Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stop the hearse! The Sitcom is NOT dead

One of the features of my recent Sitcom Room was a panel discussion featuring noted comedy writers. One of them, Sam Simon (SIMPSONS, TAXI, CHEERS, DREW CAREY SHOW) caused a momentary stir when he declared the sitcom was dead. Alan Sepinwall picked up on it in his article about the seminar for the Newark Star-Ledger. So I thought I’d take today to reassure you all that the sitcom is still very much alive and will continue to be.

Is it a coincidence that I’m posting this the same day I’m announcing REGISTRATION IS OPEN for my second seminar? Absolutely!! It’s just one of those eerie freaks of nature. (Details of the Sitcom Room follow this article.) But my belief that the sitcom is very much alive is sincere and supported by facts. Consider these:

Networks have not cut back their comedy development departments. Even the people who do nothing but sit in meetings and take notes still have their jobs.

Sitcoms are still getting numbers. TWO AND HALF MEN still beats HEROES and 24. THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK manage to hold their own even though they’re in the death slot against GREY’S ANATOMY and CSI.

A successful sitcom can launch an entire night. Think NBC misses FRIENDS? For Christsakes they spun off JOEY...and were so desperate they renewed it!

Sitcoms perform well in reruns. Better than any other form.

There is no other genre of television programming that is a bigger cash cow in success. Warner Brothers will make more off of FRIENDS than their big summer blockbusters combined. How much moolah do you think 20th Century Fox has raked in from MASH? It has been paying off jackpots for over thirty years with no signs of stopping or even slowing down. Compare that to AMERICAN IDOL….

Reality shows have no shelf life. You can’t even rerun AMERICAN IDOL much less put it into syndication. Once upon a time networks couldn’t own their shows. So it made no difference whether a series had syndication legs as long as they got their big ratings for one or two airings. Not anymore. Back end profits are really where it’s at and you spell that S-I-T-C-O-M.

Many hit dramas are in the same reality boat. ABC is not even rerunning LOST. Once you know what happens you don’t watch again. This is of big concern to say, WGN.

Sitcoms generally fare better in syndication than dramas. Early fringe and late night blocks usually favor comedies. Even blockbusters like ER and WEST WING don’t get the syndication numbers SEINFELD, RAYMOND, or even MASH does.

Sitcoms are FAR cheaper to produce than dramas. With the same risk of failure.

Ratings aren’t the only way networks can make money off sitcoms. How much do you think NBC will take in on the DVDs of THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK? This is a new revenue stream. So is downloading shows for your iPod. And amazingly, this hasn’t hurt syndication numbers. People who buy or download SEINFELD still watch it when it’s on TV.

Networks want to lure young viewers. What are pre-teens watching? HANNAH MONTANA and other sitcoms on The Disney Channel. And not just sitcoms – old school, retro, multi-camera, cheaply produced sitcoms. Tomorrow’s network audience sure doesn’t think the form is dead.

Sitcoms are flourishing on other outlets besides the major networks. TBS recognized that a huge sitcom loving audience was not being served and has enjoyed great success showing syndicated and original comedy series. HBO has done okay with SEX IN THE CITY, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, ENTOURAGE, and now FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Showtime is sure tickled it has WEEDS.

And these cable channels offer creators the chance to do more edgy off-beat shows, a freedom they might not have with the networks.

Finally, you know that television goes in cycles. There may never be the glut of sitcoms that we had in the past, but they will survive and rebound in popularity. I would amend Sam’s statement and say that yeah, the bad, stale, family sitcom with tired rhythms, forced laughs, and bogus characters is dead. I would also add – thank goodness. But the genre perseveres.

And you also know that eventually a comedy is going to break through, be the next big hit, and then sitcoms will be the hot new thing. And networks will stop programming them against GREY’S ANATOMY.

So take heart. Keep writing funny. Who knows? You could be the one to launch the next great golden age of comedy. Or at least get picked up for a second season.

I think our assistant, Lana Lewis put it best. When David and I were trying to work in some deep thought-provoking concept into a script she would say, “Aw come on you guys. America just wants to laugh!!”

She’s right.


And with all that in mind, I’m holding my second Sitcom Room seminar. This one will be November 3rd and 4th in Los Angeles and like the last one, limited to twenty attendees. You can get info here and, if you want, register online. I invite you to check out the website and read what previous students had to say (under much duress). Beyond this event, I have no plans for future seminars but if I do do more they will all be in LA. It’s too hard to get four actors through airport security.

Hope to see you in November. Seriously, it’s a great and unique experience. You’ll learn a lot, have a great time, and I promise not to breakdown CASABLANCA.


Anonymous said...

And these cable channels offer creators the chance to do more edgy off-beat shows, a freedom they might not have with the networks.

I hope you're not lumping the Disney stuff in with that, because, even taking into account they are aimed at children.. Disney sitcoms suck.

Unknown said...

I was at the first sitcom room seminar and you WILL learn a lot, you will have fun, and you WILL meet a lot of nice, cool, talented people.

You'll get the idea of what a real sitcom room is like, though I think once you finally make it into a real one, you'll discover that Ken and Dan's room is much better appointed.

Do it!

R.A. Porter said...

What's pretty sad is that the previous generation of Disney sitcoms wasn't that bad. Lizzy Maguire and Even Stevens were leagues better than Montana or the abysmal Suite Life of Zack and Cody. I don't know if Disney's gotten cheaper, or if they've figured out their audience just doesn't expect all that much.

Pimp Alert
Go to Ken's Sitcom Room!!!!!

wcdixon said...

I'm sold...

(if only I could write funny)

Anonymous said...

if only I could write funny

Try using your other hand.

Charles Jurries said...

Wait, did you just seriously call 24 NOT a sitcom? Ken, Ken, Ken...

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that I'm about to correct a longtime showbiz veteran on a showbiz matter, but here goes.

Ken, when you write that they spun off JOEY...and were so desperate they renewed it!, I think you're mistaken. I remember reading that the creators of Joey demanded, and received, a two-year contract, since they thought it might take the show a while to "find its legs." Based on the Friends track record, NBC said yes. This was probably the single funniest thing about the show, and those legs are still missing.

Christina said...

I had a great time at the first sitcom room and encourage anyone remotely interested in comedy and/or TV to consider taking the seminar, especially if you live out of town. I made some great contacts.

By Ken Levine said...

JOEY had a one year commitment. Not that a two year commitment means anything anyway. If the network wants to cancel you they do, either paying off a penalty or rolling over the commitment to something else in the future.

Anonymous said...

Can you explain what syndication is? No one I ask seems to know. Back in April I saw a story about Family Guy going into syndication, but I was confused since TBS and adult swim have been airing it for years.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on TGIF on ABC, which as we know, is owned by Disney. Back in those days I looked forward to seeing Boy Meets World every single Friday. It was, and is, a fantastic show. I don't see Disney creating anything that lives up to the same standard now-a-days.

You are right though, Ken. The sitcom isn't even close to dead. Even if no new ones were created, We'd be able to watch Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond on TBS every single night for the next 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Actually American Idol is in reruns, check your listing for American Idol Rewind, or don't.

What's interesting to me is that even though audiences do want to laugh, the question is what makes them laugh? The fact that something like "Flavor Of Love" could exist on Youtube, much less VH1, is pretty frightening. What other possible explanation could there be for watching the show other than to laugh at the idiocy of others? And if that's what our culture now finds funny, where do sitcoms fit in? Is our culture deteriorating to the point where we don't have the attention span or even sophistication (I use that word very loosely) to appreciate a well crafted joke?

Anonymous said...

Zach Can you explain what syndication is?

Quick explanation; When a Network orders a show they pay a license fee to air the show on their network. The terms of the license dictate how many times they can run an episode, but I think typically it's two runs (the second time being the "rerun"). That doesn't mean the Network, let's say FOX Television for Family Guy, owns the show, just the right to exhibit the episode on their network. The studio who produces the show retains ownership.

Once the studio has enough episodes of a show (historically you needed 100 episodes which meant a five year run on a network) they would sale the exhibition rights to non-affiliate stations (stations not affiliated with a Network) and that's why you would see MASH on a independent station even though it originally aired on CBS.

The studios use the network license fees to subsidize the cost of producing the shows. The studios are gambling that they can produce an episodic series that a network will pay for long enough to compile the episodes required in order to syndicate it. By the time a studio has enough episodes to syndicate, the majority of the costs are behind them. And once a series is in syndication, assuming it remains popular, the studio will keep auctioning off the exhibition rights for years and years. It's safe to say The Simpsons has been an unbelievable gold mine for Fox.

That's a very generalized explanation. The addition of cable outlets, multiple networks and multi-media giants has complicated it considerably.

Anonymous said...

I liked your speech about sitcoms, but what the hell is a "sitcon" and why are you lecturing on it?

your smart-ass daughter

Anonymous said...

It looks like not even "the bad, stale, family sitcom with tired rhythms, forced laughs, and bogus characters" is dead. If it were, there would be no way TBS would have just renewed "The Bill Engvall Show" which makes "According to Jim" look like Shakespeare.

By the way, I haven't watched much TV this summer, but when I do I'm either watching "Dirty Jobs" or "Everybody Loves Raymond" repeats. I have to say that "Raymond" has aged rather well and plays very well in repeats.

I love "Heroes" and "Lost" but can't imagine watching a random episode six years from now. Although, I'm sure both will do well in DVD sales.

Anonymous said...

I remember that in about 1983 or 84, PEOPLE magazine had an article about how, yes, "the sitcom is dead". The very last quote in the article was from Steve Allen. He said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), "A sitcom will come along that will be well written and will do good business, and then everyone will say 'Ah! A renaissance.'"

The following season, THE COSBY SHOW premiered.

By Ken Levine said...

To my smart-ass daughter and anyone else who wondered about that picture. Yes, I was afforded tremendous respect. Even the hotel spelled sitcom wrong.

I of course found it amusing.

Annie, clean your room.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ken. This one's definitely close to my heart.

Like many of us, I grew up on (and truly love) sitcoms. Mash and The Jeffersons were my earliest memories as a young kid. And then came Taxi, Three's Company, Cheers, Cosby, Wings, Frasier, Seinfeld, etc.

Fast forward, and here we are, talking about whether or not the sitcom is dead.

It ain't dead. It's just evolving.

Being a comedy writer, my hat goes off to any and all comedy writers out there who are brave enough to try to find what scripted material makes us all genuinely laugh in this post 9/11, reality TV, attention deficit world.

(If you made it this far into this post, you’re excluded from that previous comment.)

And it's a tough nut to crack.

But funny's funny. And soon enough, a sitcom will land in a big way, and we'll see another cycle begin. The real questions are whether it'll be on TV, or online (or both)...scripted, or mixed (i.e. Curb)...family, or work related, etc.

And who knows. The best thing we can do is just do what we do best - write funny.

Or, in my case, chug Night Train out of a Slurpee cup and chuck Dodger dogs at Barry Bonds.

Either way, you’re gonna laugh and eventually someone will notice.

Fox Cutter said...

I'm really looking to see if I can pull off the sitcom room for November. I'm already planing to be in town that week so the extra weekend isn't that much of an issue, but I'm still working out the details (and the costs).

Anonymous said...

I was going to point out the horror that is "American Idol Rewind", but la guy beat me to it. I do find it ironic that you mention downloading to iPods as a new revenue stream, and for NBC specifically, considering they just gave the finger to the iTunes store (which gave it right back) and will now only distribute their shows on Amazon's little-used and and iPod-incompatible (and Mac-incompatible) Unbox service, and in streaming only on their new Hulu web site. NBC has decided they don't care about iPods, and are actively trying to REDUCE the number of people who download their shows.

Unknown said...

"the bad, stale, family sitcom with tired rhythms, forced laughs, and bogus characters is dead."

From your mouth to G_d's ear!

Graham Powell said...

Man, I wish I could make it to the Sitcom Room, but there's just no way. I hope everyboday has a good time. (*sulks*)

R.A. Porter said...

NBC wants a flexible pricing model. Steve Jobs' engineers can't handle the complexities of that. They're still working out how to upgrade QuickTime without breaking half the apps on my Mac.

As for Amazon's Unbox being "little-used", I'd agree that currently it's not as popular as iTunes. However, since I can buy on Unbox and download straight to my TiVo and watch my NBC shows on widescreen TV instead of a smudged iPod screen, I'm pretty sure we'll start to see a sharp rise in its popularity.

Anonymous said...

You're showing a highly colored version of the truth here, Ken. "Law and Order" and other procedurals do very well in reruns -- ask Dick Wolf. The only reason other dramas don't do as well is because they are serialized, and require greater viewer involvment than your average comedy. Moreover, many television networks rerun these shows out of order, rendering them difficult to follow. And while comedy DVD sets do well just after the show's gone off the air, there's a pretty big dropoff in sales a year or two later.

Look at Amazon.com's top 100 TV Box Set List:

62 Drama spots: Varied Titles -- the big hits, but also imports, Sci Fi, BBC stuff, older Sci Fi, etc.

25 Comedy spots: Mostly "The Office" in varying forms, very few titles. (Excited to see "AD" and "Robot Chicken" there, though.)


Anonymous said...

Everybody doesn't love Raymond

But thank god for endless MASH, Seinfeld, Cheers, & Frasier reruns in the middle of the night for those of us who share a bed with middle aged menopausal sweat soaked whirling dervishes.

Anonymous said...

I agree the sitcom is NOT dead. As further proof, TBS just ordered another ten episodes for season 2 of The Bill Engvall Show.

I like Nancy Travis, so I am happy for her, but Bill freakin’ Engvall. I laughed more getting my wisdom teeth yanked than during one of his stand-up sets!!

Anonymous said...

Is the Sitcom Room open to non-US people?

BTW, I'm still watching Frasier and Raymond, and I'm still laughing.

By Ken Levine said...

Yes, the Sitcom Room is open to all non-US residents. If you can speak English you're good to go.


Anonymous said...

r.a. porter, if you're going to buy your NBC TV shows on Amazon Unbox and then play them on your TiVo, why not just set your TiVo to record them FOR FREE when they first air? You're literally paying for something you could do for free (with new shows, at least). And the whole Unbox thing loses the portability of watching TV shows on an iPod, which was a big selling point for some people (not me--those screens are just too small, at least until the iPhone/iPod Touch).

R.A. Porter said...

Personally, I won't be buying the shows on Unbox, but I could imagine those of my friends who've killed cable and satellite because of the mountain of crap coming in, who nonetheless want to watch one or two things they care about - BSG for example.

Obviously, I'd just record off my dish.

My point was really that Apple isn't the only player in the space and a deal like this could conceivably increase Amazon's presence to the point that other device manufacturers partner with them. It all depends on how much NBC-Universal promotes Unbox and how much they just rely on Hulu.

Anything that increases competition with Apple is a Good Thing™.

Anonymous said...

Re: The Sitcom Room for non-U.S. residents:

Anyone who is interested enough to attend is welcome. In fact, one of the first registrants is someone from Germany.

As Ken said, you just need to be able to speak English. But you do need to speak it fluently.

The Sitcom Room isn't a passive lecture, where you can sit quietly, understand only half of it, and jot down some notes.

Although it does begin with a 3-hour comedy writing download from Ken's brain to yours, you'll be spending much of the weekend working as part of a team of five writers.

The team writing sessions will require easy communication among all 5 team members. Everyone will be contributing. Some more loudly than others, but it's a group effort.

If you easily speak conversational English, please do sign up.


Unknown said...

Ah, the naysayers. They've been clanging the death bell on sitcoms for years, just as they've been clanging it on print and anything else they want to clang it on.

Screw it. Remember, the public isn't just one homogeneous blob, no matter how much Marketing wants everyone to think so. People like Reality TV for a bit. Good for them. Sitcoms are dead when people actually stop watching them. Novels are dead when people actually stop reading them. Temporary dips and trends are not the same thing as Death.

As has been said, the Suits will eventually catch on. You know, the people who don't do anything but sit in meetings and take notes. They're always the last to know.

Unknown said...

Comdedy certainly isn't dead and it won't ever be dead for laughter is the best medicine and people just want to laugh. That's just it.

But Weeds has run it's course. It should be canceled. Flight of the Conchords has been off lately too. It's not that interesting anymore and I think they ran out of songs.

I currently really like Californication. I hope that one stays fresh. Love David Duchovny and how he picked up right where he left off with his movies :-)

But still: there is no M*A*S*H anymore, there's no Cheers, no Frasier, no Friends. Scrubs has run it's course too, the last season has been way off of what we were used to in the earlier seasons. What's left is corny sexist comedy with Two and A Half Men. The King of Queens has left the airwaves with a shortened 13 episode season and shoddy programming getting those out. According to Jim has been renewed again, a sitcom I would use to torture prisoners with.

There's enough room for more good comedies. Cavemen looks horrible. Reaper promising but not brilliant. We'll see what happens this fall.

Anonymous said...

I don't know WHAT Hollywood is thinking these days. They say they're trying to reach the younger demographic yet they air things that young people could care less about. Recently, I watched part of (that's all I could stomach) an episode of The Wizards of Waverly Place. I then asked my sixth grade students what they thought of it. They said it was boring and stupid. The first time we've ever agreed on anything. Yet I've shown them episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other dated shows and they laughed their heads off. Funny is NOT kids talking back to their parents with no consequence. It is NOT one sex crack after the other. The sitcom is not dead. But it's quite possible that the people behind them might be brain dead. [And I agree that Lizzy McGuire and Even Stevens were much better than the shows Disney is pushing now.]