There are a surprising number of worthwhile, “Tolja”-free posts at Deadline Hollywood Daily since Nellie Andreeva (formerly of the Hollywood Reporter) started posting there. Recently she had a post about an interesting phenomenon on the network schedules for this season: except for CBS, all the networks have gone almost 100% single-camera in their comedy pickups. They all — again, except CBS — ordered roughly equal numbers of single-camera and multi-camera pilots, but the only multi-camera pilot they ordered to series was ABC’s Better Together, a Friends clone from a Friends producer. This despite the fact that single-camera shows are more expensive to produce.
Of course, the likeliest reason for this is that the networks had yet another bad development slate of multi-camera shows. Why the networks are so bad at developing multi-camera shows is another question. (Even CBS isn’t that great at it, in my opinion; but because they’re so committed to the form, they have more multi-camera pilots to choose from — plus their relationship with Chuck Lorre has paid off.) There are some suggestions in Andreeva’s comments, ranging from plausible suggestions to dumb ones. The dumb suggestion is that young viewers don’t like multi-camera shows, which would surprise the people who run the Disney Channel. The plausible one is that “When a single-cam show fails, they blame the content. When a multi-cam fails, they now blame the genre.”
Part of what might be going on is that single-camera shows are better equipped to withstand the current system of executive interference, where people from the network hover over every aspect of every episode from beginning to end. (Rather than, as traditionally, stepping in with a few notes and then making the big changes to the “big picture,” i.e. forcing the producers to add a sassy robot or something.) Single-camera shows film all over the place, and the jokes only need to get a laugh at the table read — hard enough, since these reads are often filled with network notes types. Multi-camera shows film everything in the studio, allowing for what we might call “centralized” interference, and they have to adjust jokes for the taste of the executives and the studio audience, possibly even when these tastes contradict each other. I remember hearing complaints in the late ’90s and early ’00s that executives would no longer allow sitcoms the kind of hands-off treatment they’d given to Larry David on Seinfeld; instead, they were constantly suggesting not just general story/emotion points but entire plot twists and jokes. That happens with single-camera, too, but it’s marginally easier to avoid and therefore marginally easier to come up with a pilot that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter.
One result of this is the change in the way multi-camera and single-camera sitcoms are perceived. It used to be that if a comedy had a lot of improvisation, it would be a multi-camera show like Bosom Buddies; if a show had a writing staff that did everything by the seat of its pants and threw in wildly surreal humour, it would be a multi-camera show like NewsRadio. By comparison, single-camera sitcoms seemed stiffer and more formula-ridden, with the actors unable to loosen up the way they could in front of an audience.
Now, it’s the exact opposite. Single-camera directors and producers have found ways to make the actors seem loose and fun — to the point that every single-camera cast is asked, constantly, whether they improvise a lot of their lines. (They don’t and can’t. It’s really, really expensive to let people improvise dialogue while the camera is rolling. That’s why Curb Your Enthusiasm uses cheap video and multiple cameras.) Whereas multi-camera sitcoms have so many pressures on them — including, I think, actors who tend to feel more comfortable without an audience rather than with one — that they come off as “canned” and it’s the single-camera shows that seem “live.” At least comparatively. I still think there’s something about the single-camera format that makes a show feel over-produced and over-thought, which is why the most successful examples of the genre tend to be the ones that are shot quick n’ dirty. (That’s one of the reasons why the mock documentaries work. They don’t have as many fancy setups and lighting decisions as the elaborately-produced shows.) But multi-camera is supposed to provide a fresher, more spontaneous alternative to the normal method of TV filming, and it’s not providing that at the moment.
Like everything that happens in television, artistically or commercially, the dominance of the single-camera sitcom is not a completely new thing. Most filmed sitcoms were single-camera when the format transferred to TV — until Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz popularized the idea of using three film cameras in front of an audience — and in the ’60s, single camera was the default setting for almost any comedy that didn’t have Lucille Ball in it. The difference, I suppose, is that back then there were single-camera sitcoms that were gigantic hits, like The Andy Griffith Show or M*A*S*H. Now it’s very hard for a single-camera half-hour to become a genuine hit, yet the format has taken over anyway. That’s partly a reflection of the current situation, where mega-hits are hard to come by and networks see the value in shows that have strong demographic appeal and lots of replay value in new media. A good single-camera comedy is young-skewing and, at only 20 minutes, is ideal for online viewing.
I’ll add that I still think networks might want to consider reviving the laugh track (the essential component of the single-camera show in its ’50s and ’60s heyday), since this might go some way toward helping some of these shows find a larger audience. However, I realize this is basically impossible; I’ve argued that Cougar Town‘s hobbled comedy rhythms would be stronger with a laugh track, but the bad publicity and reviews from such a move would cancel out any advantages.