NBC's Focusing on Multi-camera Comedies, and That's Okay

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NBC President Bob Greenblatt announced today that the network was going to focus more on multi-camera sitcoms in the future. That means shows shot on a sound stage in front of a studio audience, like almost every major sitcom of the 20th century. That means they’re going to have a laugh track, which will sound canned even if it’s not. Along with the upcoming end of Parks and Recreation, this puts a nice, conclusive cap on NBC’s long reign as the best broadcast network for comedy, an era that essentially ended in 2013 when 30 Rock and The Office ended.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that NBC’s shifting away from smart, innovative comedy—it’s possible to make good projects using that ancient structure. Some of the best shows ever had a laugh track, and as recently as the late ’90s Seinfeld and Newsradio were great despite laugh tracks. And NBC still has some single-cam sitcoms in development, including a newly announced one starring Eva Longoria. Still, many viewers today find that traditional sitcom format old-fashioned and inherently corny. The cinematic, single-camera style has signified a classier, smarter brand of comedy since the turn of the century. It’s hard to think of an acclaimed sitcom from the 2000’s that wasn’t single-camera. When Friends and Frasier went off the air in 2004, and NBC’s Thursday night line-up later became dominated by single-cam shows, it seemed like the end of the multi-cam sitcom.

Of course ratings have never borne that out. NBC jumped whole-heartedly into single-cam, but despite earning accolades and passionate fans, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Community never did well in the ratings. Shows like Up All Night, Kath and Kim, and the criminally ignored Andy Barker PI came and went with neither commercial nor critical success. The Office was the last of NBC’s Thursday night sitcoms to turn into a hit, and it was a relatively modest one. Meanwhile CBS has crushed the competition with Chuck Lorre’s family of raunchy one-liner fests, including Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and 2 Broke Girls.

If NBC totally turns its back on single-cams, the genre will still survive on Fox and ABC. With shows like Brooklyn Nine Nine, New Girl and The Mindy Project, Fox has replaced NBC as the network home for smart comedy. ABC, meanwhile, is the only network to find lasting ratings success with the single-cam. They did that by basically taking the traditional family multi-cam sitcom and removing the audience and all but one camera, resulting in hits like Modern Family, The Middle and Black-ish.

It’s not shocking to see NBC shift focus like this. The signs were evident late last year when they surprisingly handed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the widely anticipated new single-cam from Tina Fey and her 30 Rock co-producer Robert Carlock, over to Netflix. Previous NBC President Jeff Zucker famously used to say they were programming for the margins, conceding overall Nielsen wins in favor of preferable demographics. That’s led to NBC becoming a shell of its former self, from the most popular player in the industry to a network that now relies almost entirely on football and a singing show. Zucker’s leadership might have created an atmosphere where all-time classic sitcoms prospered (and a line-up of 30 Rock, Parks, Community and even late-period The Office was as strong as Must See TV ever got, quality-wise), but ratings never materialized, so now they’re chasing the success of CBS.

The good news for fans of comedy is that the networks mean less today than ever, and will only grow less important from here. Between cable, streaming and the internet there’s no end to the amount of smart comedy you can find. Those beholden to nostalgia or who are wrapped up in NBC’s status as a comedy stalwart might be disappointed, but there’s no rational reason for the average viewer to care about this decision. This makes it more unlikely that we’ll ever see a show as brilliant but unpopular as Parks and Recreation get a traditional 22-order season again, but from a quality perspective shorter seasons are probably better, anyway. Let the networks return to the warm embrace of the 20th century; we’ll be watching High Maintenance on Vimeo and Man Seeking Woman on FXX.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.