Where Have All the Comedies Gone?

By Jeff Holder and Juliette Holder

We always laugh when Lucy tries to get on Ricky’s show. Cliff Huxtable is a great father and his parenting is only surpassed by his humor. Sam and Diane were where everyone knew your name. And for a while, every show featured five friends in a New York apartment trading one-liners.

That was then.

Turn on your TV set tonight and try to find a comedy. They are about as rare as one of the spotted owls that we are supposed to protect.

The irony, of course, is that most Americans have over 200 channels from which to choose from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy. But, at 8:00 pm each night, the cry is heard, “There’s nothing on TV.”

Reality TV and news shows have surpassed the scripted comedy. The success of LAW & ORDER (and all of its permutations) has made crime drama – and sometimes a medical drama – about the only scripted shows on TV.

So where have all the comedies gone? Once upon a time (way back in 1979) there were only three networks, but there were 44 sitcoms on the air. Now, there’s only about three dozen over hundreds of channels.

There are many reasons cited for the decline of the comedy on television. Recycled plots and lame writing are mentioned. Even so, the same can be said for many genres of TV.

No, the sitcom is an endangered species because of money. A sitcom can cost as much or more as a one-hour drama, but only gives you one half the “TV time,” typically a half hour.

If you have $10 million to spend on an episode, Mr. TV Executive, will you spend it for a one-hour drama or a half-hour sitcom? Sheer numbers makes you vote for the one hour.

Reality TV is here because, in part, they are relatively inexpensive to make.

A TV executive has many decisions and they aren’t all about what sparkling water to have at lunch. His or her biggest decision is what to put on the air.

The cost of production goes up, and the ad dollars (revenue) goes down. Unions, high taxes, and outrageous talent fees for in front and behind the camera have all contributed to a season of scripted TV costing hundreds of millions. And, the costs keep going up!

Yet, revenue dwindles as audiences are fractured across hundreds of channels, the Internet, streaming of movies on TV, and all sorts of things. It doesn’t take an Econ major to figure out that increased costs and lowered revenue necessitates a change.

And, that change has been the sitcom’s decline on Network TV.

So, while we can vote people off stages or islands, we happily have 50 years of classic comedies to watch and many of them such as THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I LOVE LUCY or THE ANDY GRIFFTH SHOW remain hilarious, warm and family friendly. If, however, local cable channels decide to keep running these classic shows. . . .


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