You regulars will note that I often cite the works and thoughts of one Alan Wolk frequently, and there’s plenty of good reasons why I do. His TVREV.com site is one of the better compilations of media analysis and forethought out there, and his white papers are often filled with WTF insights that you tend not to see anywhere else. I’ve not yet personally crossed paths with him, but I suspect we’d get along. His LinkedIn suggests a storied career in consulting and leadership with agencies and digital media, and a East Coast background that implies he’d likely know where the best places to grab a good Jersey Italian meal might be,
But occasionally, even the best of us move a bit too far out of our comfort zones and offer perspectives that reveal where our blinder spots might be. And the one that Wolk dropped yesterday on Next TV.com is an unfortunate example that points out that for all Wolk may have done, he’s likely not to have spent too much time working for a studio or a network.
Prompted by this weekend’s tragic loss of Matthew Perry, and reminded as many of us are of the massive success FRIENDS achieved both in its initial run and continues to do so for virtually every of its many licensees, and certainly for its owners Warner Brothers Discovery, Wolk penned a plea for Bringing Back the Classic Sitcom. With broadcast TV running dry on traditional half-hour comedies, streamers should think about following this time-tested recipe beloved by viewers and advertisers alike.
He continues with several points about volume, mass appeal and advertiser friendliness that all make sense. If it were still, say, 1993, when shows like FRIENDS were being championed in a world yet to know significant first-run basic cable content, let alone streaming services, and at a time when even the weakest performing broadcast shows still drew 10 million viewers, they’d be especially actionable. It’s worth a complete read, if for no other reason that it reminds us of how far the business has evolved and strayed since then.
But I can assure you, to even come close to fulfilling these objectives today is right up there with any thoughts I might harbor about someday being elected Pope.
It’s not like others haven’t thought about this. Stations and networks panicked by previous perceived dearths of volume comedy have attempted to produce and distribute larger orders of comedies on several occasions. I’ve previously written about my own salad days when broadcast stations eagerly signed up for first-run comedies both created from scratch and out of the wreckage of “broken strips” that were arguably prematurely cancelled before they reached sufficient back-end bulk. More than a dozen such efforts dominated weekend schedules in the 1980s, including enough new episodes of the likes of WHAT’S HAPPENING!!, IT’S A LIVING, WE GOT IT MADE, 9 TO 5 and TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT to make five-day-a-week stripping possible and the kind of volume Wolk postulates is a win-win proposition.
In the mid-2000s, there was another business-driven rush that was started by one of the few successful independent syndication comedies left, Debmar-Mercury, when Tyler Perry decided in the wake of the demise of UPN and the WB there was a, pardon the pun, “white area” opportunity for a black family sitcom for many of those networks’ affiliates. 10 episodes of HOUSE OF PAYNE were quickly produced and distributed in the summer of 2006, with a suddenly refocused TBS, determined to be the home of original cable comedy, on board as well. Perry’s name and relentless promotion for a network housed in his beloved ATL produced initially strong ratings, over 5 million viewers for the first two episodes alone, and TBS quickly ordered up a total of 100. Now resurrected by BET, there are more than 300 original episodes in the hopper, not to mention more than 100 more of spin-offs, including a couple ordered by OWN during the Perry-Winfrey alliance.
But the same “10/90” format, where 90 additional episodes would immediately be ordered should the first 10 reach a pre-determined threshold, was far less successful when the same distributor partnered with Charlie Sheen, freshly released from TWO AND A HALF MEN, to produce a TV version of ANGER MANAGEMENT, with veteran showrunner Bruce Helford on board. On paper, looked like a great idea. But as THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Adam Kepler reported in 2013, once again, even talents like those, let alone the ones who bought into it, screw up:
The cable channel FX raised a few eyebrows last August when it agreed to order 90 more episodes of Charlie Sheen’s comedy “Anger Management,” after only 10 episodes had been shown. It was an unusually large commitment to a new show, not often seen in television.
Less than eight months later — and with 80 episodes left to go — the ratings for “Anger Management” suggest that the deal may have been a bit premature.
The most recent episode on March 14 drew about 850,000 total viewers, the show’s lowest audience ever according to Nielsen and a far, far cry from last June, when 5.47 million total viewers made the series premiere the most-watched scripted comedy broadcast in the history of FX.
When FX made their decision, “Anger Management” had averaged 3 million total viewers per episode over the course of its first season.
But the ratings have been on a steady decline ever since. The Season 2 premiere on Jan. 17 had 1.8 million total viewers and over all the season has averaged 1.25 million.
In the short term, “Anger Management” may get a lift in the ratings from a forthcoming guest appearance by Lindsay Lohan, in an episode currently scheduled to be shown in April. But the long-term ratings prospects for the show, at its current audience totals, paint a bleak picture.
Lindsay didn’t do a damn thing, and ask any station or network that Debamr-Mercury sweet-talked into buying the series what they thought of the ones that were produced.
It was around that time when I began consulting for Sony, who was in the midst of a long-term research project to help them determine what direction comedy was going in. They had struggled to get a forgettable CBS series called RULES OF ENGAGEMENT to the magic 100 episodes, and had just gotten a smattering of early success with THE GOLDBERGS, which recently completed a 10-year run on ABC. The preliminary stages of the research were just being completed by a well-intentioned executive who believed a consensus among target viewers could emerge to help their creatives focus on opportunities that could reinvigorate their aging catalogue of content. When I was brought in, I was asked to review some focus groups that produced anything but consensus. The simple question of “what do you find funny?” was producing wildly disparate results. Younger adults thought short-form user-generated videos defined it. Older adults yearned for a return to the kind of shows Wolk pines for. Black audiences who liked HOUSE OF PAYNE wanted more of that. Latinos thought nothing was on the air that reflected their tastes. The head of the department and I quietly agreed that despite the earnestness of the executives seeking these answers, we were beating a dead horse. And besides, the creatives who had been sold on the idea in the first place had long since moved past the point of passionate support after witnessing some of those early groups.
I would ask Wolk if he was aware of any of this, or the fact that even the most prolific producers of previous successes have struggled in some of their more recent attempts. Chuck Lorre flopped miserably with B POSITIVE, and BOB HEART ABISHOLA, while still in production, is a shadow of the ratings and the weight class that star Billy Gardell offered up on the similarly themed MIKE AND MOLLY, which itself has been a modest performer for its numerous licensees. Norman Lear fought tooth and nail to get four seasons out of Netflix and, eventually POP, with the Latino-themed ONE DAY A TIME, but when pandemic opportunity put those episodes on CBS the results were tepid. Same is sadly true for the recently rebooted FRASIER, whose own recent CBS outing produced roughly two-thirds the audience of a prime time episode of THE PRICE IS RIGHT.
And Paramount+ isn’t the only streamer that has attempted and struggled to produce a “mainstream” comedy–Hulu recently called it quits on HOW I MET YOUR FATHER after two meh seasons, and Peacock’s library is littered with failures of attempted resurrections of PUNKY BREWSTER, SAVED BY THE BELL and newly produced episodes of A.P. BIO.
There’s also the business reality that American sitcoms rarely travel well; indeed, FRIENDS’ popularity in the UK and elsewhere was a rarity. When sitcoms are sold internationally, they often are relegated to lesser time slots that command fewer dollars. Their value to FAST channels and foreign streamers are in line with, say, what you might see here on Britbox. It’s why Sony ultimately threw in the towel on that end of their business last year, just as THE GOLDBERGS–which never delivered strong rerun ratings–was sunsetting.
And even those who made FRIENDS have had their misfires. One of HBO’s pre-SOPRANOS “successes” was a sitcom called DREAM ON, co-created by Marta Kauffmann, Kevin Bright and David Crane, among others. DREAM ON, as Wikipedia reminds, was an homage to the sitcom itself:
The opening indicates Martin’s mother parked him in front of the TV and he then grew up engrossed in it. It briefly shows a babysitter making out with a boyfriend behind young Martin, hence the association of sex with his memories. The show was notable for its frequent use of clips from old movies and TV shows to express Martin’s inner life and feelings, which lent it much of its quirky appeal, reminding viewers about the impact of TV on their consciousness.
If you don’t remember DREAM ON, you’re excused; being a “hit” for HBO in the early 1990s meant hitting a far lower bar. And without the nudity and profanity that the pay cable version offered, it was an outright bomb for the likes of FOX and Comedy Central which each took flyers on the reruns. Much like the tortured young mind of its central character, wishing for the glory days versus actually being able to make it happen, be it comedy writing or sex, is a lot easier said than done.
And if this is the track record of the best in class, can you imagine how massive the odds are that someone less experienced or talented will be able to do it? Especially with a generation of writers who have all but eschewed the very kind of comedy that Wolk is pining for now the ones best suited to try?
You still have my immense respect, Mr. Wolk. And you’re not wrong. But to think it’s a realistic possibility to make a “new classic” that enough people define as “funny” as 2024 rolls around? Sorry, Alan. In this case, dream on.
Until next time…