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Where has the Comedy Genre Gone?

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Written By

October 29th, 2007

And Then There Was One

Seinfeld CastTen years ago Seinfeld was in its last season.  The primetime television landscape has changed dramatically since then. Some of the  ratings losses can be attributed to more choices.  DVDs weren't available yet.  The Internet was just heading into mass adoption mode. There were no DVRs and there were fewer choices on cable.  Video games were already very popular, but not at the levels they now are. 

How much did these factors contribute to the shifts in programming where comedy is not nearly as popular as it once was?  In the 1997-1998 season, three out of the top four shows were 30 minute sitcoms, including the #1 SeinfeldSeven out of the top twenty shows (actually 21) were sitcoms:

1997 to 1998 Top 20 Prime Time Shows

RANK PROGRAM NETWORK HOUSEHOLD RATING SHARE
1 Seinfeld NBC 22.0 33
2 E.R. NBC 20.7 34
3 Veronicas Closet NBC 16.8 26
4 Friends NBC 16.4 27
5 NFL Monday Night Football ABC 15.0 26
6 Touched By An Angel CBS 14.4 22
7 60 Minutes CBS 13.9 24
8 Union Square NBC 13.6 21
9 CBS Sunday Movie CBS 13.3 21
10 Frasier NBC 12.0 18
10 Home Improvement ABC 12.0 18
10 Just Shoot Me NBC 12.0 19
13 Dateline NBCTues NBC 11.5 20
13 NFL Monday Showcase ABC 11.5 18
15 Dateline NBCMon NBC 11.4 19
16 Drew Carey Show ABC 11.1 17
16 Fox NFL Sunday Post (MN) FOX 11.1 18
18 20/20 ABC 10.9 20
19 NYPD Blue ABC 10.8 18
19 Primetime Live ABC 10.8 18
19 X-Files FOX 10.8 16

Now things are different.  Recently, there's been only one consistent sitcom in the Top 20 broadcast shows  Two and a Half Men and it was the only sitcom to make the Top 20 for the 2006-2007 season or the 2005-2006 season.   We have to go back to the 2004-2005 season to have more than one, Two and a Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond.   The good news is that ABC's Samantha Who? has breathed some life into the genre, joining Two and a Half Men in the Top 20 broadcast shows 

We have to go all the way back to the 2003-2004 season and Friends for the last top 5 (tied for #3) appearance in the list by a sitcom.  It was also the last time there were more than three sitcoms on the list.  Two and Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond and Will and Grace joined Friends.

The reason I love 30 Rock and The Office as much as I do is the large and diverse ensemble casts.   Two and a Half Men is a good show - if I'm on a plane and it comes on, it's a nice enough way to pass the time.  But it's like Macaroni and Cheese. I enjoy it when it's in front of me and find it very comfortable.  But I don't seek it out often.  I'm not sure that's good news for the shows I do seek out though.

Two and a Half Men is milk toast, whereas 30 Rock and The Office can be more abrasive in poking fun at things that the masses may not be comfortable with. On a total viewers basis, it seems like the masses prefer milk toast since the shows I watch don't crack into the top 20 and the milk toast does.

The truth is by the 1997-1998 season, things were already trending down for comedies.  During the 1991-1992 season seven of the top ten and fourteen of the top 20 shows were sitcoms.  During the mid 80s and all through the 1990s, comedies were strong. Now, we have just Two and a Half Men in the top 20.  What happened?

I have a couple of theories on this but they all fall into merely thinking out loud:

  • Fewer "younger" people (whether it's under 55, 50, or 35) watching TV, combined with a higher % of "younger" female viewers making 60 minute dramas more appealing than 30 minute sitcoms in general
  • Rise of popularity of  the "Contest" genre (Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Deal or No Deal, Dancing with the Stars and of course, American Idol) and the Reality genre. Almost all of these shows fare (much) better ratings-wise than comedies, and they're less expensive to produce. They last an hour and some run multiple times a week.

Why do you think the comedy genre is so challenged these days?

 
  • http://yahoo.com Eva G.

    All the reasons you produced in your “editorial?” are right on, but especially the fact that sitcoms aren’t about frindships, especially romantic relationships anymore. Samantha Who? is doing really good, because it’s about just that, the friendships & relationships this over-the-top woman has is GOLD! Girlfriends and The Game on the CW are great, but aren’t marketed to a “universal” audience, because the ensemble is black. It’s a shame for the other networks to shy away from main characters being other than white.

  • http://yahoo.com Eva G.

    All the reasons you produced in your “editorial?” are right on, but especially the fact that sitcoms aren't about frindships, especially romantic relationships anymore. Samantha Who? is doing really good, because it's about just that, the friendships & relationships this over-the-top woman has is GOLD! Girlfriends and The Game on the CW are great, but aren't marketed to a “universal” audience, because the ensemble is black. It's a shame for the other networks to shy away from main characters being other than white.

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