In retrospect, 2009 turned out to be a pretty amazing year for television comedies. Parks and Recreation – which if nothing else, introduced to world to Chris Pratt – did its initial six episode run in spring of that year. When it came back in the fall, it was joined on the schedule by Community (#SixSeasonsAndAMovie) on Thursday nights, while ABC rolled out its single camera, no laugh track comedy Wednesday which as since become a staple for that network.
Of the four comedies that premiered in late September, only Hank, the one with the the biggest star in Kelsey Grammer, didn’t make a significant mark on the television landscape. Cougar Town, a show that would have ran longer if not for its horrible, horrible name, did several seasons before finishing its run on TBS. Modern Family, of course, will go down as one of television’s top comedies in history while The Middle, MF’s unpretentious yet earnest cousin, ends its nine year run tomorrow night with a 60 minute swan song.
This is all been a long preamble to my main point: television, as we know it, has been irrevocably changed during the run of The Middle, which has been one of my favorite comedies over the last few years. Back in 2009, television was still figuring out how to have comedies without laugh tracks, for example. The Office, then in its fourth season, didn’t have one, yet the biggest salary on television went to Charlie Sheen, the headliner of Two and a Half Men (and two years from his famed flame out).
Just nine years prior to The Middle’s premiere, The Sopranos shocked the television world by winning the Golden Globe for Best Television Drama. Two years later, in 2002, Six Feet Under took home the prize, which saw the first time in history that two cable series had made the final five. The next year, when The Shield nabbed the statue, cable accounted for 3/5. 2008, the first of two consecutive years that Mad Men won, four of five series came from cable (Grey’s Anatomy being the sole broadcast nominee). By 2012, no broadcast shows were nominated, and since then, only The Good Wife, Empire and This is Us have even made the top five for nominations.
With that all in mind, we approach the 2018-19 Broadcast Television Upfronts. If you don’t know, these are presentations that each of the networks make to prospective advertisers to garner their advertising prices for the fall premieres. To put it another way, if you’re planning to watch This is Us in the fall, this is how the networks determine how much they’re going to get per 30 second commercial, which allows them to determine how much they’ll have for shows next year, and so the wheel keeps on turning.
If there was a subheading for this year’s presentations, it might as well have been “What’s Old Is New Again”, as the broadcasters keep looking for ways to keep their audiences from running to cable. To put it in perspective, I watch a lot of television – it IS a golden age, after all. I grew up on shows like Cheers, Newhart, Frasier and so on, and always loved the Nick at Nite runs of older stuff like Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart…all distributed by the big four networks, of course (FOX, NBC, ABC and CBS, with The CW being a relatively new invention). So, taking myself as an example, it would certainly concern broadcasters that for the first time since I can remember, I won’t be watching any comedies in any of the Big Five once The Middle dips below the horizon on Wednesday night, and that my only broadcast program will be the fairly unique and certainly unusual This is Us. That someone like me who probably has close to three dozen shows on his slate only devotes a single hour to broadcast television is certainly a change since The Middle began its run.
The broadcast networks don’t really seem to have an answer for this. 10-15 years ago, a successful show was considered to have north of 10 million viewers, and now the vast majority simply don’t. So you can hardly blame the broadcasters for looking to the past for better days. A couple of years ago, NBC did a small reunion of Will and Grace for a publicity campaign. The idea proved to be so popular that the peacock network revived the show in its entirety (which required setting aside the events of its series finale, but hey, who needs continuity?). The idea proven successful, it’s already been renewed for two seasons. Meanwhile, ABC brought Roseanne out of mothballs. Despite networks constantly advocating the pursuit of younger eyeballs, my cousin turned 21 yesterday, and was born literally on the same day that Roseanne ended its nine year run.
Indeed, have a look at the fall schedule. CBS, which already was running reboots of Hawaii Five-0, S.W.A.T., MacGyver and three versions of NCIS, also resurrected stalwart journalism comedy Murphy Brown, and rebooted Magnum P.I. Fox will be continuing its reboot of Lethal Weapon, despite having ***spoiler alert*** killed the character of Martin Riggs, who is literally the titular lethal weapon, and The CW is bringing us another round of the trio of witches from Charmed. NBC seems to have been left out of the reboot game, but has an entire night devoted to its Chicago series – doctors at 8pm, firefighters at 9pm and the cops at 10 (Wednesday nights, if you’re interested).
The upfronts weren’t without their own version of musical chairs, either. FOX has resurrected Last Man Standing from the ether. LMS, cancelled the ABC last year, set off something of a conservative whine-fest, where it seemed as if the “liberal” ABC was shuffling the right-wing Tim Allen off the network. For those interested, the reasons were, of course, much more complex. LMS is a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh-track, and it did relatively well on Fridays. However, ABC wanted to reboot their Friday lineup to edge more towards the sci-fi/fantasy area, taking advantage of voids left by other networks, like NBC’s Grimm, which ended last year. They moved Once Upon a Time and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD onto the night. At the time, LMS was partnered with an unsuccessful multi-camera comedy about a LGBTQ teenager. Once the latter was cancelled, the alphabet net had no other place to put LMS, as multi-cam, laugh-track comedies don’t generally pair well with single camera shows without the laughers. Plus, LMS was licensed to them from FOX, and the licensing fees were about to go up. So, without a place in their lineup to put it, the show getting more expensive and the math that shows mid-level comedies generally begin to lose audience around season seven, ABC nixed the show.
However, that decision proved to be short-sighted, as the resurrected Roseanne became a hit, and LMS would have proven to be a good, conservative-leaning B side. FOX, looking to draw on the conservative comedy audience, snatched LMS on a two-year deal, axing the quirky and well-loved Brooklyn 99 in the process. B99’s fans – including Mark Hamill and Lin-Manuel Miranda – were in an uproar, but somehow managed to avoid creating a liberal/conservative conspiracy theory. However, it seemed that B99 was in the same situation that LMS has been the previous year – it was licensed from NBC and the right fees were about to go up. NBC pounced, saving B99 after just a day or so on the unemployment line, with NBC’s President proud as a peacock (pun intended) to bring the show back into the fold after regretting selling it in the first place.
In the end, too, it’s funny that ABC has moved two comedies back to the early hour on Friday nights, making the whole thing come off as one big “oops”.
That year – in 2009 – when The Middle premiered, it hits the airwaves with an entire night of new comedies on Wednesday. NBC still had its stalwart Must-See-TV on Thursday nights, that year featuring Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock (another past Golden Globe winner for best comedy). CBS held down the fort on Mondays, with a lineup featuring How I Met Your Mother and the aforementioned Two and a Half Men.
If you look at any list of top television shows in history, many (even most) those that come from the best years of broadcast are generally 30 minute comedies, and in 2009, there were north of a dozen on the airwaves. Yet, it’s interesting that not a single comedy that didn’t feature the character Sheldon Cooper even cracked the Top 100 in 2017. Is this because the viewers don’t want it? Seems unlikely, with the successes of Will and Grace and Roseanne. More likely, the networks aren’t making great comedies anymore. And as The Middle departs the airwaves and I look down a DVR without any broadcast comedies, I have to wonder why. At some point, you wonder if the networks will figure this out as well.
If, like me, you’d like to say goodbye to The Family Heck on The Middle, it’ll be on ABC tomorrow night at 8:30pm ET.