Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What's going on at Fox?

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

Gretchen asks:

I wonder what your thoughts are on Fox changing their sitcom schedule. For several years they've been the "young and cool" network with niche single camera comedies like New Girl, Brooklyn 99, Last Man on Earth, etc. They never became massive hits but everything put together gave them a nice brand.

Now they're clearly going a whole new direction cancelling almost all of their single camera sitcoms and picking up multi-cam comedies that are targeted for an older audience ("The Cool Kids" which stars Martin Mull and David Alan Grier in a retirement home and of course, "Last Man Standing" returning). Do you think they're making the play to go broader because of the upcoming Disney merger?

Absolutely, and that’s very astute on your part. But I think there are several things in play.

When Michael Thorn took over as president of the network he clearly stated that he believed in multi-cams.

And just a quick time-out to remind everyone that multi-camera comedies are shot like a play in front of a live audience. Four cameras are recording the action simultaneously. Single-camera comedies like THE GOLDBERGS are shot like a movie with one camera and no audience. Okay, now that everyone is up to speed…

People forget that FOX has had very few live sitcom hits, and that two of its biggest were indeed multi-cams. MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and THAT ‘70s SHOW. So it’s not like this is groundbreaking. Thorn believes, as I do, that the problem is not the format but the execution. When there’s a comedy that people want to watch, (a la ROSEANNE or BIG BANG THEORY) they don’t give a shit how many cameras there are. It’s just that multi-cams are held accountable. They have to be funny because they have an actual audience. And part of the problem with most single-camera sitcoms is that they’re not funny. They’re quirky, they’re ironic, they’re mildly amusing – but they’re not funny. Many single-camera niche comedy showrunners claim they don’t aim to be really funny. I claim it’s because they can’t be really funny.

For years now Fox has had the reputation as the hip niche comedy provider. Single-camera shows like NEW GIRL and THE MINDY PROJECT. Here’s the reality: NEW GIRL did well out of the gate but started to slide. None of their other niche comedies really broke through. In some cases Fox renewed low rated sitcoms because they owned them and wanted to accumulate enough episodes for syndication. And now there are numerous cable and SVOD networks offering niche comedies so Fox doesn’t even have a corner on the market.

Now Fox wants to be competitive. They’re clearly going for a broader audience with shows like THE COOL KIDS (about a retirement home) and LAST MAN STANDING. Economics also play a part. Fox owns LAST MAN STANDING. Once ROSEANNE became a big hit and Fox sensed LAST MAN STANDING would appeal to the same audience they revived it. Fox will be adding to their LMS inventory but more importantly going after ratings they never could achieve with THE MINDY PROJECT (no matter how many ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY love letters were written about it).

I also think they’re trying to rope in some of their audience from Fox News. LAST MAN STANDING is certainly a great carrot for that.

Will this experiment work? Hard to tell. Fox has always had trouble launching live sitcoms. But is that network promotion or just bad network development? Had Fox introduced better sitcoms might they have found success? Who knows? Fox has the advantage of NFL football to bring in viewers who don’t ordinarily watch that network. Especially this year since they have Thursday Night Football. So at least people will see the promos for these new shows. Whether they’ll stick around for them is anybody’s guess.

But at the end of the day I applaud Fox for taking a chance with a new direction instead of just re-signing tired shows that have no future nor audience. And if this doesn’t work, I say bring back THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.

28 comments :

therealshell said...

THE COOL KIDS sounds like a re-working of the British sitcom WAITING FOR GOD.

McAlvie said...

If they are really bringing back LMS to attract conservative audiences, it's going to be interesting to see if that works out. I know the main character was staunchly Republican, but the rest of his family was quite moderate, even left leaning. That conflict was one of the things, along with his being the only guy in a family of women, that created a lot of plot lines and funny moments.

In fact, a lot of the humor was at Mike's expense, poking a bit of fun at his beliefs. How will that play with the audience Fox wants to attract? Add in his very smart and more left leaning family, and the question gets even bigger.

But here's the thing for me. I still don't think politics is why they cancelled the show or why they are bringing it back, regardless of what they say. Because if it was such a draw for conservative audiences, the numbers should have been good enough to keep the show going in the first place. So why did they cancel it?

Which makes me wonder if this isn't a sly marketing gimmick. You know, tell them we are giving them what they want and they won't know the difference. Or, this being Fox, they might be retooling the show to make it even MORE right leaning. The risk there is that they could end up losing the rest of their viewers. I'm betting that Tim Allen is smart enough to know what really works, having had a pretty successful comedy career. Anyway, it would be interesting, and I wish the show well because I always liked it.

Dustin Drye said...

Ken,

What do you think about the revival or "update" of Norman Lear's One Day at a Time? I ask because this is Netflix's foray into the multi-cam genre and I would think that Netflix would not be one to go for multi-cam pitches. Especially after listening to Blair Richwood last week who said if you can go to a network with an idea, Netflix, HBO, etc. don't want to hear you.

Is there a future in streaming multi-cam, possibly with edgier storylines? Or because the jokes are so "in this moment of time" or lack of cursing/pushing the envelope, will streaming service shy away from taking a flyer on a multi-cam? Not every pitch will come with Norman Lear.

Glenn said...

Maybe I'm just an audience snob, but I've never found single camera shows funny. I tried to hang with the Office for a while but it just couldn't hook me. New Girl, Mindy Project, Last Man on Earth... they all just don't bring the laughs. I watch a few episodes, maybe most of a season, and I'm out. I guess some of us are just wired to the "filmed in front of a studio audience" concept.

Thomas Anderson said...

Nancy Travis is going to be a busy lady!

Filippo said...

I agree with ‘the problem is the executionʼ view.
Which is why I donʼt understand the talks about the so called todayʼs sitcom crisis.
Why does everyone seem to be looking for the setting that appeals the most broad audience?

It seems that you only need an out there setting.
But shows like Cheers or Friends or the show about nothing clearly show that what is important is the writing.

I know this is going to sound stupid, and maybe someone else can bring much better examples, but in Friendʼs pilot, when Ross says: “I just feel like someone reached down my throat, grabbed my small intestine, pulled it out of my mouth and tied it around my neck” and Chandler goes: “Cookie?”, I think one has the perception that these people know the basic rules of making jokes. Not just that, it feels like they donʼt just have ideas, but they know some scheme underneath writing. These are people that know what writing is. Thatʼs why even though they put their skills into comedy, they made great comedy.

What they say of the actor who can “read the phone book” and make it sound interesting is also true for the writer. The good writer takes any situation and makes it interesting.

And I think the show about nothing could be made today, and whenever. You only need someone who has a genuine appreciation of what writing is.

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for the backhanded reference to Entertainment Weekly's tiresome cheerleading for their pet projects. I just got a subscription renewal notice and am seriously considering finally letting it lapse after having this Hamlet-like argument with myself many times over the years. It seems as if each new issue contains less of interest to me. The cover story is now almost always some comic book movie or "Star Wars" sequel I don't care about or a hip cult TV show I don't watch (how many "Walking Dead" covers have they run anyway?). I'm sick of the writers constantly injecting their political opinions into inappropriate places (it didn't start with Trump; it's been going on for years) and endlessly flogging their personal crusades. For a while there, they couldn't go three paragraphs without crying over "Arrested Development" being cancelled; then it was the tragic lack of respect for "The Mindy Project," etc.

Meanwhile, the review sections get shorter and shorter. At a time when more recordings are being released from indie artists than ever, their music section usually consists of one review of some big name, major label hack and a few questions for some new flash-in-the-pan. Hey, EW, ever heard of jazz? Or classical? Or any genres other than pop, rap and pop-country?

Actually, I can't believe I'm still subscribing at all after they refused to review my book "Hollywood Hi-Fi" because it wasn't represented by one of the PR agents they deal with exclusively. Then a month or so later, they ran an article that blatantly ripped off the entire premise, only without mentioning the book at all. They should call it "Plagiarism Weekly."

VP81955 said...

Fox also was smart to restore "Last Man Standing" to the Friday slot it had at ABC. I've watched "LMS" eps in syndication (where it does very well), and it's hardly the right-wing polemical some of Tim Allen's critics make it out to be. Glad to see it back, especially with Nancy Travis, and looking forward to "The Cool Kids" following -- have been a Martin Mull fan since "Fernwood 2Night."

Returning "LMS" to 8 Fridays echoed ABC placing "Roseanne" in its Tuesday night slot. If CBS is smart, the revived "Murphy Brown" goes back to 9 Mondays -- a night that was a house of horrors for the network in 2017-18 -- with fellow femme-fronted multi-cam "Mom" moving from Thursdays to follow. If that isn't sitcom synergy, I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

I love Roseanne (the show) and I loved Home Improvement. I just didn't find Last Man Standing funny. It doesn't matter how many cameras there are. The Good Place must be single camera, and there are times I literally laugh out loud. It all comes down to the writing. And, no, Ken, I'm not sucking up. If the writing is good, the audience will come.

Pam, St. Louis

gottacook said...

"They’re quirky, they’re ironic, they’re mildly amusing – but they’re not funny." There was once a single-camera series that (in my opinion) was very consistently funny, and it was a Fox show: Malcolm in the Middle. Another that I liked almost as well, also on Fox, was The Bernie Mac Show. (Both series ended in 2006 - which seems even longer ago than it really is...)

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, I find multi-camera sitcoms to be unfunny in general, and much prefer modern single-camera sitcoms, such as The Office, 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Rec, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Two Broke Girls, etc all come across as lowest common denominator crap to me. I don't find them funny. I just find them base and boring.

Sorry, I don't have a Google account.

dukeroberts, Jacksonville, FL

Todd Everett said...

"The Mick" was genius (well, at least pretty great). I'll miss it.
That said, if I were a producer of sitcoms, Fox wouldn't exactly top my list of preferred venues, so I have to give them credit for giving it a shot. And it's definitely not a Disney-oriented show.

Peter said...

Ken, are you and David still pitching to networks? You mentioned a while back a show that got picked up by USA network but then a new regime came in and dumped all previous pilots that had been greenlit. Have you taken it anywhere else? Would love to see a new show by you guys.

Crazy Like a Fox said...

As a fan, supporter, and writer of multi-cams I'm happy to see Fox move in that direction. However, based on the trailers, these new sitcoms they picked up look terrible.

VP81955 said...

I take it you've never watched "Mom."

Jon B. said...

Last Man Standing was a good show. By almost any measure, it was cancelled too soon. As it turns out, it would have paired well with Roseanne at ABC. I am not sure it is a good fit at FOX, however. I will tune in.

Anonymous said...

Personally the biggest laughs from me this year have been either dramas that happened to have a funny moment (iZombie had a great scene recently taking the mick out of CSI Miami that made me laugh out loud) or single-camera comedies (Brooklyn Nine Nine had a great Backstreet Boys/criminal lineup that also had me laughing). Big Bang Theory these days is lucky to get a titter out of me. I prefer Young Sheldon at the moment.

I really like Brooklyn Nine Nine because I find all the characters funny. Holt and the double act of Hitchcock and Scully are particular favourites. Like you said, I don't think the number of cameras matters to the audience. Just glad it got picked up by somewhere else. Fingers crossed for Lucifer! NINE-NINE!

Donald Benson said...

Here are my sitcom pitches to Fox-cum-Disney:
-- Three and a Half Dwarfs: Doc, Grumpy, and Dopey take in Charlie Sheen, Dopey's love child.
-- Last Indy Standing: Showcase for the whimsical comedy stylings of Harrison Ford.
-- John Carter of Vancouver: Because you still have the rights to Burroughs novels.
-- Taxis: This time the taxis themselves hang out in a garage and crack jokes.
-- Beaver Valley: Very loosely based on the True Life Adventure film
-- Glubs: Washed-up superhero Sub-Mariner runs a sand bar. A snobby mermaid enters ...
-- A Muppet revival built around Miss Piggy as a blue-collar housewife.

Andy Rose said...

My understanding is that Last Man Standing was about to come into a new contract in which Fox would stop deficit financing the show, and ABC would be expected to pay the full cost of production. Obviously, Fox now has to pay the production costs themselves, but they get the broadcast run AND syndication and streaming forever. ABC, for the same money, would have gotten two or three airings of each episode, and then bupkis.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is getting picked up by NBC. Guess who owns Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

MikeKPa. said...

Definitely see heavy rotation of LMS spots on FN.

VP81955 said...

It dates back to EW's log-rolling "Friends" as part of the TimeWarner corporate machine.

Matthew said...

When you kick things off with Married With Children, it sets a pretty high bar. That show was genuinely laugh-uncontrollably-until-it-hurts funny.

Covarr said...

I can't speak for the other shows they canceled, but I don't think most people would call BROOKLYN NINE-NINE "tired". It's very funny, filled to the brim with the actual jokes that many single camera sitcoms would merely imply, and has been doing fairly well, quickly becoming Fox's current top-rated live-action sitcom and holding that position for a while.

The biggest problem, as far as I can tell, is that its most successful among a demographic that doesn't really watch television live, and Fox is stuck on outdated revenue structures. People aren't watching this show live, because its biggest audience doesn't really watch nearly as much live TV as our parents do, and DVRs and Hulu just can't bring in the same kind of ad revenue that Fox wants.

I suspect this is part of why NBC was so quick to pick it up. Not only is the network's built-in audience more interested in watching first-run live-action television as it airs, not only is BROOKLYN NINE-NINE more in tune with NBC's other programming than with Fox's other programming (it's a natural pair with SUPERSTORE and THE GOOD PLACE), but perhaps more significantly, NBC isn't afraid to play the long game. They have had several shows over the years that were successful enough on the air, but continued to burn bright on streaming services well after they ended. Shows like 30 ROCK and PARKS AND REC may not have ever brought in the most cash during their lives, but in death they've proven themselves to be steady earners in streaming. I'm sure NBC expects the same of BROOKLYN NINE-NINE.

If nothing else, NBC is smart enough to slap it on their Thursday night lineup and leave it there. Fox has been yanking the show's schedule back and forth between Sunday and Tuesday since its first season (and once even premiered an episode at 11pm!), which isn't really good for any show.

As for the other Fox shows being canceled... Well, I never really got into 'em. By the sound of it, neither did anybody else. I guess there's a reason BROOKLYN NINE-NINE is the only one among a whole swath of shows being canceled to get a loud fan reaction and almost immediate pick-up by another network.

Sam Malone said...

Irony...I was unaware that Tim Allen had a TV show for six years.

With 400 channels, streaming services and high-speed Internet, I don't recall watching a broadcast network show in over a decade.

Cable TV has desensitized me and whatever is on the networks is blah.

And as far as Entertainment Weekly is concerned, I have stopped reading it for the past 3 years. it has changed for the worse.

Astroboy said...

I'm one of the odd ones I guess. I enjoy Big Bang Theory & love Mom, but I gotta admit I'm laughing out loud a lot more at Brooklyn-Nine, New Girl, The Middle, The New Place & Fresh Off the Boat, plus others. I actually don't like the feel of multi-camera sit-coms, the flow doesn't feel natural to me, timing that comes with doing it front of an audience always seems off to me.

MikeN said...

>trying to rope in some of their audience from Fox News.

I was nodding along until this. Fox News's top shows are about 500k viewers.

Kit said...

And if this doesn’t work, I say bring back THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.

The very-nearly-titled TRACY ULLMAN'S SHOW is probably still alive, having aired two series in 2016 and 2017. She also squeezed a one-off special and a short series of topical program TRACY BREAKS THE NEWS into later 2017 - a second season is set for June, but one imagines she could return to the sketch SHOW if her appetite for satire recedes.

Stephen Robinson said...

SEINFELD is an interesting case for me. I'm sure some network execs would argue that it's "too New York" with "unlikeable" characters" and "too clever" comedy, etc... But I grew up in rural Greenville, SC, and I was actually *introduced* to SEINFELD by a classmate (white, Christian, conservative -- he's now a local minister). I vividly recall the then-17-yr-old Brent re-enacting the scene where Jerry's car is stolen and he calls the car phone and speaks to the thief. And that's pretty much how I started watching it.

It's a shame that our view of comedy has gotten so "polarized." SEINFELD at its best had a universal appeal because it was *funny.* As a poster said upthread about FRIENDS, the show felt like the people who wrote it *understood* the mechanics of comedy, the basic structure. Jerry, the straight man (which of course played to the comedian's strengths), George, the Banana Man, Kramer, the physical comic (or "clown"). This is all classic stuff. You *could* do this today, but the problem is that people who don't understand or care about mechanics just see SEINFELD as "show about nothing, yadda, yadda, yadda."

If you saw someone trying to make a cake with no flour or eggs or even reasonable substitutes, it wouldn't make sense to you. That's how I feel sometimes when I watch the "hip" single-camera sitcoms. There's no understanding of structure (or arguably they might know on some level but reject it because they think it's "formulaic").