Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
The Business of Television


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

Television is the most popular art form for many people. They have the set on seven or more hours a day, seven days a week, watching everything from soaps to sitcoms. Such a voracious appetite for entertainment and information requires a huge quantity of material in the form of programs. Television needs shortcuts to provide those programs.

The most prevalent form of show on television is the episodic series. An episodic series is in which has a continuing set of characters and settings with a different plot in each episode. This formula for a show allowed many writers to contribute to the show. This approach to doing programs came from radio, and usually used mystery-crime or comedy formulas.

Though occasional forays had been made over the years into single shows, anthologies, and mini-series, by and large these other forms of shows fade into absolute insignificance compared to the overwhelming use of the episodic series on television.

The quality of the shows stems from a wide variety of influences, but mediocrity (i.e., ordinary, neither extremely high nor extremely low quality) appears to be the order of the day. However, contrary to popular opinion, the TV industry is not nece ssarily to blame for mediocrity. The ratings show that mediocrity, and not the difficult-to-define "quality", draws enough audience to make commercial TV pay. The rating systems, Neilson, American Research Bureau, etc., all show the same results: audie nces are offered quality programming--thoughtful, provocative drama, discussion programs, cultural offerings such as opera, ballet, concerts--they just don't watch it. This does not mean to say that there is no quality programming on television. It simp ly indicates that the kind of quality demanded by critics--both professional and self-styled alike--is not economically nor commercially feasible.

It is easy to compare the television industry with the farm industry. There are the farmers who create the product, food. They sell the food to the wholesaler who in turn sells it to the supermarkets. Often the wholesaler is also a producer, buying from independent farmers but running its own farms to supply its packing plants. Only when the food has been sold to the supermarkets will it finally reach the consumer.

The same cycle of events holds for the television industry. The producer creates the product, a television program (usually a series of episodes) which he sells to the wholesaler, the national television broadcast and cable networks. The networks themselves are often producers, cutting the cost of having to buy from an outside source. The networks in turn sell the program to sponsors by selling them the time during the playing of the program to advertise whatever the sponsor wants to sell, be it a product or an image. Only then will the final product, the television show, reach the consumer, the viewer.

The analogy can be carried further. The most popular items receive the most shelf space or air time. Gourmet items are tucked away into a small corner where they won't compete with the better selling products, and are carried in much smaller supply. For example, if everyone is eating beans the supermarket will carry a large supply of beans, while the escargot, a relatively less popular item, is kept in low quantities. The supermarket managers decide how much to carry in stock by the simple method of counting how many cans of beans or escargot they sell. The networks do the same by counting how many people watch a particular show.

However, instead of counting each individual, they count only a random sampling. This sampling is called a rating. In both cases, whatever receives the highest count is accorded the most shelf or air space, be it beans or westerns. If a product doesn't sell, it is dropped in favor of one that might.

Brands are also taken into account. Brand X may be carried for a short time, but if it doesn't sell it is taken off the shelf or the air. Those that sell consistently, like Van Camp's or ROSEANNE, are constantly renewed.

The networks' greatest problem is that, unlike supermarkets, their "shelf space" is extremely limited: 6 to 8 hours a day, 42 to 56 hours a week, or a maximum of 112 half-hour time units a week (the half-hour being the standard time unit used in television.) Of these 112 units only 42 are usually devoted to types of shows other than game shows, soap operas, cartoons and sports. There are 20 other categories: comedy, westerns, news, movies, documentaries, religious broadcasts, children's shows, fa rm shows, detective, police, doctor, science fiction, talk shows, educational, music, public affairs, animal, lawyer, straight drama, and miscellaneous programs. It is easy to see that a decision must be made.

Of course, network prime-time is not the only television there is on the air. There is also programming by local stations, cable, and superstations such as WTBS available to the viewing audience. These other sources of programming actually have at their disposal more time than the networks to fill with programming and advertising.

Local and superstations often use programs bought in syndication to fill their schedules. Such syndicated programs include game shows, music shows, dramas, comedies, and reruns of past and current shows.

Naturally, these stations also take ratings into consideration when they buy syndicated programs. The better rating the station thinks a particular show will garner, the higher the advertising rate they can charge potential advertisers for commercial time. However, they must balance how much the syndicator charges for his program with the potential profit margin: a low cost program with a high rating potential (and thus high profit margin) is preferable to a high cost program with a moderate ratin g potential. Thus, game shows, which are comparatively inexpensive to produce yet gather a large audience are very popular with the stations, as are movies and cartoons.

Nonetheless, a steady diet of game shows (syndicated) and soap operas (from the networks) would begin to pall for the most dedicated couch potato. The stations, realizing that variety will help retain the audience, purchase other types of programs from syndicators. Among the other types of programs are dramas such as MAGNUM, P.I. and DALLAS. However, the most often purchased syndicated program other than game shows are situation comedies. Some of these shows include THE COSBY SHOW, GILLIGAN'S ISL AND, FAMILY TIES, THE MUNSTERS, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, HAPPY DAYS, MORK AND MINDY, GOOD TIMES, BEWITCHED, ONE DAY AT A TIME, DIFF'RENT STROKES,THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, GIMME A BREAK, M*A*S*H, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, TAXI, CHEERS, NIGHT COURT, and even situation comedies from decades ago, such as FATHER KNOWS BEST, THE HONEYMOONERS, BURNS AND ALLEN, DOBIE GILLIS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and the ubiquitous I LOVE LUCY. Each of these shows is chosen because the station thinks it will draw a sufficiently large audie nce to justify its expense and provide a profit.

To clarify how stations program I did some checking. The following figures are derived from examining the programming in a relatively small market during the course of a week picked at random. Using TV GUIDE magazine I listed every program according to type during the course of the week and determined each type's relative percentage. In case that week had something special about it, such as a mini-series, sports tournament, awards show, etc., I also did spot checks of ten other weeks during the course of a year (1986). The spot checks helped ensure that the figures below represent an average use of airtime. I used one affiliate for each of the major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS), two independent stations, one cable station (Nickelodeon) and one super station (WTBS, Atlanta). It included not only prime-time (8:00 to 11:00 PM) but all other hours the stations broadcast, first-run and syndicated programs. (See Fig. 1 for a graphic representation of the following figures.)

These six channels carried 1,095 hours of programming out of a possible 1,176 hours available during the week (seven 24-hour days x 7 stations=1,176 hours). Of those hours, 161, or 14.7%, were dedicated to the situation comedy. This may not seem like much until the percentage is compared to the other 26 types of programs. The most airtime is devoted to movies: 175.5 hoursor 16.03%. The next category is the situation comedy. This is followed by: cartoons (112 hours, 10.23%); news (110 hours, 14 .7%); and dramas [including such programs as ROUTE 66, I SPY, DALLAS, THE FALL GUY, etc.](92 hours, 8.4%). From this point the number of hours devoted to other types of programs drops considerably: soap operas (50 hours, 4.57%); sports [including major league, pro wrestling, bowling, etc.](45 hours, 4.11%); children's shows (40.5 hours, 3.7%); game shows and religious programs (both at 39 hours, 3.56%); crime shows (30 hours, 2.74%); music shows (29 hours, 2.56%); talk and information shows (both at 27 hours or 2.46%); miscellaneous comedy shows [including THE THREE STOOGES, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, THE BENNY HILL SHOW and THE LOVE BOAT](24 hours, 2.19%); commercials [the phenomenon of hour-long commercials for books and tapes on how to get rich in real est ate, gambling, positive thinking, etc.](16 hours, 1.46%); entertainment shows [such as ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and movie reviews](15 hours, 1.37%); action shows [such as THE DUKES OF HAZZARD](12 hours, 1.1%); science-fiction (10 hours, 0.91%); science shows [such as MR. WIZARD](9 hours, 0.82%); lawyer shows (8 hours, 0.73%); shopping services [wherein a customer can call a number and order a product shown on the air](7 hours, 0.64%); health shows (7 hours, 0.64%); mystery shows (6 hours, 0.55%); westerns (2 hours, 0.18%)[in case you're wondering, I found GUNSMOKE, the hour-long version, shown twice]; educational (1 hour, 0.09%); and a comedy-variety show [HEE HAW, in syndication](1 hour, 0.09%).

[Fig. 1.1, Graph of above figures]

Perhaps now would be a good time to discuss ratings for a moment. What makes THE COSBY SHOW better than Brand X? The answer is simple: ratings. And why are ratings so important? Again the answer is simple. Television is an industry. Low rating s mean low profits, and vice versa. Sponsors want their highly expensive advertising seen by as many people as possible. The quality of the program is rarely taken into consideration. The prime consideration is the rating.

There are various ways to find television ratings: Trendex uses telephone and door-to-door polls. The most famous, however, is the Neilson. The Neilson is based on the idea that if one takes a pint of liquid out of a tank car and it proves to be m ilk, one can assume the tank contains milk. This is in turns based on the idea that people are as homogeneous as the milk, a premise followed by networks and raters alike with the blind devotion found in some nursery supervisors, most spaniel dogs, and a ll missionaries.

Originally the Neilson rating was determined by attaching a box to the back of television sets in 1500 homes carefully selected to represent a cross section, demographically, of the entire United States. This box recorded when the set was on and to what channel it was tuned minute by minute. Today, the Neilson company uses the PeopleMeter, an electronic device that does the same as the box did, but also records who is in the room with the set at the same time. By checking the records of what show was on what channel it is possible to determine how many sets were tuned to a particular show. The greatest drawback to the box was that it didn't tell how many, if indeed any, people were watching the set, only that the set was on. The PeopleMeter was devised to overcome this drawback (if people remember to punch their button on the meter when they enter or leave a room). On the basis of the results from the meters, the rating, a show can be canceled in a few weeks or continue for years.

Ratings not only determine the fates of individual shows but also types of shows. The more popular a certain type is (e.g., western, doctor, lawyer), the more the networks want that type on the air, based on the idea that if one is popular, four will be more popular (remember the great American axiom: if some is good, more is better. Too much is just right). An examination of the prime-time schedules for past years reveals that the most popular type of show is the situation comedy.

Why is the situation comedy the most popular form of comedy show on television? I will examine this question first from the point of view of the television industry.

The television industry is in business to make money. There is nothing unusual about this. Any industry that wishes to remain in business has making money as its main concern. The only way television has to make money is from the advertising budgets of other industries. What the television industry sells are promises and time: promises that a certain number of people will see the advertising, and the time at which those people will see it. Television tries to get as many people as possible to w atch their sets at a certain time of day or night, and then sells to a business the right to use that time for advertising.

But what could possibly induce millions of people to watch their sets at a certain time? Certainly not the advertising itself. The answer is entertainment, in the form of adventure, sports, witty conversation, information, music, news, or just plain fun, and the most popular form of entertainment on television is the fun.

In 1965, 16.11% of the prime-time schedule was devoted to the situation comedy. By the following year this percentage had increased to 25.17%. In 1979, it was an incredible 33.34% of the prime-time network schedule. This may have been oversaturation as over the next six years it fell to 15.15%, and is now making a comeback. The percentages fluctuate, but the comedy show has generally maintained the lead over all other forms of television program (with the exception of movies) even today (1992), w ith 25% of the prime-time network schedule devoted to the situation comedy. Obviously the networks think somebody is out there watching, and what that somebody wants to watch is the situation comedy.

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