Fall TV 2016: The rise and fall of 2 types of comedies
Live-action comedies will be more prevalent on broadcast TV this season than they were in 2015-16: Thirty-six shows are scheduled to air in 2016-17, up from 31 last season.
The number of family comedies (17 this season vs. 15 last year) and workplace shows (fie, the same as last year) are pretty stable. You can attribute nearly all of the growth to just one kind of comedy: The high-concept, set-up-a-crazy-premise-then-hijinks ensue kind of show. You’ll see shows about a woman’s childhood imaginary friend who comes back into her life. About a dog who verbalizes his thoughts about his owner. And about a cartoon warrior trying to get to know his live-action ex-wife and son. (See the full list here.)
As those kinds of comedies increase their footprint, another once-dominant type of show seems to be on the wane. Hangout shows — think “Friends” or “The Big Bang Theory” — will only have three representatives on the air this season, despite the continued success of “Big Bang.”
That’s particularly surprising considering how prevalent that type of show has been in the past 20 years or so. “Seinfeld” and “Friends” caused a boom in the hangout show — whose characters choose to be together, as opposed to being family members or co-workers — that lasted, basically, until now. Here’s how the two types have stacked up at various points in the past two decades.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, the networks were chasing (and mostly falling well short of) a couple of monster hits. The execution may have been off, but the impulse was understandable. It’s harder to tell what to make of the explosion of high-concept comedies this season, beyond some unquantifiable executive-level desire to “make noise” — because the business case isn’t entirely there.
In the Peak TV, 400-scripted-shows era in which we currently reside, the received wisdom is that shows must grab viewers right away, pin those viewers to their seats and, preferably, smack them around a little so they feel no choice but to keep watching. Hangout shows, by their nature, are pretty much the opposite of that.
“The Big Bang Theory” has improved exponentially since its pilot episode, but in 2007 CBS had the luxury of letting the show draft off a decent lead-in while it grew into itself the audience got to know its characters.
That scenario is a lot less likely to happen now, which could explain why the number of theoretically noisy concept comedies has doubled this season. A show about a talking dog is, if nothing else, a rarity in network primetime. Maybe that will be enough to entice people to watch?
Or maybe not. Concept comedies were the lowest-rated group of shows among the 17 kinds of series on the broadcast networks last year. Even removing The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” from the mix only moves the category up to second from last; “Angel from Hell,” “The Last Man on Earth” and “Galavant” averaged a combined 1.04 same-day rating in adults 18-49 last season.
To be fair, aside from “The Big Bang Theory” hangout comedies didn’t fare any better. As a group they averaged a 1.71, but if you remove “Big Bang,” the remaining five shows managed only a 1.0 average.
For now, networks are hoping that off-kilter premises will result in tune-in. That may not be what the numbers say, but with family shows possibly reaching a saturation point, it’s what they’re running with now.