Laughter Tracks

A Blog About Television Sitcoms

Classic Television Networks and the Subchannel

metv-360x360On February 17, 2009, all full-power stations ended their analog broadcasting and made the move to exclusive digital broadcasting.  One of the outcomes of this transition is that a lot more data can be sent on a radio frequency channel.  A station can have many subchannels if one is willing to compromise on quality.  So if the the primary affiliate channel for a station in your hometown is 16.1, then 16.2 and 16.3 can be used for other programming.  This is a particularly exciting for people who do not have cable or satellite in their homes because more diversity in programming is available to them alongside a much clearer picture than analog broadcasting.

A number of classic television networks have developed filling in secondary channels.  Some of these include Me TV, Antenna TV, Retro Television (RTV) which all include shows primarily from the 1950s until the 1980s.  Some others include Bounce TV,  which specializes in African-American programming, and This TV, which shows classic films alongside a few shows.  For those of us who love classic television, these are exciting times.  The programming on Me TV and Antenna TV is much more diverse and broad in terms of classic television programming than Nick at Nite and TV Land have been in the past.  These two networks show classic television programming virtually 24 hours a day with a few exceptions.

Although I have Dish Network at home, I went out and purchased a $10 antenna to see what I was missing.  Not only were the channels clear, the reruns I remember watching as I child kept me glued to the set.  With these networks not having to spend money on new productions and this nostalgic programming as a viable option for subchannels for stations, I predict these types of networks are here to stay.  While many of the shows shown on the networks are available on DVD, there is still enough diversity of programs to ensure that there is something for even the most ardent collector.

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First-Run Basic Cable Sitcoms

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Sitcoms have made their way onto basic cable television in recent years not only as reruns but as first run shows.  According to the Wall Street Journal, basic cable allows for the production of cheaper shows, more flexibility in creative work, and they can prove successful in syndication.  While shows on broadcast networks will continue to garner larger audiences, these basic cable shows can have significant, often cult, followings that would entice syndication outlets to take a chance.  Furthermore, the lack of popular sitcoms on broadcast network television allows for the basic cable networks to support first-run shows on their networks

It’s interesting to see how these cable networks try to build their lineup of sitcoms which often try to fit into the niche.  FX seems to try for a younger, male audience with crude humor on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  Reruns of the show air Comedy Central along with Workaholics which similarly appeals to a young college aged audiences. Even Country Music Television (CMT) aired a show called Working Class in 2011 which would seeming appeal to it’s “country” audiences, but it only lasted 12 episodes. This may have been due to the odd matching of a country music television network with little experience in sitcom television.  Of course, TBS has had a lot of success with the Tyler Perry shows.

TV Land, which has been known for its reruns of past sitcoms, has ventured into new original programming with more traditional structure including laugh tracks, multi-camera shooting, and family-centered shows (Hot in Cleveland, The Exes, Happily Divorced).  These shows seem to target a mass audiences rather than a narrow demographic.  Furthermore, they include recognizable stars from other sitcoms.  One of these shows, Hot in Cleveland, which is TV Land’s highest rated show ever, stars Betty White, Valerie Bertinnelli (previously on One Day at a Time) Jane Leeves (previously on Frasier), and Wendie Malick (previously on Just Shoot Me).   It also relies heavily on guest stars from past popular sitcoms like Wayne Knight (previously on Seinfeld) and Sean Hayes (previously on  Will & Grace).  Hot in Cleveland is the most interesting show of the new TV Land first run sitcoms because of the success it has had.  The show is doing pretty well in syndication sales which will see reruns airing in local markets in 2014.

First-Run Syndicated Sitcoms

When I was a kid, I remember watching episodes of some of my favorite sitcoms in late Weekday and Saturday afternoons.  Yet, these shows were not off-net sitcoms that debuted during prime time, but these shows debuted through first-run syndication.  According to Derek Kompare’s book on television reruns called Rerun Nation, the mid-1980s saw 26 new first-run sitcoms.  Stations saw an opportunity to revive fictional first-run programming because of the limited amount of hours coming from networks and with competition  for the most popular half-hours being so tight.  While off-network programming was the most prestigious and “familiarity sells,” station and station groups saw an opportunity to gain some independence for the networks (139-140).  A thirty-two station group called New Program Group produced Small Wonder (140).  Small Wonder was a sitcom about a family who lives with a robot who they pass off as a daughter.

Many other shows actually saw success in syndication after they were cancelled on their network runs.  Silver Spoons, Punky Brewster, and Too Close for Comfort all made the switch to first-run syndication after a few years on the networks.  Charles in Charge not only made the switch to first-run syndication after a year on CBS, but it completely revamped the show by adding a different family and including more slapstick humor.  Charles’ best friend, Buddy, becomes more of an idiot during the show’s second chance.  I personally would love to do more research into this era of first-run syndicated sitcoms because we simply do not have many recent equivalents, although two new first-run syndicated sitcoms did debut this fall, The First Family and Mr. Box Office, both of which have an astonishing order of 104 episodes each!  Tyler Perry’s House of Payne also debuted with 10 first-run syndicated episodes.  I would love to look into how these shows are targeted and what time they air in different markets.  It will be fascinating to see how well these two shows do.  I imagine that if they do well, we could see a revival of first-run syndicated sitcoms.

Roc and the Live Scripted Television Series

As television was trying to standardize formats and industrial practices in the early days of commercial broadcasting, there was a perception by many critics and writers that live dramatic television was significantly better in terms of production and writing than filmed series.  This “golden age” ushered in anthology series that allowed for unique stories and writing that many believed were a better fit for the medium.  William Boddy in Fifties Television explains the early emphasis on live television, “The opposition between film’s ‘feel of the past’ and the immediacy of live television created different putative audience paradigms for film and live programs, in which viewers of a live performance were seen as more highly involved than those of film programs” (81).  He further explains, “Television’s ability to bring intimate details of a performance to the audience, along with the practical constraints of staging live television drama, also led the critics to suggest the most appropriate forms of dramatic structure for he medium”(84).  On the other hand, critics balked at the “cheap, genre-based thirty-minute telefilms” (73).  It is amazing to think today that live dramatic television would be considered better as today’s high action, special effects would have a difficult time adjusting to being broadcast live.

On occasion some television series have experimented with live broadcast of an episode or two.  Dramas such as ER and The West Wing have done gimmicky episodes that could adapt to a live broadcast such as a documentary film crew (ER, “Ambush”) and a live debate (The West Wing, “The Debate”).  Gimme a Break!, The Drew Carey Show, Will and Grace, and 30 Rock have aired live episodes.  One show that stands out is Roc (1991-1994) which aired its entire 2nd season live.  Many of the actors had stage experience so this transition was not difficult.  One of the most interesting aspects was that the camera would zoom out and show the the other cameras, production crew, and audience before the commercial breaks.  In essence, the producers were acknowledging the show as as “staged.”  Furthermore, it was a multi-camera setup that allowed for quick cuts and easy transition of shots.   It seems as if the sitcom can easily transition to the simultaneous live shooting and airing of shows (many shows have been shot before a live studio audience) particularly those shows that rely heavily on a single set throughout episodes.  The question is whether there would be an real benefit for doing so beyond the gimmick.  People would turn in to see the lines flubbed, but that would be an unnecessary distraction from the characters and plot.  Roc was the first American prime time scripted series to broadcast an entire season live since the 1950s, and we have not seen another show do it since.

The Family Viewing Hour

 

 

I have just finished reading MTM ‘Quality Television (ed. Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr and Tise Vahimagi) which makes a case for the emergence of MTM Enterprises as a leader of “quality television” during the 1970s and 80s through its creation of “character comedy” and later, “character drama.”  MTM was established by Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker, and itdeveloped shows primarily for CBS such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, The Bob Newhart Show, Buffalo Bill, and Lou Grant as well as Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, and St. Elsewhere for NBC.

An interesting item in the book is its discussion of “Family Viewing Hour” which was implemented from 1975-1977 by the three major networks at the urging of the FCC.  During this period, the networks agreed to air shows for families during the 8 to 9pm time slot as a reaction to public criticism of sex and violence on television.   All in the Family was the blockbuster show and it aired on CBS on Saturdays at 8pm.   Due to the new policy, it was moved to Mondays at 9pm.  In turn, the shows that had followed it on Saturdays suffered including MTM’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show which took a significant drop in ratings from 1975 until its end in 1977.  While The Mary Tyler Moore Show remained at 9pm on Saturdays during the 1975-1976 season, it was moved to 8pm during the final season and had a difficult time adjusting to self censorship and its run ended.

What is most odd is that CBS led in trying to get the networks to adopt the “Family Viewing Hour.”  While the “Family Viewing Hour” is no longer a mandate, it seems as if there is a still an effort to put more family oriented shows earlier in the schedule.  Looking at the current CBS schedule, shows like The Amazing Race, Made in Jersey, and Survivor are scheduled earlier than shows with crime themes such as NCIS, Criminal Minds, and CSI.   That being said, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, and Two and  Half Men are also often scheduled in the first hour.  This seems to indicate that violence is a more determining factor of “adult” material than sex.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family were certainly tamer in that regard compared to these shows.

Even shows that are obviously meant for a family audience are more risque in today’s culture than every before.  For example, I recently watched a couple of episodes of the surprisingly funny Last Man Standing (ABC) which airs on Fridays at 8pm.  In one episode, the15 year old daughter skips soccer practice to get drunk.  Her older sister helps her get home.  The next day the parents say that she has to go to the soccer game despite having a hangover as sort of the “lesson.”  What is odd is that there was no real discussion of the dangers of underage alcohol use that is often the moral in many past sitcoms.  It was almost as if alcohol use by underage children, while not encouraged, is expected.

“Family View Hour” was eventually dropped after Normal Lear, creator of All in the Family, and other interests filed a lawsuit on first amendment grounds.  The court rule that the FCC should not have automatically adopted the National Association of Broadcasters Television Code but should have had open hearings in the rule-making process (a common procedure for federal government agencies).  In the end, it seems as if good intentions hurt many creative artists and resulted in the premature end of at least one of the best shows on television – The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Click here for a humorous take on the “Family Viewing Hour” by the cast of All in the Family.

 

“If it Wasn’t Hard, Everyone Would Do It”

 

In this entry, I am pivoting from sitcoms to one of my other interests – politics. In Henry Jenkins’ chapter “Photoshop for Democracy” from Convergence Culture, he describes how the 2004 presidential campaign and new media technologies came together in an era of experimentation.  He particularly details Joe Trippi’s work with the Howard Dean campaign during the 2003/2004 presidential race.  I spent a summer interning on the campaign in New Hampshire as this sort of transformation was taking place.  I remember being introduced to terms like “blog” for the first time and seeing the donations come in through the website as Dean catapulted to the top of the Democratic field.  I also remember driving up to the mountains of Northern New Hampshire to videotape people at a Meetup gathering and seeing how communities were being brought together through the internet.  The campaign office was filled with young, energetic volunteers and field staff many of who supported Dean prior to his summer surge.

Of course, Dean meteoric rise was cut down due to the famous “scream” speech that was broadcast continuously on television after the Iowa caucuses and provided a mechanism for internet savvy individuals to make fun of and recreate the scream to distribute.  Jenkins explains that, “Passing  such images to a friend  is no more and no less a political act than handing them a campaign brochure or a bumper sticker.”  He further explains, “What changes, however, is the degree to which amateurs are able to insert their images and thoughts into the political process – and in at least some cases, these images can circulate broadly and reach a large public” (222).  Here we see the “good” and the “bad.”  A credible candidate is destroyed because of a “scream” that was only used as a way to energize his supporters, many of whom had given their blood, sweat, and tears for over a year.  In essence, we saw a year’s worth of work destroyed in a matter of days.  While Jenkins’ view is that the distribution of images is no different than distribution of a campaign brochure, shouldn’t there be a difference?  Shouldn’t the campaign worker who spends weekends volunteering or the young idealistic kid who moves to another state to work for a person he or she believes in count more than the person who takes 10 minutes to doctor a photograph?

At the same time, I am not discounting the ability for candidates to use the internet to benefit their campaigns.  Certainly, President Obama was able to organize a significant number of his supporters through Facebook and his website, building on the tools developed by the Dean campaign.   I certainly would not argue that having more people involved in the political process even if it’s just through an online presence is a negative aspect of democracy.  Moreover, the mainstream media certainly played a significant role in making fun of Dean in the aftermath of his third place showing in Iowa.  It just seems to me that political activism should be hard and time consuming.  You should have to work at it more than clicking your mouse button.

“If it Wasn’t Hard, Everyone Would Do It” -Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) made this remark to Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) after she decides to leave her baseball team in A League of Their Own because it got too “hard.”

 

 

Nick at Nite Promos as Paratexts

It seems as if we often get bombarded with information about television programming from advertising to interactive items.  In his book, Show Sold Deparately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, Jonathan Gray discusses paratexts as items that are peripheral to the main text and can greatly influence the way we interpret the text.  While we may come into contact with many of these paratexts prior to our experiences with the text, other times they are in media res where we may come into context with a paratext after viewing of a text and that could alter or enhance our interpretation.  I think the most creative uses of advertising to promote its own shows has been done by Nick at Nite. Nick at Nite first started to air programming in 1985 and it focused almost exclusively on older television reruns from the 1950s,1960s, and 1970s.  Its focus was to present family programming through the airing of popular shows already in the conscious of many in the American culture.  Because most of its programming consisted of sitcoms from a past which many not exactly look like the 80s or 90s, camp was often used to promote the show.  In essence, these promos would claim that the network understood that you may consider these shows “outdated,” and they get it.  Yet, it does not mean these shows are not fun.  As a child, I loved these promos as they often brought to light some of the more endearing qualities of these sitcoms.  They would air so often that I knew them by heart.  They were created many years after the shows originally aired and presented a strong connection between the network and the shows themselves.  While I was a fan of a lot of the programming on Nick at Nite, I felt I knew the basic plots and structures of the shows that I did not watch on a regular basis due to the introductions these ads provided.  While these promos may not have provided new clues or information when I watched the actual shows, they did provide an emotional attachment to these shows d presented the characters in a lighthearted and charming manner.  Furthermore, I became a fan of Nick at Nite because of the attachment I felt with the shows on the network overall.

Our Australian Neighbors

The Neighborsis a new American half-hour sitcom that airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30 central.  The premise of the show is based on a family that moves into a neighborhood completely overtaken by aliens.  This show is reminiscent of many sitcoms of the late 60s such which added fantastical elements like I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, and Bewitched.

In the pilot episode, many elements provide a sense of the cultural discount uniquely tied to the U.S.  After the non-alien family (The Weavers) moves into an American suburb, the aliens bring pies as welcoming gifts.  It is even mentioned that it is an “American” custom.  Another joke is that all of the aliens’ names are of American sports figures.  The head alien is Larry Bird, his wife is Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and their sons are Reggie Jackson and Dick Butkus. Yet, I would argue a show like The Neighbors could translate well overseas because it has a high concept formula – a family moves into a neighborhood with aliens.  One does not really need to understand the intricacies of American culture to get the gist of the narrative.

Looking at how The Neighbors could find success in other national markets, it important to see how the show would fit in with the flow of the networks within these countries.  For example, Australia (Sydney) seems to rely heavily on shows from the U.S. that have had success within its own borders (with a few exceptions).   Moreover, many shows are shown heavily as syndicated reruns.  For example, a new episode of 2 Broke Girls airs on Tuesday at 9 on the Nine Network, yet two reruns air on the Go! Network on Wednesdays from at 8:30 and 9pm.  In the U.S., 2 Broke Girls has not aired in syndication yet on a daily or weekly schedule, so the only episodes we see are the weekly ones that air on CBS on Monday nights.  Similarly, Modern Family has a daily schedule of reruns in Australia on the Ten network while new episodes air on Sunday.  In the U.S., Modern Family has not yet been sold into daily syndication.

The best way for this show to be marketed in Australia would be alongside some of the other U.S. sitcom favorites.  It is a family show about families, so it would make sense to package it with another ABC show Modern Family.  Currently, the new NBC show The New Normal airs right after Modern Family on Sunday nights on the Ten network.  These “unique” family shows airing back to back provide a sense of consistency.  Although it seems as if Australian television relies a lot less on consistency of the genre with its flow.  For example, Big Brother airs right before 60 minutes.  Moreover, there is a long running Australian soap opera called Neighbours that will cause obvious confusion, so the title would have to be altered for the Australian audience.

I believe there could be new media possibilities for this show.  Many sitcoms like The Office rely on webisodes to enhance the viewing experience.  Back stories of the unique aliens would be an obvious choice.  There could also be webisodes with the unique alien families that are not relied heavily within the weekly episodes.  Furthermore, the pilot episode jumps forward 10 years from when the aliens moved into the neighborhood until the Weavers come in.  There has to be hilarious incidents that occurred during the ten years where the aliens were trying to get adjusted to American life.  Yet, unlike shows like Lost where new media is critical, sitcoms are much more lighthearted so these need to be used for comedic purposes rather than trying to get too heavy into a convoluted web of information.

The Muppet Show, A Great British? Show

Jim Henson’s work on The Muppet Show (1976-1981) is renowned throughout American culture due to the wonderful family characters of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie the Bear.  The show not only appealed to children but translated well to adult audiences as it aired once a week at night.

When researching the background into the show, I was quite surprised to see that the show was co-produced between the United Kingdom and the United States.  Jim Henson’s The Jim Henson Company was created by the puppeteer in 1958 and has produced a number of television shows, commercials, and films including the long running children’s program, Sesame Street.  Although the Muppets are often associated within the context of American culture, it was surprising to learn that the show as actually shot at Clarendon Road Studios, in Borehamwood, England.  The show as produced with Associated Television (ATV) which held licenses to broadcast on the Independent Television Network (ITV).  ITV is a commercially held public television network which broadcast the show to ITV stations.  ITC Entertainment, a distribution arm of ITV, sold show around the globe where it was shown in the US under CBS syndication.  Henson was originally unhappy with the idea of syndication, but withdrew his concerns when Lew Grade, President of ATV, made a deal with Henson to produce the show in the UK.

The ability for a show to translate from the UK to the US speaks volumes to the notion of a lack of “cultural discount” whereas The Muppet Show can actually translate well between both countries without a loss of significant value.  The show had onslaught of major guest stars from American film, television, and music.  Although some may argue that there were too many obscure American stars for a British audience, there were more big name stars like Steve Martin which British audiences were familiar with.  Furthermore, unlike Sesame Street, whose objectives are to teach young children, this show had more of an entertainment value for families as well as adults.  Hence, there is less of a need to translate or redo jokes.  Even if there are instance where jokes may not translate, character actions and slapstick can allow for “forgiveness” if certain jokes or terminology do not transfer directly between the two countries’ audiences.  Michelle  Ann Abate  has highlighted the “nonsensical” aspects of the show as it tied the nonsensical with social, cultural, and political commentary.  Often times changes had to be made to adjust to the country.  For example, she argues that a song called “Something’s Missing” was cut from a U.S. airing of a show possibly because of the disability rights movement.  In these cases, the show had to make adjustments to the culture of the country.

The show was distributed to many other countries such as France, Brazil, Poland, Sweden, and many of the titles translated directly as The Muppet Show.  For example, in France it was called Le muppet Show and in Brazil it was O Show dos Muppets.  With such a simple title, it is easy to understand why the titles in other countries were not altered.  Furthermore, there was a delay in the premiere dates as the first episode in the U.S. aired on January 29, 1976, yet it did not premiere in the UK until September 5, 1976.  Countries such as the Netherlands, West Germany, and Sweden did not air the show until a year later or longer.  Since the US was the first country to premiere the show, well ahead of the others, the notion of The Muppet Show as an American show despite its English production is made clear.

Through the television show and its many projects in film, television, and toys, the Muppet brand has become recognizable all over the world.  Although The Muppet Show was shot in England, the show was recognizable as American due to the American accents and locales.  Even subsequent films such as provide the Muppets within an American context.  In The Muppet Movie, the muppets take a road trip across America, and in Muppets Take Manhattan they try to make it in New York City.  Although the show was produced in England, very little British culture is apparent within the narrative of the show and the characters on screen.  Yet today the muppets continue to have ties to the UK with the announcement of a new “Muppets-style” show produced in England for British audiences.

Abate, Michelle A. “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” Journal of Popular Culture 42.4 (2009): 589-613. Web.

Funny Indecency

One of the duties of the FCC is to provide content regulation on broadcast television.  The FCC website explains its duties in regard to content regulation of cable/satellite programming:

“With respect to cable and satellite services, Congress has charged the Commission with enforcing the statutory prohibition against airing indecent programming “by means of radio communications.” The Commission has historically interpreted this restriction to apply to radio and television broadcasters, and has never extended it to cover cable operators. In addition, because cable and satellite services are subscription-based, viewers of these services have greater control over the programming content that comes into their homes, whereas broadcast content traditionally has been available to any member of the public with a radio or television. The Bureau will shortly identify and furnish contact information for cable or satellite providers so that consumers may contact their providers directly.

Since the FCC does not enforce cable/satellite indecent programming and it also allows for indecent programming during “safe harbor” periods on broadcast channels from 10 pm to 6 am when children are thought to be sleeping, it leaves very little actual regulation of indecent content left especially with the numerous choices available through cable/satellite.

In recent years, there has been an influx of new situation comedies on cable networks particularly on TBS and TV Land.  Historically, sitcoms have been family friendly ventures with virtually no violence.  Of course, the Norman Lear shows had frank (and intelligent) discussions of race and class which involved “adult” language and discussions sex was common on shows like Friends.  The move of sitcoms to cable channels has seen a greater use of foul language and raunchy humor.  One new TBS show (produced by Vince Vaughn), Sullivan and Son, is similar to Cheers where everyone gathers around the bar.  It has used the “s” word and has had another character using her middle finger.  These are in addition to the bawdy jokes and racial humor.  While sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have pushed the boundaries moreso than this show, what makes this show stand out is that it is recorded in front of a live studio audience and uses a multi-camera setup.  In essence, this is very much a throwback sitcom as opposed to the single-camera and non-laughter track/studio audiences that have been prevalent in recent years.  It seems as if Sullivan wants to push the envelope partially because it can, but there also may be a changing standard where even shows on broadcast networks have already pushed it further and further (see: Two and Half Men).  The recent Supreme Court ruling threw out some FCC fines  on indecency because it had not given fair warning of the standards and therefore unclear.  The Supreme Court did not declare that the FCC  did not have the authority to regulate indecency nor were standards considered unconstitutional.  Whether if FCC indecency standards become more transparent or if broadcast networks see this as an opportunity to change the standards/norms of what can be shown, it seems as if cable will continue to be the place where people go for content unfettered from government regulation.

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