, you have faintful reader from there. :)

Spot said...

Wow, a complete analysis of the trend that broadcast tv is showing through these few years. I think you should be hired by some network cause you definitely do this for a living. Great Job.

Spot said...

Definitely should do this*

Spot said...

Great read! Who knows what the television landscape will look like 6 years from now!

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