Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Shows that work in syndication and shows that don't

Okay, this is my theory. And it's based on no empirical facts. Zero research. Not one shred of supporting evidence. So needless to say, I feel very confident about it.

It is my contention that people watch first-run television differently than when they watch reruns on cable channels. And as such, shows that play well in one instance play less well in the other.

Example: Serialized dramas. You eat ‘em up the first time. But once you’ve seen ‘em – "Next?"  LOST has not done well in syndication. Neither has THE SOPRANOS. You watch, you binge, you’re done.

On the other hand, shows like LAW & ORDER and NCIS, they’re ideal for late night viewing. Video nightlights. They’re self-contained. Not so complicated that you have to pay strict attention. And you can see them again and again. There are a lot of people who have seen the first forty-five minutes of 200 episodes of LAW & ORDER but have never seen an ending because they fall asleep. So the episodes will be forever new. Genius!

On the comedy side – first a disclaimer. I LOVE LUCY and MASH are anomalies and in a category all their own. They adhere to no rules. They are special, unique, beloved, and will continue to be attract large audiences as long as there are flickering images on a screen of any size. I’m talking about the other 99.999999% of sitcoms.

My sense is that multi-camera shows play better in syndication. Why? Because they’re more joke-centric. Compare THE BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY. Both do extremely well in first-run. But BBT performs way better than MF in syndication.

MODERN FAMILY is a wonderful show and worthy of all the Emmys it’s received. But it’s one of those shows you need to pay attention to. There are amusing situations and lots of throwaway lines and moments. Many goodies for those willing to give it the effort. But once you’ve seen an episode of MODERN FAMILY, do you really want to watch it again three or four times?

THE BIG BANG THEORY, and FRIENDS, and SEINFELD, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and GOLDEN GIRLS are shows you can easily re-watch countless times. They’re comfort food. Along the way, you can be reasonably assured of three or four laughs – even if they’re laughs you’ve seen. In fact, in the case of SEINFELD, if you’re like me, you’re thrilled when one of your favorite episodes comes on. I could watch “sponge worthy” and “shrinkage” on an endless loop.

Single camera shows struggle in syndication. 30 ROCK sputtered. SCRUBS never approached the success of FRIENDS.

I think multi-camera shows work better because they’re essentially radio shows. CHEERS was consciously a radio show with visuals. When you have the TV on in the early evening, you’re preparing dinner, checking the mail, catching up on Facebook, drinking heavily, etc. You’re not actually watching the show most of the time. But it’s still easy to follow because it’s very dialogue driven.

And it all goes back to my other completely unsubstantiated theory that people want to laugh. Early evening or late night sitcoms function to provide a little light entertainment, a pleasant diversion. Multi-camera shows work harder to provide laughs.

You may disagree, and I realize I could better defend my position if I had a single morsel of evidence to back me up, but putting aside the inevitable exceptions I stand by my theory. And who knows? There’s even the slight possibility that I’m right.

92 comments:

David J. Loehr said...

Spot on. I think it's why podcasts are catching on as well--they're radio. I happen to like that.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I never watched SEINFELD or 30 ROCK during their first runs, but have seen most of their episodes in syndication. Ditto LAW AND ORDER. If Lennie Briscoe is in the episode, I'm watching. When my daughter was in college she discovered GOLDEN GIRLS in syndication and loved it, yet had never seen an episode during its initial run.

Jim S said...

I also think there's a kind of relatible momentum to multi-camera shows. The people are there, they're real and the stories flow in real time.

I recently saw the Dick Van Dyke episode where Rob stayed up for 100 hours as a radio gimmick and then had to go to Chicago to be interviewed for a job on the Alan Brady Show.

First it was funny. But the jokes kept coming, but were integrated into the fabric of the show, and the laughs were big.

I've noticed in single-camera shows, that many of the laughs are clever, but not really laugh out loud.

Also, Dick Van Dyke can turn on a dime. He was, and probably still is, quite funny. You forget just how good the classics are.

Oat Willie said...

I will never understand why the developmentally-disabled "Saved By the Bell" is so freaking BELOVED.
Bring back "The ABC Movie of the Week"! With the same movies!
Matlock! Matlock!

Anonymous said...

I just want to add that there is another beast and that's animation, which has certain shows that do very well in syndication. I think it fits in with your joke-based premise very well and supports your argument overall. People want to be able to jump in and out with comfort TV, fall asleep to it, vacuum during it, do dishes with it in the background. There are single-camera shows I love more than any multi-camera, but it simply requires a different kind of viewing and I think you make a good point.

Carol said...

I've been watching Friends on Netflix while on my elliptical machine, and I think that totally supports your theory. It's a good attention-distractor so I don't think about how tired I'm getting, and it keeps me amused.

As an aside, am I the only person who just never liked Seinfeld? I'd find it amusing for about 10 minutes then the characters would do something so cringingly stupid, I couldn't stand it, and changed the channel.

Roger Owen Green said...

Carol- for me, Seinfeld stopped being funny about the point of the poisoned envelope.

But L&O I can always watch; the main show I watched when Lenny was on, but in reruns, I'll watch any of them if I'm out of town.

Barry Traylor said...

I loved LOST when it first aired and was intrigued by all the twists and turns but the final episode so infuriated me that even if the show was not a serial storyline I would never watch it again.

David C said...

Don't forget "King of Queens." A very underrated, reliable joke machine. Kevin James, Jerry Stiller, and Patton Oswalt nailed it every week, and the reruns will be around forever.

Ken, you didn't touch on the topical sitcoms. "Murphy Brown" laid an egg in syndication because we didn't want to hear about Dan Quayle anymore. Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing" is a decent Friday night performer for ABC, but in a few years, all the digs at Obama will seem like ancient history.

Dan Ball said...

Hey, I think these theories of yours might just hold some water, Ken. All the examples you provided seemed to be mostly true in my household at least. Series with self-contained episodes and multi-cam seem to work best with us. Although, we can watch probably watch single-cam sitcoms pretty well on Hulu or Netflix. PARKS & REC reruns are okay. On TV when these shows are in syndication, it doesn't seem as enticing because the quality's downgraded a little bit and you have those weird bumpers that say, "PARKS AND RECREATION is brought to you by Preparation H and these other sponsors."

Jeremiah Avery said...

I remember an interview with James Burrows when he said how he liked the shows he worked on to be done in a way that if you're just listening to the show, you can still follow along and laugh.

I also like "Modern Family" but it rarely gets repeat viewing, maybe a 2nd look but that's it. Whereas "The Big Bang Theory", "Seinfeld" and others get a regular rotation from me. When I get home from work, I'd like to unwind with a laugh not just (as you've pointed out several times that some shows tend to do lately) get a little smirk due to catching some reference a show was making.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ken,

Totally agree- however, I think you forgot 2 shows that work well with this theory- How I Met Your Mother & Everybody Loves Raymond. Personally, I have never seen either show on a first run broadcast, and yet, I've seen every episode of the series multiple times on syndication. It just works.

But IMHO the all time king in this category is Seinfeld. I can (and have) watched every episode of it many, many, many times. I will never get sick of "Is anyone here a marine biologist?" and "The sea was angry that day my friends." --LL

Unknown said...

I may be alone in this, but I always thought Night Court was underrated.

Anonymous said...

Disagree about 30 Rock. Love watching random episodes on Netflix which for me is the new syndication. As for serialized dramas, the only one that works for me that way is Breaking Bad. No clue why

RockGolf said...

"There are a lot of people who have seen the first forty-five minutes of 200 episodes of LAW & ORDER but have never seen an ending because they fall asleep."

Or as they call it, LAW.

unkystan said...

Ken, you are 100% correct. I don't understand why networks continue to produce very expensive serialized shows knowing they are virtually worthless in syndication. Law & Orders, CSIs, NCISs etc. will be money machines for years but does anyone watch (or care about) Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, LA Law, etc. in reruns? Give me procedurals anytime, any episode, from any season.

Johnny Walker said...

This is a great observation. I wish I could put my finger on why I don't want to watch an episode of MODERN FAMILY I've already seen before, but I'll happily watch CHEERS, FRASIER or even WINGS again... and I consider them both to be comfort food.

I LOVED BREAKING BAD so much, I bought the whole lot on Bluray... but I've yet to watch them again.

But I am watching THE WIRE again at the moment.

It's very odd. What makes a show rewatchable? Anyone figure it out?

Johnny Walker said...

*both - I meant to say "all".

Curt Alliaume said...

The Brady Bunch was huge in syndication after never being a top 30 network show; Ann B. Davis theorized it was because it was one of the first family sitcoms with all episodes in color.

Norman Lear's shows did not do well in syndication; too topical.

Brian Fies said...

I'm with Johnny Walker: Breaking Bad was one of my favorite TV programs/experiences ever, but I just don't have the energy to look at it again. Maybe someday....

The Big Bang Theory is terrifically rewatchable. What I find interesting is that the characters have evolved enough so that the show has an early, middle and late period (basically "before and after girlfriends") that all have a different feel to them.

I miss all the multi-camera shows I remember in reruns from the 80s and 90s: Barney Miller, WKRP, Taxi--never saw them in first run, probably saw them all a dozen times in syndication.

Among dramas, Star Trek is famously THE breakout syndication star that only caught on big after it was cancelled. Forty years later they're still making 'em.

Terrence Moss said...

"The Jeffersons" and "Good Times" have done very well in syndication.

To your point about "The Brady Bunch", "The Odd Couple" was the same way -- cancellable first-run ratings but great in reruns and syndication.

Wendy said...

Ken, make them syndicate "Almost Perfect" if you have any say so over it. I have only ever seen a few episodes a friend recorded off I think it was USA a long time ago. They are very funny. You should make them show it again. Or make them do dvds.

Stoney said...

Lately I've been hooked on ME-TV's daily afternoon showings of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Corny as all get-out but interesting to see what spawned the whole Superman craze we've seen over the last half-century.

As for the show you could watch over and over again even if you know every episode by heart; TWILIGHT ZONE.

How about THE ODD COUPLE?

Diane D. said...

Even though all of the shows mentioned may be well-written, some are stupendously well written, and that is the biggest factor I think--waiting for those lines that just kill you. I recently heard a line from Cheers that I had forgotten. Diane was quoting Thoreau and said, "Our life is frittered away by detail--simplify, simplify." Woody said, "Then why did he say simplify twice?" Belly laugh every time.

Also, I think the attachment one feels for the characters is a big factor. I remember hearing James Burrows say in an interview that he never believed Diane was not a real person. I felt that way about many of the characters in my favorite shows.

Ane said...

I think it also kind of matters if there's any developments in the show. I was watching some episodes of MF recently where Luke and Manny are about 15 and Lily is about 7.A few days later another episode came on and I immediately got excited. Then I realized it was an old episode and the kids were much younger than in the last episode that I saw. That made me less excited about watching. I mean, stuff changes on BBT and on Friends, too, but the changes do not have a significant impact on the plot. Whether Ross and Rachel have no baby, a tiny baby who's hardly ever on screen or a toddler who's hardly ever on screen... It's just not that important. Whether Sheldon and Amy are holding hands a lot or just a little - meh. The essence of the show remains almost unchanged. In MF, it is literally a whole other story.

B.C. Christiansen said...

This probably isn't normal syndicated TV watching, but I really loved catching up with Arrested Development on cable for the very reason that it required heavy attention that I couldn't really devote the first time around, or tried to but the second, third, and fourth viewings kept paying off as you pick up all the little nuances, running gags, and subtle jokes in addition to the dense plot. I have no idea if it was successful or not (probably not, I think I caught it on IFC and it didn't even last there), but for me it was such a boost!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Diane D: well-written is definitely one part of it.

Ken, it seems to me you're leaving out the impact of all those extra ads syndicators trim the episodes to make room for and also the different standards for shows that originally appeared on, eg, HBO. As much as I hated Kim Cattrall's sex scenes on SEX AND THE CITY it's very hard for me to imagine watching the show stripped for syndication acceptability.

As for serialized drama: one of the pleasures of MAD MEN is that it's really interesting to rewatch with someone from a different generation. Of course, I'll rewatch THE SOPRANOS, too, *and* BREAKING BAD (even if it's just for the scenery!)

wg
Unbelievably, they have found a way to make the captchas even more undecipherable!



Jim, Cheers Fan said...

@ unkystan: A year or so ago one of the 9000 cable channels was re-running LA Law back-to-back, I watched about four minutes and it just looked so painfully dated I couldn't watch it. Just that- the look of it turned me off so much I couldn't even pay attention to the story. And it was appointment TV for me back in the Rosalind Shays days. Weird how habits/reactions can change over twenty (oh god, really?) years.

I personally love 30 Rock in reruns, and I like Modern Family. And the DVD show is awesome. Just last week I got an ear worm of "I am a fine musician" and it was running through my head all day. I think a couple times I was singing it out loud.

Richard Rothrock said...

I never thought "Seinfeld" was funny. It's appeal still mystifies me. They were just a bunch of characters I would not want to hang out with for 5 minutes. Love the cast in other things though.

One show that has gotten funnier for me in syndication is "Friends". I watched it only occasionally in first run but find myself now laughing heartily to jokes I just grinned at before.

And, yes, "Night Court" is horribly underrated.

And "Murphy Brown" is so dated as to be almost unwatchable.

Justin Russo said...

Ken: I think your theory holds true to a point. I have a definitive list of favorite shows I recycle constantly versus those I watch once and don't return to (usually dramas like MadMen and Game of Thrones). Golden Girls; Friends; Lucy; Dick Van Dyke; Futurama; Cheers; Sex and the City; and 30 Rock.

The idea that these shows are comfort food is spot on. I usually put on these shows once home from work and I sit down to paint or relax. For ten years I've been laughing at the same Sophia Petrillo lines too loudly.

However I don't think it comes down to single or multi-cam but whether or not the viewer has watched many of these shows before and has learned the rhythm of the humor and the characters. I've marathoned 30 Rock roughly 30 times and often fall asleep to the show (as I do others on my list) simply because I do know the program so well.

I think your theory partially holds true. Syndication works well if the viewer is familiar with the show. I do think it is not as successful for new viewers however. A show like 30 Rock is driven by joke layering (and personally one of the smartest written shows) and this and its New York-centric humor isn't as easy to digest as something like Friends which is about the chemistry. Ultimately I think it comes down to familiarity and a person's own connection with a program. Just like I would never tune out if "Gone With the Wind" was on TCM, I wouldn't change an episode of 30 Rock.


QUESTION: Last year, NY Magazine's Vulture featured a bracket competition to decide on the Greatest sitcom of the last 30 years. 16 sitcomes faced off from Cosby and the Golden Girls to Friends and 30 Rock. The ultimate challenge pitted The Simpsons with Cheers, the animated show ultimately winning out.

Which sitcoms do you think vie for these titles? How about the recent sitcom that featured the best writing (30 Rock?)?

Les said...

Arrested Development is just so clever and funny that it breaks the rule.

With respect to Sopranos -- are you referring to the cable version where all the cursing was taken out or the HBO reruns. I could not watch the cable version but will always stay with the show on HBO. The cable version is like a porno movie where all the actors stay clothed and still recite their dialogue.

I think Breaking Bad is re-watchable because it is a fixed story about the transformation and death of a man so it has a beginning and ending point - plus the writers were so meticulous that there are always interesting details to glean.

As for Modern Family, what is interesting is I started to watch in syndication and found myself bored. So bored in fact that it turned me off to the first-run episodes as well. I think the problem is that it is simply too contrived and too sweet -- you always know that it will all work out in the absolute most saccharine way possible. In the end, MF is simply the Brady Bunch with better jokes and actual irony.

Bill O said...

USA network admitted MODERN FAMILY reruns underperformed. And Shelley Long's in it, divorced from Al Bundy, and gone quite insane. What about shows that cut their own throats for syndication: THE FUGITIVE cleared, And ST. ElSEWHERE, the whole series a vision of an autistic kid - and by extension so is CHEERS.

Mike Barer said...

Barney Miller, Taxi, Night Court, and Two and A Half Men, all lent themselves well to syndication.

Tommy the "M" said...

My question: what was the biggest exception to the syndication success rule? The Cosby Show had plenty of laughs. Did it stay around in prime time a couple of years too long, and viewers grew weary? And my all time surprise: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So many laughs; so re-watchable (like Seinfeld) for me. But it was banished to 2am very quickly in several big markets. Why do you think that was?

davewillie said...

Going back a bit...All In The Family, Dragnet, and Emergency work in syndication. All episodes are self-contained. Still love those shows!

Pamela Jaye said...

Sad about Scrubs. Also Community.
I only watched Seinfeld when there was a guest I was interested in. I watched Cheers only slightly more and I never made it thru an entire ep of Everybody Loves Raymond.

I loved Ally McBeal to death, but I taped every ep. No need to watch on FX reruns, though Buffy was brand new for me and I needed to catch the first season or two of the Practice. (By November, FX's scheduling reflected this - 2 eps of tP and B, twice daily and Ally was on at 2am)

Eventually bought the Ally DVDs (as soon as I knew they existed) but probably only made it thru first 12 eps.

My DVR has Playlist- so you can load it up and go to sleep to it. My comfort food is Grey's Anatomy. I avoid the sweeps disasters and some storylines I hate (Eric Stoltz/Death Row, George's Dad, Ghost of Denny...). I've heard, as you say, the first 45 minutes, so many times. But the eps need to be just interesting enough to get me to shut off the Output of my mind and Listen. ZZZzzzzzzz...
This might work with Ally - if I had it on the DVR. And could actually watch the whole series again at least once. Seasons 1, 2 & 4 were good...

Pamela Jaye said...

Some shows held on to near 100 reps for syndication but never were syndicated. Why?
The Pretender aired on TNT to the point of at least two follow up movies (mysteries never resolved, just deepened); Chuck? Nowhere.
Why?

canda said...

One of the facts about syndication, at least through recent years, was that the shows that had strong male appeal did well in syndication, since men didn't watch much prime-time TV. More women watch prime time.

Thus, Muphy Brown, Mary Tyler Moore, etc., which were very popular in prime time, were not as successful in syndication.

Shows with male appeal, like Cheers, Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, and Home Improvement,were very successful in syndication. The Cosby Show did well for various reasons, but Bill Cosby was a prime reason. Big Bang Theory is another highly successful show in syndication, and again has male appeal. Obviously, female appeal is important, as you can see with Everybody Loves Raymond, but men need to want to watch it, too, for financial success in syndication. Same is true of King of Queens.

If a show has mainly female appeal, up to now it has not done as well financially in syndication. That could change, of course. Society is always evolving.

Igor said...

Ken, not only is your post today great, but it's inspired (even at this early moment of the daily cycle) a great series of reader posts.

Based on my read of all of the above, it strikes me that one thing distinguishing good from bad rerunnable comedies is this:

In a sense, the good ones end with a punchline (and in Seinfeld, famously, usually with a surprising, outstanding callback). The lesser ones end with a group hug (something that Seinfeld, perhaps not coincidentally, famously banned from its episodes).

(And by "group hug", I'd include even just a single character reflecting on a lesson learned, as with Scrubs. IOW, a moment in which the audience goes, "Ahhhh" rather than laughing one more time.)

Certainly Cheers episodes ended with punchlines, even if sometimes infused with sentiment. And Frasier ends with punchlines, plus a dialogue-free coda-punchline.

And yet, how could my ending-with-a-punchline hypothesis be relevant here, since it seems we all agree the shows we want to rewatch are the shows that we'd want to watch even for just the last half, the first half, or some moments in the middle?

OK, I'm reaching beyond my grasp here, but I'd say...

In order for a show to end brilliantly with a punchline, and also be funny-funny-funny with jokes along the way, it needs a different construct than a comedy that ends with a group hug.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I don't know what that different-construct is. But if anyone can help support or debunk my best-rerunnable-comedies-end-with-a-punchline hypothesis, please do.
 

Jon B. said...

To those who ask "Is it just me?" about not liking "Seinfeld", I say, "No, but that doesn't mean that 'Seinfeld' isn't or shouldn't be hugely popular and beloved (to this day)." The fact that some folks can't stand "Seinfeld" is proof, yet again, that not all tastes are the same.

I can't convince anybody to find something funny that they don't already find funny. Why would I try? But I also try not to quibble with someone who likes a comedy I do not.

I like hearing about others' tastes.

Dan in WNY said...

Your theory sure sounds accurate, but one exception: Two and a Half Men would certainly fill the joke-count quotient, but I just can't look at Charlie Sheen anymore.

blinky said...

Remember that Cosby was the most anticipated and expensive show to go in syndication and it tanked.
The biggest hit ever? Star Trek.

Brownie said...

Barney Miller is on nightly on Antenna TV. WKRP is on Sunday nights, also on Antenna.

MikeN said...

The Wire does well in syndication.

skarab said...

Ken, I don't know how this fits in with your theory, but we watch Modern Family AND Big Bang Theory reruns endlessly, and Law & Order reruns (any of them) are our go-to viewing when nothing else is on.

I'll sometimes resist a MF rerun, but the jokes, characters and relationships get us every time and we end up watching anyway. I adore Eric Stonestreet's brilliant pratfalls and I'm also thrilled that they don't overuse them.

On the other hand, we always liked Seinfeld tons, but we don't watch the reruns at all.

Mike Schryver said...

I was tickled to read that James Burrows said CHEERS was partly intended to be listened to, considering that Abe Burrows wrote for DUFFY'S TAVERN on radio. I've always mentally drawn a line connecting the two shows.

Pizzagod said...

Ken-great post!

Agree totally, first off with everybody who said that the topical stuff got tired fast. Ditto to the stuff where the characters wore VERY stylized clothing (Barney Miller anybody?)

I look back and wonder why my iTunes library is so large-I love Mad Men and Justified and The Shield, but haven't watched them more than once. Leverage...probably 2 or 3 times an episode. The comedies? I've seen every Aqua Teens, Bob's Burgers, Archer and Drawn Together 5-20 times!

LouOCNY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LouOCNY said...

STAR TREK - the ORIGINAL one - passes the 'radio' test with flying colors as well.

Great dialogue

The Ship itself makes a lot of great noise - if we are out in the kitchen, you don't have to see to know the transporter is being used - we know the sound cue. The Enterprise is going at high warp speed - you can hear it. Spock is using his sensors - you can HEAR it.

The 'group hug' applies as well - the hard core Trekkers hate it, but Roddenberry/Coon, etc always made sure there was a little teasing of Mr Spock, Kirk boldly telling Sulu 'ahead Warp Factor 1" - SOME kind of release from what we've been seeing for 50 minutes. This something ALL of the spin offs are missing.

And with I Love Lucy, NOT Heres Lucy or The Lucy Show, no matter what shenanigans Lucy Ricardo has gotten herself or Ricky and Fred and Ethel into, there's almost always a moment where Ricky tells her that he loves her.

Diane D. said...

Very interesting theory, Igor. And as I applied it to the shows I like to watch in reruns, it held up. I loved Scrubs and was surprised to discover I was not interested in watching reruns. That may be why. Like everyone, there are shows that I can watch over and over or even just listen to, like Cheers.

Igor said...

@LouOCNY I see your point about the final moment in each Star Trek and I Love Lucy episode.

But I wouldn't call them "group hugs" - not in a story sense, because they weren't targets the stories were crafted to hit. That is, I love Lucy episodes were not set up so that at the end we'd hear Ricky say, "I love you."

On the other hand, the weekly stories on Scrubs and Modern Family do seem to be aimed at the group-hug moment. In a way, almost like Blue Bloods.

Igor said...

@Diane D.

Thanks. Maybe with a few more Yea votes, Ken will weigh in and tell us (1) if he agrees, and (2) what significance (if any) to the entire episode there is if it's an end-with-a-punchline/not-a-group-hug show.

Diane D. said...

Igor
It would be fascinating to know that; it's fascinating even to contemplate what that "different construct" would be.

VP81955 said...

And my all time surprise: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." So many laughs; so re-watchable (like "Seinfeld") for me. But it was banished to 2am very quickly in several big markets. Why do you think that was?

It may have been "banished," but the "MTM" core night-owl audience was very loyal. In the early '80s, two episodes ran at 1:30 a.m. on WNBC-TV in New York following "The Tonight Show" and "Tomorrow," but early in 1981, after Toni Tennille's talk show flopped in the daytime, it was moved to 1:30, bumping "MTM" deeper into late night. The outcry from fans was such that WNBC had to switch the air times to put Mary back at 1:30.

Marty Fufkin said...

I completely agree, but there's one exception forgotten in the black hole of TV ratings-failures: Watching Ellie. This was Julia Louis-Dreyfus' first show on the tails of Seinfeld, and the first six or so episodes were single cam, and the one of the funniest things I've seen on the tube. I taped it and it rewatched it as I showed it off to friends, and it had staying power. For some reason, it tanked and was re-jigged to multi-cam, and ceased to be funny.

The reason single-cam shows don't hold up isn't because of the style but because they are adhering to a certain storytelling formula. The singale-cam shows today tend to fall into this pseudo-documentary formula. If you took a first-rate multi-cam script and filmed it in single-cam format, there's no reason why it still wouldn't be funny or re-watchable. Watching Ellie had first-rate, sharp comedy writing, and you could tune in half way and still laugh, the way you do with Friends and Big Bang Theory. The only reason I think it tanked was because it was ahead of its time -- a farcical comedy with no laughtrack.

SharoneRosen said...

I loved Seinfeld in first run… just hilarious! But I can't watch the reruns. I see the speeding train heading for the wreck and I just can't ride it all the way to crash… makes me too nervous knowing what disaster waits… go figure.

On the other hand, I could, have and will watch the Dick Van Dyke Show in syndication forever!
(as well as MASH, of course)

Gary said...

Surprised no one has mentioned the ultimate in comfort food reruns, The Andy Griffith Show. A trip back to Mayberry is always relaxing and like seeing old friends -- especially the Barney Fife years.

And how about The Honeymooners? After the 100th viewing of each episode, it still makes me laugh.

Mark said...

In the case of The Brady Bunch, Ann B. Davis was partially right - color helped it at a time when most syndication libraries of family sitcoms were in B&W. But My Three Sons had an all-color syndication package and it wasn't as successful in syndication as the Bradys.

Why? The Brady Bunch was very well cast. The scripts could be silly as hell, but the cast was excellent. The kids weren't stereotypes (the jock, the brain, the airhead, etc.); they were real. They were so natural - seemed like the kids next door. Davis provided good comic relief. And Robert Reed just grounded the whole thing.

Chester said...

@Les said "As for Modern Family, what is interesting is I started to watch in syndication and found myself bored. So bored in fact that it turned me off to the first-run episodes as well. I think the problem is that it is simply too contrived and too sweet -- you always know that it will all work out in the absolute most saccharine way possible. In the end, MF is simply the Brady Bunch with better jokes and actual irony."

That's SOOO true! I was trying to figure out why MF has lost its appeal--at least to me. I knew it was sweet, but you're right... it has elevated to the saccharine level. Just not much of a fan of it anymore. I will still catch the initial showing now and then, but have no interest in seeing it in syndication.

Rob in Toronto said...

Let's be honest, 30 ROCK was never a big ratings success in first-run either; it lasted as long as it did because it attracted a youngish, upscale demographic that seldom watched television and advertisers would pay dearly to reach. Why would it suddenly be expected to succeed in syndication ?

Same thing happened with WILL AND GRACE, which was a much bigger success in first-run but made barely a ripple in syndication.

BJ Wanlund said...

I am no fan of Modern Family, nor of any of these modern one-camera comedies. I'd rather have a multi-camera sitcom over the dreck they have in that field any day of the week. I'm too used to the joke rhythm myself.

Your theory I think holds water Ken.

LouOCNY said...

@Igor -

You are right, Trek doea use 'group hugs' - they are punchlines, dramtic as well as comedic. although they weren't shy about using a little laughter at the end:

"where they'll be no tribble at all"

finding out at the end of "Friday's Child" the newborn leader of Capella IV was named....Leonard James Akaar

and so on..

Owlchum said...

Don't think it's fair to list Scrubs among the likes of Seinfeld, Modern Family, Big Bang etc. Those shows were monsters in their primetime heyday. Scrubs was on the verge of being canceled every year yet thanks to a hard core group of 5 million fans, it persevered. That Scrubs even made it to syndication as an underachiever is a miracle.

Hank Gillette said...

I know it’s heresy, but I find The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy unwatchable. Jackie Gleason always overacted and I find threats of wife-beating to be unfunny.

I actually tried I Love Lucy again recently. Ricky and Lucy were going to be out of town for awhile and found someone who would sublet their apartment for double the rent they were paying. Once Fred and Ethyl found out, they refused to approve the sub-tenant unless the Ricardos split the extra rent money with them. All I could think was “What horrible people! Why are you friends with them?” I know ILL was groundbreaking and a classic, but for me it has not aged well.

John Pearley Huffman said...

I wrote this once in a story for The New York Times. I'm so proud that it harmonizes with Ken Levine's thesis.

"Reruns are comforting. Gilligan always screws up the rescue, Lucy gets smashed on Vitameatavegamin every single time, and no characters on “Seinfeld” remain masters of their domain. At some point it’s not about laughing at all the jokes, it’s the satisfaction of knowing all the jokes."

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/automobiles/autoreviews/consider-it-a-sequel-to-a-hit-from-the-90s.html?_r=0

Patrick said...

What about The Simpsons?? I feel like thats in the MASH/I Love Lucy category.

Benjamin C. said...

I know this is weak, but I have to ask... how do we send a question to Ken? Just here in the comments, or is there a specific email/comment area?

Also, please do not forget about NEWSRADIO. Goofy and sometimes weird, but the first few seasons (with Phil) are always re-watchable.

Sogn said...

I largely agree; I love MODERN FAMILY first-run, but am not eager to see episodes repeated in syndication. For me, there are a few exceptions to the single- vs multi-cam aspect of Ken's thesis, e.g. I can watch ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM episodes any number of times and still literally LOL.

Someone mentioned TWILIGHT ZONE. I've seen them all countless times and never tire of them (well, most of them; there are some awful episodes).

Re SEINFELD, as an example of repeated, reliable laughter a la Ken's shrinkage and sponge-worthy examples, I must have seen "The Library" episode 20-30 times and every time I see the scene with library investigator Mr Bookman (Philip Baker Hall), I laugh heartily. I can't explain things like that. They are magical.

FRASIER and BIG BANG THEORY are other examples of endlessly funny comfort food for me.

I agree with Ken about M*A*S*H, which, increasingly after season 3, is really a dramedy, more than a sitcom. I never tire of repeated viewings, and own the series, enabling me to switch off the insufferable laugh track.

Diane D. said...

Not fair to even talk about Scrubs? It is rarely mentioned on this blog, but I never imagined anyone would consider it so unworthy as to be insulted by the mere mention of the show.
It was unique on many levels, and I can see it being one of those shows you either love or hate, but I (and apparently 5,000,000 others) loved it. The fantasy thoughts played out in J.D.'s head could be sidesplittingly hilarious and I never tired of GIANT DOCTOR.
I just wasn't interested in watching reruns and was puzzled by that. I thought Igor might have a good theory about why I don't like reruns of many shows. Ken, of course, had great thoughts on it as well. It's fun to think about it.

Diane D. said...

The above was supposed to be addressed to Owlchum.

Diane D. said...

BTW, would anyone else be willing to give their opinion of Scrubs? I'd be very curious.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Hey, I just wrote an entry for the comments and it disappeared!

McAlvie said...

Not disagreeing. But I will add that I think shows do better in syndication if they also have a smallish cast and not too many settings. Why? Because then the audience doesn't have to sit through several episodes to figure out who everyone is and how they connect. Syndication is the place you go when there's nothing else on tv. And it's saying something that shows like MASH in their 232nd rerun are still preferred over most of what's on the air today. Anyway, any show that you can drop into at any point in it's run and be comfortable you know what's going on within 5 minutes is going to do well. Modern Family is all about complicated family dynamics, that's the premise. So if you've never seen the show before and you see one old episode sometime mid season, it will be hard to figure out how all these folks are related. It's a great show, and given a good timeslot in syndication, it might still do well for viewers with no interest in reality tv or serial dramas (we used to call them soap operas; they change the setting from a mansion to a courtroom, and suddenly it's a serial drama)

ScottyB said...

@Diane D: I liked 'Scrubs' when it was in syndication, but generally maybe only the first half of the series' run because pregnancies and babies usually ruin sitcoms for me. And eventually for me, with very few exceptions, a series gets pretty tired or starts becoming a parody of itself. I liked 'Scrubs' because it was just ... unusual.

For me, Sarah Chalke was easy on the eyes with a nice caboose even tho her character was neurotic as hell, and Neil Flynn was *always* priceless as the custodian. All in all, the show was just *fun*.

ScottyB said...

For some reason, for me, single-cam sitcoms resonate more in syndication -- mostly for the reasons one of Ken's blog posts covered not too long ago about how single-cam shows generally don't have laugh tracks and let *you* decide what's funny. That's why 'The Middle' is a total gem for me late nights these days, despite the bits of narration, especially "the lesson learned" at the end, which one of Ken's blog posts also addressed not too long ago.

My only consternation with TV stations (I'm talking antenna-TV, not cable) is that they yank all the really *good* sitcoms (i.e. Frasier, New Adventures of Old Christine, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Scrubs) far too soon, but yet endlessly beat to death the procedurals like Criminal Minds and the Law & Order Criminal Intent and SVU franchises.

Hank Gillette said...

Diane D. said...

BTW, would anyone else be willing to give their opinion of Scrubs? I'd be very curious.


I loved Scrubs. I even liked After Scrubs (incidentally, Eliza Coupe got screwed again with cancellation of Benched). But, I have almost never watched it in syndication. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps because I thought J.D. treated Elliot horribly several times and I don’t want to go through that again.

SER said...

Ken cogently summed up all my thoughts about syndication, and now I can preface them with "as Ken Levine noted..."

As for LAW AND ORDER, it's not just a cop and courtroom drama, it's also pretty damn funny, especially when Briscoe or Schiff are in an episode. When I watch an episode I've seen countless times, I find myself doing so for the witty banter ("That jury's got enough reasonable doubt to bottle and sell it...") than for the twists and turns. TNT recently replaced repeats of SMALLVILLE with LAW AND ORDER -- again for the reasons Ken noted.

Speaking of the COSBY SHOW, which I think is very much of its time and just isn't "marathon" or "passive" viewing (both keys to success for syndication), it's interesting that the "anti-Cosby" series MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN is huge in syndication (TBS airs at least 2 hours of it a day). THIS IS NOT A STATEMENT TO ITS OVERALL QUALITY (I feel I have to add this codicil when discussing a polarizing show) but it's an almost 30 year old series.

WILL & GRACE became very "dated" over time == perhaps a better term is "intentionally trendy." Unlike FRIENDS or SEINFELD, I can't think of any "bits" related to it, which I think is a hallmark of classic sitcoms. FRIENDS has "Pivot!" or "I'm going to Yemen!" and SEINFELD has "Yadda yadda yadda" and "sponge-worthy."

Anonymous said...

I'm at a loss to the attraction of Friends re-runs. I like the show initially, but then grew tired of it, this seems like similar sentiments to people's view of Seinfeld.
But one show that my wife and I have watched over and over, and over, is Frazier(according to TCM). Never Saw Golden Girls live, but hae seen them all in syndication multiple times.
I think part of what is shown on TV has to do with costs, Community is/was a great show, never see it in syndication as much as others(Chicago). I would guess it is because of it's lower cost.
Funny someone mentions LA Law being "dated", while Perry Mason re-runs are still going.
Other shows I watched, but can't re-watch in syndication, X-files, Heroes. Current shows that are popular, that I doubt will make it in syndication, Good Wife, Person of Interest, Chicago Fire/PD, but The Mentalist will probably succeed.
Stealing Mark Eveniar's idea, the law and orders should have multiple endings, one they are guilty, others innocent, so the episode will be "new" in syndication.

Anonymous said...

My dad has worked in television programming on a regional level for many years. He says that to this day, the biggest bomb he's seen in syndication in terms of cost per episode relative to ratings performance was LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY. Stations paid record-breaking prices for that show when it was first syndicated in 1981, based on a widespread belief that it was going to be the next I LOVE LUCY. And it just died in reruns, leaving a lot of stations with an extremely expensive dud.

He says the average show, even a successful one, has a shelf life in syndication of five to ten years. Most tend to fade away after that. There aren't that may shows that retain their audience decade after decade. He said when you are aware of how many shows had their moment in syndication but have long since been relegated to the vaults, you start to appreciate what an anomaly something like I LOVE LUCY really is.

Something that interests him is that, despite the large number of broadcast outlets these days, there's still a tendency to rely on a relatively small number of shows. Outfits like MeTV and Antenna TV, for example, both run a lot of oldies, but neither ventures very far from what's safe and well known -- at least to the audiences for those stations.

The biggest change he's seen in syndication since he started in television is that up into the early-mid '80s, success in syndication depended heavily -- not entirely, but heavily -- on kid appeal. There are certainly exceptions to that, but he said that, overall, when you think about the shows that were syndication staples back then, they tended to be shows that kids would gravitate to. The ones they'd watch when they got home from school and plopped down in front of the set. Which was the standard explanation back then for why more sophisticated fare like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW disappointed in reruns. Cable changed that, and it's changed even more since the cable boom.

Johnny Walker said...

Thinking about this more, I wonder if we don't like repeating emotional journeys? Scrubs was often great the first time you viewed it, but there were some very heavy episodes, and I wonder if knowing there was heavy emotional stuff on its way, we instinctively flinch and change the channel.

All of the shows that everyone seems to agree are great to rewatch are low on emotional content. Or to be more specific: Very few heart-wrenching scenes for the protagonists. No agonising. If the protagonist can cope with what they're going through, without too much of a struggle, we'll repeat the journey with them.

I'm sure Frasier was cut up about being left at the alter by Diane, but the way he dealt with it was funny. Hawkeye would struggle with the insanity of war, but he'd almost always be able to cope, and would almost always be proactive about finding a solution. Almost...

I wonder how the M*A*S*H finale does in reruns...

Diane D. said...

Actually, Johnny W., Diane and Sam had some pretty heart-wrenching scenes, but I think you're probably right that we don't like repeating heavy emotional journeys. I skip those episodes of Cheers.

Hank Gillette, J.D. did treat Elliot horribly several times (to the point of it being out of character) and that may be why I wasn't interested in watching reruns, but with Cheers I just skip those episodes that are too heavy.

Tracy said...

"I will never get sick of 'Is anyone here a marine biologist?'" I laughed out loud just reading that.

Ken's observations make perfect sense to me, though I watch "30 Rock" in this same way too.

17db87ec-8cdb-11e3-9c7e-000bcdcb2996 said...

The best year of my life was when Comedy Central was stripping Scrubs every night. Every time you watch an epi you catch something new.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who works in television, if any of you guys can figure out a magic formula that'll successfully predict which shows will be a hit in syndication and which won't, you'll be able to get rich off of it. Personally, I think it's entirely a crap shoot, and I've never been able to see any rhyme or reason to what hits and what doesn't. Playing Monday morning quarterback and cooking up reasons why this was a syndie hit and that wasn't is easy. Figuring it out beforehand is a lot tougher.

Diane D. said...

Great writing.
Great acting.
Then the elusive X factor.
I still think Igor's theory is the most intriguing (and I think some people misunderstood it)--he wasn't talking about a series finale, he was talking about the end of each show. Does it end with a laugh or a hug, and does that fact mean there is a different construct to the whole show. Fascinating.

SER said...

@JohnnyWalker said:

I wonder how the M*A*S*H finale does in reruns...

***

Thanks for reminding me because it's a FRIDAY QUESTION I've been meaning to ask: Was the M*A*S*H finale not part of the syndication package originally?

In the late '80s, when I discovered M*A*S*H as a kid, I recall the "time capsule" episode being the "last" one shown before it started over again with the pilot. I recall having to rent the finale from Blockbuster. I don't think the rest of the series was available on home video at this time so did the finale get a "TV movie" treatment?

SER said...

I also wonder if Netflix/Hulu is the new model for the dramas or plot-based series that don't syndicate well.SCANDAL, BREAKING BAD, LOST, X-FILES... they might provide a "binging" opportunity for new viewers. Whereas syndication might prove the best place for comedies for the many reasons listed.

When I was looking for something to watch on Netflix while at the gym, I watched two episodes of CHEERS and then FRASIER. It was perfect

Mark said...

The M*A*S*H finale was not part of the syndication package of 30 minute episodes. CBS continued to rerun it annually for several years after it aired, even while the rest of the 11th season aired in syndication. In the early 1990s, Fox syndicated the finale as a special, and it didn't necessarily air on the same local station that carried the regular reruns.

Even today, the finale has not been cut up into 30 min episodes and added to the rerun rotation. FX and TV Land have rerun the finale in its full length. But ME-TV doesn't have it - only the 30-minute episodes.

Steve Bailey said...

I quite agree with you. My family loved "Home Improvement" in first run, but I didn't care much for it. For some strange reason, when it went into syndication, I started to "get" it and laughed a lot more.

James said...

People have the attention spans of tee-see flies. That's why a lot of these sitcom reruns don't make it. PAY ATTENTION PEOPLE!!

Anonymous said...

I do not watch any of the sitcom shows that are currently airing. I hear great reviews on some so I try to get into them, but find the humor to be too scripted. The ones I loved all the quality of near reality in life. Especially Seinfeld! So many of them were similar to things or thoughts i have experienced (and others I'm sure). When it was first aired I used to tell others I was going to throw my t.v. away once the show was cancelled.
So with that, here are my favorites in no particular order except for #1 and 2:
1. Seinfeld
2. The Andy Griffith Show
3. Soap
4. King of Queens
5. Barney Miller
6. Cheers
7. Frasier
8. Rosanne (the early ones)
9. Taxi
10. The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason Show)

RJB said...

Your commentary did not address the numerous series in black and white from the 1950s and early 1960s that are sitting on a shelf. It was the same mindset that saw little value in the 3 Stooges shorts. The shows are mostly available through non-commercial sources for those who love the past programming. Given the number of channels out there in the world you'd think there would be room for broadcast of some very old series that would be like new to a younger generation...and would be a reward to older viewers being able to see some talented people from the past in shows they might have missed.