The Season That Slaughtered the Sitcom

I was revisiting NewsRadio season 5, and on one of the commentaries, Paul Simms mentioned a season “where NBC had 18 sitcoms. So you can thank them for killing the multi-camera sitcom.” I checked, and discovered the season he was referring to was 1997-8. Though the Wikipedia schedule doesn’t apply to the entire year (NewsRadio was moved from Tuesday to Wednesday at some point, and shows rotated in and out of the Thursday slots), NBC did in fact have 18 sitcom slots that year: Monday through Thursday all had four sitcoms followed by a drama at 10, and there were two other sitcoms on Sunday. Now that’s what I call overkill.

The sense of a sitcom glut was increased by the fact that nearly all these shows were identical: four-camera sitcoms about young, affluent white people living in New York City. This description applied to the good ones (NewsRadio, Seinfeld, Friends) and the bad ones (almost anything airing after Seinfeld or Friends) alike. NBC’s overdose of comedy, combined with the fact that most of the comedies were the same and that the new ones weren’t in the class of Seinfeld/Friends/Frasier, made the network a joke and made it clear that they didn’t have much in reserve to replace Seinfeld. And this was Seinfeld‘s last season.

It was in a way the comedy equivalent of ABC’s decision, a few years later, to do Who Wants to Be A Millionaire every night. In drama, CBS is currently becoming a punchline for a similar reason, since they have the same type of drama on over and over. It’s taken longer for that strategy to become a problem (maybe because dramas are easier to schedule than comedies, which have to be paired off), but the failure of the Criminal Minds spinoff, Laurence Fishburne leaving CSI and the lower-than-expected numbers for Hawaii 5-0 suggest that the network might finally have passed the saturation point.

But back to comedy, 1997-8 also saw the collapse of the family comedy, also because of over-saturation, though of a more specialized type. ABC filled its TGIF lineup with clones of Sabrina, and CBS, which was trying to launch its own family comedy block, unveiled its own magical-person comedy, the legendarily terrible Meego. The CBS lineup never got off the ground; ABC’s TGIF brand was never able to fully recover from having three versions of the same show in one night.

The lesson is a simple and familiar one: TV networks can never resist copying their own successes. It works for a while – after all, NBC reacted to the success of Seinfeld by rolling out Friends and Mad About You. But 18 versions of the same thing is probably too much.

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