It was around 2012 that I first noticed the difference. I had heard around that time that producers were being forced to cut some time out of that allotted for story telling to make more room for commercials. You might not think that a minute and a half or two would make a lot of difference in a half-hour show, but you might be wrong.
ABC’s MODERN FAMILY has been one of the most popular American sitcoms in recent times. It has, until recently, yearly come up for Emmy nominations and wins. The comedy has been witty, the writing has been excellent, and the acting has been stellar. From its beginning there was a pace in the show that allowed a progression from situation setup to comedic punchline that was natural and fun. It was as slick as slipping a size six foot into a size six and a half glass slipper. Then something changed. That was around 2012.
I noticed that the characters, after building through the setup, suddenly sped to the punchline. There was no more easy progression, it was a rushed set more akin to a Vaudeville lineup where there are too many acts, too few minutes, and the cops were expected to raid the theater at any minute. All that interesting plot setup only to quickly slap the viewer in the face with a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am joke and then swiftly move you on to the next plot setup. The show lost its timing and, thus, its mojo, so to speak.
I watch other sitcoms and they don’t seem to have this same problem. CBS’s new sitcom LIFE IN PIECES easily and breezily fits in four segments plus commercials, and although they leave you breathless with their speed, you don’t feel like you’ve just been dragged through the circus side show. CBS’s THE BIG BANG THEORY, which has been on air longer than has MODERN FAMILY, doesn’t seem to have suffered the same pacing problem. It remains funny without you feeling rushed. Same with ABC’s recent hit sitcoms THE GOLDBERGS and BLACKISH. Maybe the thing here is, these two didn’t have an established pace to adjust.
MODERN FAMILY began airing in the fall of 2009, when, according to one source, television programs were about 30 percent commercials. The percentage of commercial time has varied over the years, but during the time of MODERN FAMILY’S run it peaked at 33 percent in 2012. According to most sources, the average sitcom runs about 22 minutes, and the format of four to eight characters, three acts with one main plot and two subplots, a teaser opening and an epilogue or closing are standard. Still another source looked at the jokes per minute in American sitcoms, with MODERN FAMILY coming in toward the bottom at 5.68, just under THE BIG BANG THEORY (5.80) and just above FRASIER (4.09). Those are a mixture of the old and more recent sitcoms with established records to compare.
Every sitcom is a bit different. They depend on whether they are single-camera or multiple camera shows, which affects their flexibility in shooting scenes, shots, and locations. Also important are the number of characters in a show. As I said in the paragraph above, they average between four and eight, with FRASIER having four main characters, THE BIG BANG THEORY having seven main characters, but MODERN FAMILY having twelve!
So after all that data, here is my point: Yes, we need advertising to pay for the free television we all enjoy. But the push to add more profits has taken its toll on at least one program, and that is MODERN FAMILY. What was once a well-oiled comedy machine has found a size 2 sabot shoved into its gears, one that is unfortunately just big enough to ruin its pace and its flow and its soul. I often can’t bear to watch as the actors stumble over lines to fit the joke into the otherwise well-choreographed setup, the viewer trying to catch their breath as the next set of actors set up the next sting. And I’m sad that what was a really funny show for me has become more of a joke for the way commercialization has turned the show into the tail that wags the dog.
I am encouraged that this turn for the worse has so far apparently not affected other sitcoms. But with the number of 30-second commercials falling in favor of more 15-second commercials to pump up profits as one source noted, shoeing in more and more of them will surely cut even more time from the story line and one day even the most stalwart sitcoms will succumb to the same challenge of telling a good story in a shorter amount of time.