Of late there has been a lot of talk about the death of the sitcom. I personally think that, as Mark Twain once said of himself, the demise of the format is great exaggerated. For better or worse, sitcoms have been around since the 1920s and they will be around well past the 2020s. That having been said, sitcoms have obviously seen better days.
Looking at last week's Nielsen ratings, sitcoms would appear to be in decline. Only Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men ranked in top thirty (Everybody Loves Raymond even made the top ten). At least CBS had two sitcoms in the top thirty, ABC and NBC couldn't had none. ABC's highest rated sitcom, According to Jim, came in at #40. At NBC, Joey and Will and Grace came in at #55 and #45 respectively.
I suppose the obvious question to ask is, "Why are sitcoms faring so badly in the ratings?" Well, I think there are two basic reasons. The first is purely my opinion and may be taken with a grain of salt, but, quite frankly, there aren't many good sitcoms on the air these days. With the excpetion of Two and a Half Men, CBS has insisted on filling its schedule with pale imitations of The King of Queens. Still Standing is just The King of Queens with kids. Yes, Dear is just The King of Queens living with their inlaws. Only Three and a Half Men is different, and I don't particularly care for it myself. At NBC things are equally bleak. Until The Office debuted a few weeks ago (not as good as the original Britcom, but very funny nonetheless), NBC hadn't debuted a good sitcom since Scrubs (now about four years old). While Joey and Committed are hardly as bad as some of the sitcoms the network aired in the Nineties (anyone remember Veronica's Closet or The Single Guy?), they hardly match NBC's classics either (Cheers, Seinfeld). ABC may well be in worse shape than NBC. With the possible exception of The George Lopez Show, which is passable, I don't think they have debuted a good sitcom in over a decade. With the airwaves filled with mediocre to bad sitcoms, I rather suspect that viewers have simply opted to watch something else. Indeed, with the exception of Scrubs and The Office, I can't recall the last time I watched a sitcom in primetime (other than on TVLand, of course...).
The second reason that I think sitcoms are now getting low ratings is, quite simply, television runs in cycles. Currently, television seems to be in cycles towards police procedurals and reality shows (although both cycles seem to be slowing down now). With viewers tuning into police procedurals and reality shows, the ratings for sitcoms will naturally suffer. There is then no reason for networks or sitcom producers to be particularly alarmed. Eventually, television will go back into a cycle towards sitcoms. It could be this year, it could be the next, but it will happen eventually. In the early Eighties, many thought the sitcom was dead, then Cheers and The Cosby Show brought attention to the format once more and revived it.
Regardless, I do think it might be a good idea for the networks to concentrate on the development of newer, better, and different sitcoms. While television will eventually go back into a cycle towards sitcoms regardless, it could be rough going for the networks until that time arrives. Traditionally, the networks have depended a good deal on sitcoms for ratings. Indeed, since the Eighties sitcoms have been the source of nearly all of NBC's ratings victories. With Everybody Loves Raymond going off the air this year, CBS could see itself stuck with a batch of mediocre sitcoms that will tank in the ratings next year. As to NBC, they may actually be in a little bit better shape. Their American version of The Office is actually good. If viewers realise how good The Office actually is, it could draw viewers back to NBC. Along with Scrubs and some new sitcoms of similar quality, they could actully rebuild their Tuesday and Thursday night line ups. At any rate, it seems to me that the networks really cannot afford to waste their time on medicore sitcoms. If last week's Nielsen ratings are any indication, viewers simply won't watch them any more. They need something new and different, another All in the Family or Seinfeld, not more clones of The King of Queens.