This was supposed to be the year that popular stars Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes and Robin Williams triumphantly returned to television and saved the sitcom. But of these three, only Williams is still on the air — and his new show, CBS' The Crazy Ones, is more "solid" than "smash."
"It's hard to launch comedy even in the best of circumstances," says NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. And network TV circa 2014 is not experiencing the best of circumstances. NBC pulled The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World off the network's Thursday night lineup this winter after both shows attracted just around 3 million viewers a week. (Michael J. Fox's remaining episodes may still air.
"Sean Hayes is a star and an amazing actor, but no one came in to watch," says one producer. "Michael J. Fox is a star and deserves to have an audience. No one showed up to watch."
Network comedy is still no laughing matter. Despite TV executives' hopes that this season would see a resurgence of successful sitcoms in primetime, few freshman half-hours have resonated with viewers. "The tough nut to crack right now is a mass-appeal network comedy," says TV writer/executive producer Bill Lawrence (Cougar Town, Scrubs).
Besides The Crazy Ones, CBS' other new Thursday comedy, The Millers, is also performing decently, thanks to its Big Bang Theory lead-in. But the network's Monday-night lineup (How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly and Mom) has taken a beating, with new entry We Are Men quickly axed. "It was a harder go of it this year," admits CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler. The Eye network can at least breathe one sigh of relief: Megahit Big Bang has just been renewed for three more seasons. That will give CBS more time to use the show as a vehicle to launch new contenders.
On NBC, the attempt to make over its Thursday sitcom block with Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show was a dud, and Community and Parks and Recreation remain still little more than cult favorites. And yet both will likely be back next year.
New entries like ABC's Trophy Wife and Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine earned positive reviews (and Brooklyn even won the Golden Globe for best comedy), but neither has moved the Nielsen needle. Even among veteran shows, Big Bang stands alone as a monster hit. ABC's Modern Family is still a major player, but has suffered serious ratings erosion. (ABC also hasn't been able to launch a hit behind it, including this season's Super Fun Night and Mixology.)
The Comedy Comeback That Wasn't has again forced network executives to scramble to figure out their plans for next fall. NBC, in particular, has been aggressive, giving early series orders to several new shows, including Mr. Robinson, starring The Office alum Craig Robinson as a music teacher. Mr. Robinson was originally shot as a pilot last year with Office executive producer Greg Daniels, but is being reworked with new showrunners Robb and Mark Cullen. "It's going to be ridiculous," Robinson says of working with the Cullens, who produced his first show, FX's Lucky. "I'm looking forward to what these guys are bringing."
NBC also ordered 13 episodes of a Tina Fey-produced comedy starring another Office actor, Ellie Kemper, as a former cult member. The network picked up the family comedy Working the Engels as well, plus a sitcom from Amy Poehler based on the life of her brother Greg, who stars as himself. Fox already has Mulaney, created by and starring SNL writer John Mulaney; Last Man on Earth, starring Will Forte; and Weird Loners, starring Zachary Knighton and Becki Newton.
The number of series orders this early in the year has some in the industry scratching their heads. In August 2012, NBC gave a 22-episode commitment to The Michael J. Fox Show before anything had been filmed. Says one exec: "Do I think NBC regrets the 22-episode pickup? Well based on ratings, they ought to. That's why shows get canceled. You make a commitment to a show and pick it up and you don't even know what it is."
That exec suggests a number of reasons why the networks continue to struggle with the comedy genre:
-- Shows are being sold to the highest bidder, not necessarily the right network.
-- Development executives are stretched too thin, trying to manage a slate of too many projects. "They can't focus," the exec says.
-- Networks are giving hefty commitments to projects sight unseen. "You don't pick up a show that you don't know what it is," he says. "Arranged marriages are never happy."
-- Veteran actors are still being pursued as leads, even though shows like Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond have proved that sitcoms can work better when they create new stars. "Everyone goes after the same people. You're recasting all the people that failed in [previous] shows," the exec says. "Jenna Elfman will be on the board again, [as well as] Matthew Perry. We keep on doing the same thing. Hopefully this year the networks will realize it's not necessarily about stars."
Then there's the old debate between single-camera shows — which are sometimes derided as too smart and hip for mass appeal — and multi-camera shows — considered generic and dated because of loud audience laughs and over-the-top jokes.
Most of comedy's syndication success stories (Seinfeld, Friends, The Big Bang Theory) are multi-camera, which explains why CBS' lineup is still the envy of other networks, and why everyone else keeps trying to bring the format back. Universal TV executive vice president Bela Bajaria says she has noticed more multi-camera comedy pilots this spring. "You see that increasing each year," she says, even though most are never picked up to series.
Lawrence, who started off writing multi-camera shows, says he eventually came around to the single-cam world (and even created two long-running ones, Cougar Town and Scrubs): "Coming from a multi-camera training, I was like, 'Where are the jokes?' It didn't feel noisy enough. But I came over to the other side. Parks and Recreation is my favorite comedy on TV now. I love the rhythm of these comedies. But I would still say that single-camera shows that don't work err on the side of just not being funny."
Meanwhile, as the ratings get lower, the networks are looking at reasons beyond just live or live-plus-same-day ratings in renewing shows. Fox just renewed three low-rated Tuesday night series (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl and The Mindy Project) because all three attract upscale viewers and expand their audience once live-plus-three-day ratings arrive. Besides, there's no guarantee new replacements would do any better. (Likely they'll do worse.)
"I think the problem is that networks still look with a hopeful eye and ask, 'Is this going to be the next Cosby Show?" Lawrence says. "No. I think with every big hit, the odds are that the next hit will not be as big as that. [My 1996 show] Spin City's ratings its first year dwarf all of these shows. And it was not even in the top five at the time."
Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, one of the architects of NBC's "Must See TV" lineup, says the networks need to learn something from FX's critical darling Louie. "It's about a vision, a voice that they turned loose," he says. "In some ways I'm reminded of the brilliant union of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. We just got the hell out of their way and let them go. It seems like cable is without fear. They turn artists lose and wonderful things happen. The last breakout network comedy was Modern Family. Boy, are we hungry for more."
Lawrence says he believes that "the reality for network TV is they either bend and become more like cable or they get zoned out. I don't think it's a bad era for anybody other than the ones clinging to the traditional business model. I'm not sweating it. Content is still king."
At least the cyclical nature of network TV means that the business gets a do over every year. Perhaps this fall will be the season when the networks find at least one new broad-appeal comedy. "It's been a tough year, but I'm still optimistic," one studio chief says. "There are some good shows out there in the pipeline."