I read an article in Variety over the weekend — I can’t link to it because of the paywall, so good business move there, Variety — about ABC’s smash success with Modern Family, and the question of whether they can leverage it to create a really dominant comedy lineup, the way NBC did with The Cosby Show in the ’80s. No comparison is perfect, and I don’t think any network now can do quite what NBC did in the ’80s: that network was extremely lucky, because it already had several good comedies on the air (developed by the great Grant Tinker) that simply weren’t getting enough eyeballs because the whole network was in such bad shape. The network, realizing that Cosby was a likely hit, followed it with three pre-existing comedies in new time slots, and those shows all became hits. ABC doesn’t have that; like all the networks — even CBS — they cut way back on their half-hour comedy production when they thought (as in the ’80s) that the hour-long drama with comic elements was going to become the big new thing. The Cosby revival of comedy, real though it was, wouldn’t have happened if the network had had to try and produce new hit comedies from scratch; NBC already had committed itself to comedy development for two years before Cosby came along.
But as ABC tries to develop new comedies and considers whether or not to open up another comedy night (the collapse of nearly all their new dramas may make them less reluctant to try this), one of the big questions is what they’re going to do with their most valuable piece of real estate, the slot after their one big comedy hit. This slot is currently occupied by Cougar Town, which loses a lot of Modern Family‘s audience but still posts the second-best comedy numbers on the network. It’s a classic time-slot hit, in other words: a good show that can do decently after a big hit, but probably wouldn’t do so well anywhere else. CBS has something similar going on with Shat My Dad Says, which has performed better than it probably deserves — it’s gone up in the ratings for two straight weeks — but is probably not good enough to pull an audience anywhere else. So, if you’re a network, what do you do with that slot: do you keep a time-slot hit there for another year or two, knowing that its performance is pretty good in the abstract, or do you try and use that slot to launch another show that could possibly become a hit on its own?
The issue of what to do with these post-hit timeslots is more pressing than ever this season because it’s very clear that after a hit comedy is the best place for a new show to be. It’s been noted several times that the dramas mostly bombed this year while the comedies have mostly done decently. That’s true — except the reason is that most of the comedies were placed after established hit comedies; Outsourced is doing okay because it comes after The Office. The exceptions are Raising Hope, which is after a big hit but not in the same hour (the “time slot” effect applies much more at 8:30 than at 9, since at the beginning of the hour people are more likely to switch to a drama), and Running Wilde, the only new comedy with the misfortune not to come right after a successful show, and not coincidentally, the only big flop comedy of the season. ABC’s Better With You, which comes after the middling success The Middle (though The Middle is my favourite ABC offering) has ratings that fall somewhere between Outsourced and Running Wilde; BWY managed to get a pickup for a full season, whereas Running Wilde bombed largely because it had the bad luck to be after a new show. It seems like ratings for new comedies in a weak season are entirely dependent on the comedies introduced in previous seasons.
This season’s crop, in any case, isn’t likely to provide the new big hits that networks are looking for. So when they do introduce new comedies in midseason and next season, they’ll have to decide what they’re looking for in their post-hit spots: are they trying to find a show that can stay there comfortably for a while? Or are they trying to use that as a springboard for comedies that can stand on their own?
There’s no clear rule as to how a valuable slot should be used. NBC rarely used the post-Cosby Show slot as a “springboard” slot. Instead they left Family Ties there for several years, moving it only when they came up with the Cosby spinoff A Different World for that slot. Different World stayed in that slot for several years. It was a place for shows that were compatible with Cosby. But the 9:30 slot, after Cheers, rotated more shows, and starting in the early ’90s the slot sort of became the place to audition potential Cheers replacements — first Wings, and finally Seinfeld proved itself the worthier successor. And once Seinfeld had the 9:00 slot, the first show that aired at 9:30 after it was Frasier, which became a hit and was instantly moved to its own night. After that, NBC became notorious for rotating shows in and out of the 9:30 slot like crazy, trying to repeat the success of Seinfeld and Frasier, but never coming up with another viable hit in that slot (and even leading Seinfeld to make jokes about “time-slot hits”).
Another network that managed to use a “springboard” slot successfully was Fox in the late ’90s: the network gave the slot after The Simpsons to many promising new comedies, rarely giving any of them the slot for more than a year or a year and a half at a time. King of the Hill, That ’70s Show, Futurama and Malcolm in the Middle all launched there in the course of only a few years. That has to be considered a success, though most of those shows were not in fact strong enough to go out on their own and anchor a night. That ’70s Show was the only one of these shows that really worked leading off a time slot instead of following another show. But from our point of view, rather than the network’s, it’s probably a good thing that they used the slot this way: it could be frustrating to see shows moving around all the time, but the upshot was that all these good shows got a successful launch and got to run for a while, whereas most of them would probably have died an early death if they’d launched in less-desirable time slots.
None of this really answers what ABC should do with the post-Modern Family slot, though I think it’s obvious that Cougar Town can’t stay there for long. What we can say is this: a hit comedy is an incredibly useful thing for a network to have, but especially if that network is producing a lot of other worthwhile comedies that need to catch the public’s attention. If, on the other hand, they have mostly weak new comedies, then the post-hit timeslot is an annoyance to the public, a place where shows succeed based mostly on inertia.