Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Why are network sitcoms different from streaming sitcoms?

Writing a sitcom for broadcast television is very different from writing one for a streaming service. And not for the reason you might think.

No, it’s not because you have more freedom. You can’t say fuck on CBS (yet) but you can on Netflix. It’s not because you don’t have to worry about lead-ins and time slots on Amazon. Or even that all episodes drop at once vs. being doled out one a week.

The big difference is storytelling.

In broadcast TV your series needs to be fairly open-ended. You create characters and a world and hopefully things for them to do for 200 episodes. The audience develops an attachment to the characters and just likes spending time with them. One of the reasons multi-camera shows do so well in syndication is that the viewer is so familiar with the show he doesn’t have to pay full attention. You can have FRIENDS on and go into the laundry room to throw the clothes in the dryer while still following the show. You know what the apartment looks like. We always used to say that CHEERS was really a radio play. There’s a comfort food element to most successful traditional sitcoms.

For short-order sitcoms for streaming services you need an overall arc. Broadcast TV wants stand-alone episodes but streaming platforms prefer serialized storytelling. You’re asking the audience to go on a four or five hour journey (depending on how many half-hours you make). And to me, that’s very liberating. You really have the time to develop stories and relationships. And you don’t have to happily resolve every episode.

The trick though is to have an overall story arc that really drives the series from beginning to end. I go back to the difference between THE KOMINSKY METHOD and BARRY. There are some wonderful scenes in KOMINSKY and some laugh-out-loud moments. And even though Arkin & Douglas each have their problems, there’s still no real engine propelling the series forward, as opposed to BARRY (a hit man wanting to become an actor and how that desire jeopardizes him and everyone around him).

The perfect example is THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL. It’s so clear what Midge’s quest is. As opposed to “comfort food,” the goal is to get viewers to binge. You want them to want to watch “one more” before they call it a night. If KOMINSKY had that big hurdle to conquer in addition to all the wonderful character touches I think it could be a home run.

That said, if the show were for ABC I would plot it exactly as it is now.

Streaming platforms are still the Wild West. Writers are still experimenting and trying to find what really works. To me that’s the exciting part. Hopefully in the near future there will be a new “Golden Age of Comedy.” Even if we have to pay monthly to get it.


Frank Beans said...

Curious, Ken--are there any episodes that you have worked on from any show that you wish could have been longer, or even multi-part so that they could tell a story arc better and in more depth?

I've often thought that many MASH episodes, good as they already are, would have been improved if there was more time, or in a serial. Ones that come to mind are episodes that involve addiction-- a soldier addicted to morphine in one case, Winchester taking speed in another. Addiction is something that takes time to demonstrate.

Mark said...

I've been wondering when you'd mention Maisel. I only have a couple of thoughts so far.

In spite of the strong throughline you mentioned, I feel like they're being pretty stingy with plot developments. In one episode something happens that seems incendiary at the time, but you're waiting till episodes later before the fireworks go off. These shows are an hour long; it doesn't seem like a lot to ask that something of consequence occur in every episode.

Also, I'm no showrunner but Maisel seems like it must be a very expensive show to produce. The things that most series avoid because they're expensive -- a period setting, numerous crowd scenes, music rights, elaborate setups, scene changes -- Maisel has them in spades. Does Amy Sherman-Palladino have compromising photos of Jeff Bezos or something?

Having worked in network TV, how does it feel to see a show that acts like it has unlimited dollars to spend?

Mike Barer said...

Now that we are in a new age, it's time to take out some language restrictions. It least for some adult type programming.

estiv said...

A good example of what you're talking about (to me anyway) is Disenchantment. When I watched the first few episodes I was a little disappointed, thinking it was okay but not as good as Futurama or the Simpsons, Groening's previous two series. But then the overall story kicked in and I was hooked. Comedic elements that had been established at the beginning began to mutate into something darker, and what had seemed separate elements began to connect. Also, ending the first ten episodes with a cliffhanger worked the way a cliffhanger is supposed to: when the next episodes are released, I'll watch.

E. Yarber said...

To be absolutely mercenary about it, a lot of the storytelling differences mentioned here are directed by who is paying for the dance.

The purpose of a network show has always been to get the audience to stay tuned while the commercials ran, which means providing something that will bring old viewers back week after week while leaving the door open for new ones. With a streaming service, you're paying for the PLATFORM, not being enticed by Lever Brothers, so the need is to hold the crowd on that particular outlet so they won't start nosing around and find another that may draw them away.

I don't think the creators of these shows are consciously altering their work to suit these goals, but they're certainly aware of the difference between a weekly standalone episode and the new tendency to gobble an entire season as quickly as possible.

MWire said...

Makes sense that broadcast TV has stand alone shows and streaming usually has a long reaching arc. But I've just started watching Mad Men (up to episode 7) and I don't really see much of an arc there. I'm fascinated by the characters, which is what keeps me watching but I don't see much of a ongoing story. Yeah, there's the 'who is Don Draper really' story line. But to be honest if they dropped that whole part of the series I'd still watch. Am I missing something or is Mad Men an anomaly in the streaming world?

Anonymous said...

How do you think running time and (no) commercial breaks have affected the streaming sitcom form? Better or worse? (Both, I suspect.)

McAlvie said...

That's an interesting take. I guess it makes me the exception that proves the rule, because I dislike serials. I never cared who shot J.R., either. I like watching a good tv show. I might even watch a few hours of tv. But a few hours of the same show? No. So I'm obviously not their target audience.

MikeN said...

I was expecting a different answer Ken.

Friday Question:
Would you write episodes differently for Netflix because there are no commercials?

PolyWogg said... interesting answer, and I confess, not what I was expecting. It also explains why I rarely watch any sitcoms on regular TV anymore (and rarely get hooked by streaming ones either) -- I'm all about serialized storytelling, and in the age of bingeing, even more so. I am catching up on one of my two sitcoms, Big Bang Theory, as they drive to the end, and I keep waiting for some of the smaller storylines to resolve. (The other is Cool Kids because you told me Carol Burnett was great, and I've watched about 6 or 7 EPs so far this year).

I expected you would say because there are no commercial breaks, and thus no soap-style pause scenes, or that some of the streamers go 30 minutes instead of 22, so the pacing is totally different within an episode. I've certainly noticed it with streaming dramas -- I stay "hooked" and don't feel like there is room in a 44 minute EP for them to "let you off the hook" with a tension reliever of a commercial, so they have to find ways to do it within the show. 44m of teen-age angst with no breaks in some shows is hard to sustain.

Leading into a FRIDAY question, I also struggle with explanations (yours and elsewhere) about single-camera and multi-camera shows. Looking back at shows I used to watch, I couldn't tell you which it was other than by laugh track. I'm not even sure I could tell you for some of my current shows. All dramas seem like Single?

Maybe I'm just stupid, but it doesn't seem to matter to me, so when you use the example or comparison, it doesn't "pop" for me as an explanation. Single camera vs. multi camera -- film-style filming vs. live audience, time to shoot is different, etc., but for you, what makes the "key essential difference"? Is it that the joke setup and delivery are different? The shooting of scene by scene vs. live-theatre style rehearsal of several scenes to be shot together? Break it down for us, ObiWan, you're my only hope. :)

aka PolyWogg

YEKIMI said...

A Friday ?: Admitting that things have changed nowadays [as far as viewing options go] what was your favorite network to work for/take an upcoming show to? Or was it an "Any port in a storm" choice? And if you were starting out nowadays would you be more likely to favor the streaming [i.e. internet] option or would you still go the traditional TV route? [I just get this mental image in my head of you saying "Not taking my show to that network! Fuck them! That damn suit looked at me cross-eyed last time we took a meeting!"]

I just get this feeling that the networks are throwing a lot of crap on the air because they're afraid the creators will take it to a streaming service where it'll become a hit.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I personally believe that "serialized" shows have never worked on broadcast television. It's what I refer to as "the soap opera effect." That is, if you miss one or two episodes you're lost for the rest of the season. This applies to dramas as well. That's one of the things I hated about "Gotham." ...Well, there was plenty to hate about that show, but... I don't know if you'd consider "The Good Place" serialized, but it has those elements. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of that show either. "The Good Wife" is another example of a show I didn't watch because of its serialized elements. I watched the first few episodes, but then realized that it would take too long for something to happen. Even if you are into a serialized show having to wait a week for the next episode is almost too long. That's the advantage streaming shows have. Since you don't have to wait for future episodes, the storylines are more cohesive. Of course, if you don't care about the story or the characters the format is irrelevant.
P.S. Off topic: RIP Google+

Jeff Boice said...

This talk of serialized episodes and story arcs reminded me to ask you about the M*A*S*H Season 4 episode "The Deluge". For most of that season M*A*S*H was set in 1952, we're told Col. Potter assumed command of the 4077 in September 1952. And in the episode where Hawkeyes' father is told that his son has died, Hawkeye can't get call Dad because the phone lines are all tied up due to President-elect Eisenhower's visit. But then right at the end of the season, we have "The Deluge" where it's 1950 and the Red Chinese enter the war. It's as if the producers originally figured the series was good for 5 years at the most (5 years also being the length of most of the actor contracts) but that with all the changes (cast and time slot) they realized M*A*S*H was going to continue beyond Season 5, and thus a setting back of the clock was in order.

therealshell said...

Short attention span ?

Brian Phillips said...

Friday Question: What are your thoughts on physical humor in a script that you write/co-write?

Myles said...

Mad Men was originally a premium cable channel show. Not a streaming show.

cadavra said...

You may quibble with this, but I don't consider MAISEL a comedy. I consider it a drama ABOUT comedy (cf., STUDIO 60 and the feature film FUNNY BONES). And because it is a drama, it lends itself better to the serialized format. Midge's journey (as well as those of the other characters) is worlds apart from people sitting in their living rooms or workplaces making wisecracks. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, to quote a certain sitcom.)

And not that it matters, but I think it's the best TV series in over a decade. ASP may be hell on wheels, but she sure delivers the goods and then some.

Tim B. said...

"Mad Men" was on AMC first, not on streaming (2007-2015). I don't recall exactly how much traction there is on the arcs in the first season, but I assure you that they are coming.

It is a great series, and worth the time.

Unknown said...

"To me that’s the exciting part. " So why aren't you doing it? Have enough money?

Dr Loser said...

Works pretty well as a distinction between US multi-cams and US streaming, Ken.

How do you see this argument standing up against British comedies, such as the 12 episode Fawlty Towers, or for that matter the 12 episode Office: Starring Ricky "Plonker" Gervais?

I suspect you can make it work either way.

Bob K said...

I dunno, Ken. You’ve mentioned previously that it’s important to get the audience to care about and root for the characters. I think Maisel does this in spades. You never want to see Midge bomb, you feel bad for Joel, etc. And to me, it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen on TV in a long long time. Yes, the format, the platform and the budget sure help, but none of that matters if the scripts and characters don’t deliver. I’ll give an example: While not comedies, The Sopranos and Mad Men were constantly held up as top-level TV. But I couldn’t stand either one because, to me, ALL the characters were just reprehensible people. There was nobody to root for. Again, just my opinion. I know I’m in the minority here.

Tyler said...

You actually can say "fuck" on the CBS streaming's happened on both the Star Trek: Discovery series and the new Twilight Zone.

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I don't like it on either show. At least it only happened in one of the Star Trek episodes...looks like profanity may be a staple of Twilight Zone.

Coram_Loci said...

South Park serielized a few years ago. Although that first season had some great moments, serialization coupled with topical humor make it difficult to watch in reruns.

A non-comedy, the X-Files was fun to watch. But if you missed a few weeks then you could expect to be lost. Although the show still airs in syndication, half the episodes are incomprehensible because of the convoluted story arc.

Years ago I read that comedy series' that conclude with a big event tying up the show's various loose ends don't do as well in syndication as those that lack such bowtieing. The proffered explanation: the audience's attention doesn't stay in the current episode; it leaps ahead to the resolutions in show’s finale.

As a non-streamer and non-bringer who misses large-audience shared cultural events, I am intrigued by Summer Special/Limited Run event mysteries like Broadchurch or American Gothic. Something planned out, well done, accessible to large audience, and forever a kind of temporal landmark: “That was the summer when the Orioles won 21 in a row, and Widow's Willow aired on CBS.”

Gary Theroux said...

One obvious secret behind the success of "Cheers" and "Frasier" was the fact that both series' episodes were built along not just one long-running story arch but multiple ones. Each episode alternated between at least two key ongoing story lines. Add to that leading characters with depth you grew to know ver well and truly care about over time plus first-rate writing and acting and the result, at least in the case of those two series, was television at its very best.

Shea said...

Had to smile about the "comfort food element" of watching certain network sit-coms, especially in syndication. I was just talking about this with a friend the other day (true story!), and said pretty much the same thing.

There was (and is) something sublimely comforting about running the remote on the TV and hitting an old "Frasier," or "Cheers," or even "Will and Grace" re-run. "News Radio," too! I'll stop on a dime and watch. We knew these characters, we loved them (and some have returned; it only took "Will and Grace" a few episodes to fall back into their familiar rhythm), so yeah, they even felt like "family."

The writing, the acting, the directing never fails. So I'll settle back and watch, or maybe get up to fix a bite, or fold laundry from the other room because simply hearing their voices makes me feel all comfy and homey, like friends (not "Friends" - never watched that show) are conversing and laughing and having a great time in the next room. Like hearing your kids play, squabbles and all. Voices in the room, voices in the other room, voices I love.

And then, pretty soon, it's back to reality, and I pause to think "Damn, that was great, really great. I miss them all."

I know I can stream those episodes now, and I've done that, but there was a time only a few years ago where syndication of "Frasier" made me feel as if I was curling up with a good book and a cup of high octane cocoa.