The Comedy Drought

Aging off-net sitcoms lose viewers

The well-documented dearth of comedy on broadcast TV is quickly becoming no laughing matter. According to a new study by Magna Global, comedy viewership on networks and cable and in syndication dropped from last season's record-high numbers.

This season, the average household spends 4.55 hours per week watching comedies on television, down from 5.26 last year. On broadcast, the average home sees just 0.44 hours a week, down from 0.71 last year. In syndication alone, the average household watches 1.56 hours per week, down from 1.78 last year. And as the top syndicated comedies continue to show their age, another year has gone by without a breakout network comedy hit.

The Magna Global report notes that viewers are spending more time watching Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld and Friends now (in their sixth, 12th and ninth years in syndication, respectively) than when the shows were at the height of their popularity on the networks. But the ratings are sinking fast.

For the week ended March 11, the top syndicated player, Raymond, was down 16% on the year, to a 5.4 rating average. Seinfeld was also down 16%, to a 4.9, and Friends was down 24%, to a 3.7.

And there is not much help on the way.

The broadcast networks contributed 20 of the 22 comedies in syndication, but they have scaled back in recent years as the category has been flailing.

And although the networks have turned out a few sitcoms that have long-term potential this season, none of them have the kind of ratings that allow syndicators to dream of reaching that magic 100th episode.

But Magna Global's Steve Sternberg sees the networks renewing their commitment to making the comedy genre work.

“With procedural dramas and reality series saturating the network schedules,” he writes in his report, “we'll probably see an increase in the number of comedies next season.”

But networks and studios should note that most viewers want to see comedies that are more family-oriented and less edgy, adds Sternberg.

“Families do want to watch television together and are looking for comedies that fit that mold,” he writes. “The bulk of viewers are not looking for the next Arrested Development; they're looking for the next Everybody Loves Raymond.”

But with more-quirky programs like NBC's 30 Rock attracting the bulk of the comedy buzz this year, don't bet on seeing too many Raymond-esque multi-camera family sitcoms anytime soon.


Cover Story: The Great Reckoning

The end comes even for the most enduring hits. Deciding when to retire an aging show is one of the toughest choices a network has to make. And with only two weeks until the upfronts, time is running out.