Are Niche Audiences the Future of Network Comedy?

Flavorwire is celebrating Memorial Day with The Year in TV, a series of features on the 2012-13 TV season, which ends this month.

Last summer, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told the assembled press at the Television Critics Association’s press tour that, in the coming season, they could expect a shift in the network’s approach to comedy programming — a move away from the likes of Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Office. “Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love, and we love,” Greenblatt carefully noted, “tend to be a bit more narrow than we’d ultimately like going forward… Those are great shows. But it’s a challenge in comedy to broaden… I hope these new shows we’ve got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart, but can also broaden the size of the audience.” Well, here we are a year later, and NBC renewed exactly two of their sitcoms for next season: Community and Parks and Rec. So much for broadening, eh?

To be fair, NBC’s attempts to reach that broad audience were desperately retro at best and insulting at worst (Monkeys in lab coats are funny! Guys taking care of kids are funny!). But the clumsiness of the network’s big play, and the comically thorough failure of that effort, emphasizes what a weird and uncertain place network comedy is at right now.

Take a look at the top 20 highest-rated shows last week. On it, you’ll find ten hour-long dramas, seven reality/competition shows, 60 Minutes, and two sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. About the only comedy program to regularly join them in the top 20 is Modern Family. There was plenty of discussion about The Office’s series finale, but while EW’s headline trumpeted a “ratings surge” for the show, it still nabbed barely a third of the viewers of a regular Big Bang earlier that evening — and a little better than half of, say, that night’s Scandal.

louie

This disparity between the comedy shows people are talking about and the comedy shows they’re actually watching exists throughout the television universe. Everybody loves Louie, but you can’t tell from its ratings; the show not only averaged somewhere between a million and 500,000 viewers per week in Season 3, but dropped precipitously from the start of the season to its conclusion (from 1.43 million for the premiere to .43 million, the show’s lowest number to date, for the finale). Girls and The League are right in that same half million to million pocket; It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hovers around a million viewers per show. To put that into perspective, Modern Family gets somewhere between 10 and 12 million pairs of eyeballs every week; even Parks and Rec, perpetually “on the bubble,” does three to four million.

So why aren’t the shows that get big-time buzz getting big-time viewers? It’s certainly not exclusive to comedy shows (Mad Men’s ratings would make it a trouble spot on a network schedule), but it’s far more prevalent there. And why is that? Frankly, it has everything to do with the way that comedy has fragmented over the past decade or so — and the technology that has enabled it to do so.

Comedy, more than any other genre, is a purely subjective experience; you either find something funny or you don’t, and appealing to someone’s personal comedic sensibility is much harder to do than, say, making someone cry, or swoon, or stare, mouth agape, at a big explosion. Even in eras where comedic tastes were seemingly homogenized, we didn’t agree as a viewing population about what was funny; it was never hard to find people who didn’t get why people laughed at those assholes on Seinfeld, or those bums on Cheers, or that shrieking clan on All in the Family.

sunny

But the explosion of comedy content on cable and online have made targeted, specialized niches possible, and have made them thrive. It’s not just that a strange Funny or Die video or a bizarrely funny tweet only has to appeal to a certain sense of humor; it’s that a comedian can discover a whole audience for that style, and can carry that audience over to television shows that are as loosely organized and free-flowing as a YouTube playlist (as Nick Kroll, Amy Schumer, and Anthony Jesselnik — just to name the three most recent examples — have done). It’s Always Sunny can appeal to an audience that’s willing to take the antisocial behaviors of Seinfeld into borderline nihilism; Louie and Girls can foster an audience that frequents indie flicks. The audiences may be small, but they’re loyal — because they feel something resembling ownership of shows that “get” them, that are funny in the specific way that their audiences are seeking.

We’re spending a lot of time this week talking about Arrested Development, a show which certainly could have benefited from the tolerance of the small but loyal audience (to say nothing of recaps and GIF culture) back when it originally aired. In its third, poorly promoted season, it was still getting about four million viewers a week; in the first two seasons, it was nabbing anywhere from five to seven. Were it on today, Arrested Development would be a long-running success story. As The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff noted recently, Community got a fifth season pickup “even though it frequently pulls a 1.3 in the ‘key demo’ (the 18-to-49-year-olds whose eyeballs advertisers covet), simply because it has a really young audience that’s roughly predictable in size. Even last season, that number likely would have gotten it laughed out of town.” In other words, aside from Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory (and seriously, who wants to be those shows), network TV comedy is no longer an appeal-to-all-audiences format, because it doesn’t have to be. And as NBC found out this year, it might be better to embrace that reality than to try and change it.