Monday, October 02, 2017

The take-away from WILL & GRACE

Whether you like WILL & GRACE, that’s not the point.

But it premiered last week to impressive numbers. 10.2 million in the coveted 18-49 demo. NBC is doing cartwheels. You’d think it got Cosby numbers (back in the day when that show was getting 40 shares).

So let’s say 10 million is the gold standard in this marketplace. What other sitcoms got 10 million viewers this week? KEVIN CAN WAIT got 10.2 million. And BIG BANG THEORY got 17 million. What’s the common denominator?

They are all MULTI-CAMERA SHOWS.

And yet...

Everyone continues to claim that multi-camera shows are dead. It’s a tired form. Viewers are more sophisticated.

When I’ve taught TV writing classes at UCLA and USC none of my students wanted to write a multi-camera show. And yet they all went home and watched FRIENDS.

And still the belief persists that multi-camera shows are passé and no one watches them.

Except everyone who does. The 10-17 million people.

It’s like – imagine a baseball team saying they don’t need power hitters in their lineup. “Yeah, the guy hits 40 home runs but he also strikes out a lot.” 40 home runs is a lot! You win games thanks to 40 home runs. And by the way, the guy who hits for average still makes out 70% of the time.

Yes, there are bad multi-camera shows and they don’t do the genre any good. But there are also lots and lots of single-camera sitcoms that were terrible and died quick deserved deaths.

Genres generally go in cycles in television, although some eventually die out. Everyone said Westerns were dead. And they were. But when they said that ratings for Westerns were through the floor. No one said Westerns were dead when BONANZA was the number one show in America. But that’s what they keep saying about multi-camera shows.

Some executives are starting to get it. FOX has a couple in development. And CBS has always known they have value. Even forward-thinking NETFLIX has a couple of multi-camera shows. They’re not particularly good. So far they’re mostly your standard retro sitcoms except the characters can say fuck.   But ONE DAY AT A TIME certainly stands above. 

So again, why the reluctance? They joke rhythms are too familiar? Hire better writers. No one ever complained about the joke rhythms in CHEERS or FRASIER or SEINFELD or FRIENDS. They feel too retro? Perhaps. In some cases. But is that such a bad thing? If there’s a comfort level might that not be a plus? The laugh track is intrusive? Again, hire better writers so the laughs are genuine.

My personal preference would be to find new multi-camera shows that speak to today. I’d rather watch 30 year-olds acting like 30 year-olds than 50 year-olds acting like 30-year-olds. But that’s just me.

Yet if nostalgia is what’s needed to resurrect a genre of comedy that has produced most of the greatest sitcoms in TV history, then reminisce away. I’ll take that tradeoff.

And I’ll leave you with this. Who watches the most network television? What demographic do networks covet most? Women 25-49. And what are the two genres that women 25-49 prefer the most?

Procedurals and MULTI-CAMERA SITCOMS.

Uh…isn’t this a no-brainer?

31 comments :

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Everything you say there is true...and yet, the two new shows I liked best last year were THE GOOD PLACE and SUPERSTORE, both on NBC, both multi-camera, and both clever, fresh, and engaging. And, to me, funny.

I fear that the subtleties of both shows get lost because most of us have been trained over several decades that once you're familiar with the characters you can look at something else and listen to sitcoms as though they were radio plays. That's not true with either of these: both shows have background visual gags that really repay close visual attention. (I can't get out of my head the shot in last week's SUPERSTORE of a bunch of Roombas all trapped together in a segment of the store trying to clean the floor).

wg

blinky said...

But besides that, how was the play?
I thought the writing was razor sharp. I had doubts going in but came away quite impressed.

Roger Owen Green said...

I agree with your baseball analogy unless your home run hitter were Dave Kingman in 1982. 37 HR, 156 strikeouts, batted .204. But I WOULD take Kingman in 1979: 48 HR, 131 strikeouts, 288 BA

Martin said...

I think the premise that multi-camera is dead is not a current piece of conventional wisdom. It was conventional wisdom around 2010-2013. Right now I am skeptical that people actually are still running around saying that multi-camera format is tired and dead etc. Aside from that, you surely have a point here.

VP81955 said...

It's only two weeks in, but how is "Mom" -- arguably the best multi-cam sitcom today, at least at the network level -- doing in syndication?

Mark said...

I think you can put part of the reason down to the content bubble and the resulting dependence on hype to establish most shows. I blogged on this in response to your Emmys ratings post.[http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2017/09/live-by-hype-die-by-hype.html]

The LA Times reports that not only are there over 450 shows in production, but older series like the Golden Girls are finding an increasing share of viewers. With this level of competition, all programs need significant promotion to find an audience. Shows not on a major network often rely entirely on promotion (if not for the PR budget, no one would ever hear about them). One result is that shows with an easily hyped angle receive favorable treatment. It is easier to get an entertainment writer to run a story on a trendy single-camera sitcom with a quirky millennial lead, or an edgy adaptation of a newly relevant dystopian classic, or a reboot of a fondly remembered cult favorite. Almost no one watched Twin Peaks but everyone wrote about it. Perhaps, these days, that counts as a hit.

Philip said...

Just to throw some cold water on your analogy, a few of the 40 HR guys got pitiful contracts lately

i.e. Chris Carter 41 HR in 2016 and only got 1 year for 3M (which Kershaw makes every time he scratches his can) and I also think was later released

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Everything you say there is true...and yet, the two new shows I liked best last year were THE GOOD PLACE and SUPERSTORE, both on NBC, both multi-camera, and both clever, fresh, and engaging. And, to me, funny.

Except that The Good Place and Superstore are single-camera. Multi-camera means that they were filmed in front of a studio audience.

Dave Mackey said...

I offer the indisputable fact that Young Sheldon, which had a teaser last week, is single camera no laugh track. Was that just for the pilot? With all due respect to Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro, it didn't work.

Rob Sisco said...

Yup.
Reading this while my 14 year old son watches episodes of Friends for the umteenth time. Why is he doing that? Because last week he finished binge watching all eleven seasons of Cheers! Currently he is alternating between Fraiser and The Office but today he's taking a break with Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler and, How YOU Doin'!

Cap'n Bob said...

Until I started reading this blog I didn't know if shows had one camera or fifty. However many they had had nothing to do with my enjoyment of a show and I suspect that most viewers feel the same way I do.

Patrick said...

If Will & Grace was a new show premiering now it wouldnt get anywhere near that - the fact that it got 10 million viewers is because its Will & Grace...

Good ol catch 22...

Tom said...

All my current comedy favourites are single camera: Fresh Off the Boat, The Middle, The Good Place. But it's probably easier to argue in the reverse: the worst multi-camera shows are generally the worst shows (from recent years: ¡Rob!, The Great Indoors, According to Jim, Dr Ken...), but I tend to think that just backs up Ken's point that when you're in front of an audience, writing really matters. Laziness is impossible to disguise.

The worst a single-camera seems to get is tedious. Though vanity nonsense like The Orville is taking a decent crack at that glass ceiling.

Johnny Walker said...

I think you have an excellent point. So where is this idea coming from? It seems almost as if it’s come from a vocal minority of snooty viewers.

That said, I do feel there’s a general trend toward “real” (or a perception of real — it’s all equally fake, after all). But I believe that great writing transcends everything. A funny show is a funny show, and the ratings prove it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
Interesting list on vulture of top 100 screenwriters as voted on or whatever by other screenwriters.

http://www.vulture.com/2017/10/100-greatest-screenwriters-of-all-time-ranked.html

Thought you might enjoy if you haven't seen it.
cheers
Dave.

sanford said...

I disagree with your forty homer remark. Cubs had Ernie Banks. Pirates had Ralph Kiner. Last year the Brewers had Chris Carter. They won bubkus. The Yanks took him on and got rid of him before the All Star Break. It takes more than a 40 home run hitter to win games. Cards won a world series and I think they hit 88 homers that year.

sanford said...

For the guy who said he would take Kingman in 1979. The Cubs were 81-81. As Branch Rickey once said to Ralph Kiner when he wanted a raise after hitting 40 or more 5 years in a row. We ended up last all those years. We can finish last with out your. After the last 40 plus year he hit 37 and then 35. If there was free agency back then he would have commanded big money. He was out of ball. Not sure if he had some kind of energy. He was out of baseball at the age of 32.

VP81955 said...

To Dave Mackey:

"Young Sheldon" has to be a single-cam because its lead is a child actor, and California labor laws prohibit them from working nights (e.g., before a live audience, as that's when multi-cams are performed), as well they should. (It also is better aesthetically, as it's meant to be a flashback type of show.)

Scenes on multi-cams that feature juveniles (e.g., Roscoe on "Mom") are filmed beforehand, then played on screen above the set during the filming to get audience reaction.

Keith Nichols said...

When I watch TV, I don't count the cameras or think about the technology at all. Mostly, I count the cliches and failure of logic.

Keith Nichols said...

When I watch TV, I don't count the cameras or think much about the technology. I may count the cliches and failures of logic, however.

Anonymous said...

Two pretty bad shows tonight: Kevin Can Wait (I can't wait for it to be funny) and 9JKL which has a really cheesy laugh track plus Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin! I'll stick with Ken Burns and Vietnam On Demand.Janice B.

VP81955 said...

Mark:

David Bianculli (perhaps the best-known TV snob today, largely through his work on NPR's "Fresh Air") would blanch before deigning to review a multi-cam.

Myles Warden said...

Partially true. It's about the amount of hours they can be on set not a "night time" issue. Most Disney/Nick shows shoot live but they will start a little earlier and try to end by 8 (depending on when they started). Fuller House has TONS of kids. Went to a taping of it a few weeks ago and it lasted til at least 9 PM and shot everything in front of the audience except one of the adult scenes due to a costume change gag. Young Sheldon was a style choice that fit the story better. It would've been possible to do it as a multi-cam if they saw that best for the story. Most tapings end by around 9 regardless of the ages of cast members.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Two Garry Marshall shows that went from single camera to multi-cameras offer conflicting conclusions.



Forty years ago, I thought it was exciting and fun when Happy Days started filming in front of a rowdy studio audience. Now, I find the early, low-key single-camera episodes superior.

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman lobbied to have The Odd Couple filmed in front of an audience after its first, single-camera season. There's no doubt that switching to multi-cameras in the second year greatly improved and energized the show.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Rory L. Aronsky: yeah, that's what I *meant* to say (I just mistyped). That being funny, fresh, and engaging has nothing to do with the number of cameras.

wg

Diane D. said...

It seems to me that most of the commenters on this blog know a lot about "the business" or they're actually in it, but for those of us who just love a good movie or TV show, most of us can't tell the difference between multi-cam and single-cam. What I know about it was learned on this blog. That is why I was shocked to read what VP81955 said about David Bianculli. We are being deprived of good multi-cam shows because of snobby reviewers? The huge majority of viewers don't even recognize the difference! There are many things that determine if any specific viewer likes a show, but the number of cameras used is not one. Isn't that who shows are written for? The viewers.
Excellent writing, excellent casting, excellent acting, and a beautiful set, shot beautifully (in a word: CHEERS)--that's all this viewer asks. Number of cameras? After I go to film school, I'll let you know.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

To me, it's less about the number of cameras than how a studio audience affects a show.

As I tried to illustrate above, a wild, overly enthusiastic audience can diminish a good show (e.g. Happy Days, in retrospect). Yet, a good, genuinely-amused studio audience can enliven a show that would be too slow-paced otherwise (e.g. Randall/Klugman's Odd Couple).

McAlvie said...

Do you think the reluctance to go with something tried and true is because they can't take credit for thinking of it? There is an obsession these days with trying to be a trend spotter - never mind that trends by definition don't last. And we won't go into the issue of micro market targeting. I do agree that there has been a small sign of networks returning to shows that appeal broadly. I hope it is a sign of things to come. I have a Netflix account, but I'm not signing up for a bunch of network streaming sites, even for a short duration. They want my attention, they can come to me.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Kevin FitzMaurice: "Forty years ago, I thought it was exciting and fun when Happy Days started filming in front of a rowdy studio audience. Now, I find the early, low-key single-camera episodes superior."

It was when Happy Days' audience began to become insanely apoplectic that it was a strain on the senses. Maybe that is what can be a detriment to shows with live audiences -- when the people are either overstimulated, instructed or sweetened to go into convulsions over the slightest thing. It's the equivalent of a cliché sitcom laugh track when even "Honey I'm home!" gets a roar.

Perhaps audiences have seen too many shows in which the live audiences have been annoying instead of supportive and it has turned them off.

Some say musicals are dead, but there are also good ones and not-so-good ones. Meanwhile there have been several successful ones lately. It just takes skill to do them right.

Diane D. said...

Kevin FitzMaurice
That's a good point and Ken has mentioned it in the past. Actually, I really like the live audience feature of multi-cam, but I can see how an overly enthusiastic audience could be distracting, especially for a more sophisticated viewer, which I am not. I do remember however, finding inappropriate laughter very annoying.

Betty said...

Obviously people get this. I don't. I love television. I grew up on television. I've watched it my whole life. I love the stories, the jokes, the romances, the friendships, the acting, the punchlines, the plot, the actors, the drama, the tears, the suspense, the angst, the reveal, the mystery, and sometimes the theme song...you get my point. But if you put a gun to my head, I could not tell you single camera from multi camera. Laugh track from no laugh track, I can tell, but number of cameras? Never thought about it.