‘If it makes you feel any better,” a network comedy-development executive told me once, “we’re having a hard time launching any comedies on our network.”

This was many years ago during a peacemaking lunch. The network where the executive worked had recently canceled a sitcom I had created, and this lunch was the traditional No hard feelings, right? bread-breaking.

There were hard feelings, to be honest. I felt that the show we did was funny and smart and just needed a little more time to find its audience. Our time slot was among the weakest on the network, our lead-in was faltering, the network didn’t promote us, and yes, I have used these excuses each time I have had a show cancelled, but in this specific instance they happened to apply. Sometimes you get canceled and think, Well, honestly, the show never caught on, and sometimes you get canceled and think, The bastards robbed me. This was one of the bastards robbed me times.

But show business back then was a more stately and collegial enterprise. There were only a handful of places to take a show—four broadcast networks, a few cable outfits, and that was that—so when the lunch invitation came, I put on happy face and headed to an outdoor table at Pinot Bistrot on the corner of Sunset and Gower and prepared to pretend that I was already thinking about the next project. When there were only seven or eight buyers in town, you had to learn to let things go.

It was going pretty well until the executive asked me why I thought sitcoms were having such trouble capturing an audience. What I should have said was something anodyne but upbeat, something like Hey, it’s all cyclical. But what I said instead was this:

“You know what’s working right now? Reality shows. That and one-hour dramas. Want to know why? Because when you shoot a drama, you have five days to shoot the whole thing. You have a table reading, and then you have to start shooting right away. There’s no time for a lot of network notes. And reality shows? It happens as it happens—there aren’t any script notes or retakes. But comedy? With comedies, you guys are on us every second. After the table reading there’s a note session, then another rewrite, then more notes, then another rewrite, then more notes, then notes after a run-through on the stage, then more notes as we’re shooting. So think about it,” I wound up. “The shows that are working the best for you are the shows where you have the least input. And what’s failing are the shows where you have the most.”

The executive looked offended. “So we’re the problem?”

“I didn’t say that,” I replied. But of course I had said exactly that. It wasn’t a fun lunch.

To be fair, excessive network interference wasn’t the only thing hurting the comedy business at the time. The category was also a victim of its own incredible success. From the 1990s to the early Aughts, television comedies were spectacularly popular with audiences—both the audience that watched the first-run shows on broadcast networks, and the more lucrative kind that watched them in reruns in the 150 television markets that blanketed the country. Comedy shows were making every network so much money, the networks couldn’t resist adding more and more to their schedules, which created an oversupply, which led to a downtick in ratings for each sitcom (the law of supply and demand applies, even in show business), and that led to frantic, panicked micromanagement of every step in the process of making a half-hour comedy television show.

A lot has changed since that awkward, career-damaging lunch. The four broadcast networks have been swamped by streaming television outfits. Advertising dollars and audiences have been spread thin across more kinds of media. It’s tempting to look at the current problems faced by studios and networks as if they’re a brand-new set of challenges. We’re looking at a totally different kind of show business is what you hear from executives and media-company CEOs, in business-section articles and quarterly earnings calls. Everything is different now.

Not quite everything. Football, for instance, still packs them in. Three years ago, 72 of the top 100 shows on broadcast television were NFL games. Last year, 93 of the top 100 shows on broadcast were NFL games. The average number of viewers for Monday Night Football is nearly 16 million—and most of those games are shown on the ad-supported cable channel ESPN. Thursday Night Football appears on Amazon Prime, and even on a streaming service the sport does phenomenally. In 2023, the Thursday Night Football audience nearly doubled from its 2022 average, regularly hitting 13 million viewers for a game.

As a category, sports are usually audience powerhouses, but it’s hard to match football for sheer scale. The law of supply and demand works here, too. There are 272 games in the NFL’s regular season. Basketball and baseball have nearly 10 times that amount, which may explain why of the top 100 broadcasts in 2023, football is the only sport that makes the list.

It’ll probably stay that way, too. Football expansion teams are always on the horizon, but it takes years for that to happen, and the NFL owners know exactly how valuable a tight supply can be. All sports have a must-see quality to them—Hey, did you see the game last night?—but football’s uniquely limited offerings mean that football fans don’t want to miss even one game. It’s not like there are 2,000 or more left in the season, as there are in basketball and baseball. For comparison, there are nearly 600 scripted television series on broadcasting networks, cable, and streaming services. If you figure, conservatively, that each series has on average six episodes each—some have more, some have fewer, some get cancelled early—that’s 3,600 episodes of television vying for your attention. If you miss one—or 10 or 500—it’s no big deal.

Football, in fact, is probably the most perfect television show imaginable. It’s almost foolproof, by which I mean “immune to media-company-executive meddling.” In the first place, it’s live and totally spontaneous. From the first kickoff to the final buzzer, there just isn’t time for network executives to call a time-out for “questions and concerns about tone.” Nobody convenes a focus group after the first quarter to find out whether the running back is “likable” or if the QB needs a more relatable backstory. Nobody calls the team’s ownership after the snap to ask if maybe some of the hairstyles are off-putting (an actual note I have received more than once). And even though they’d dearly love to, nobody at the network asks that the score be evened-up at the half so that the audience feels “more involved, emotionally” after the “act break.”

Football also has lots of little built-in breaks—perfect for a Cialis commercial!—and enough downtime on the field to build up the emotional stakes for the players. That’s what all of those emotional pre-taped segments are doing when they show the viewer the tragic story behind the tight end’s brother who served in Iraq, or the uplifting reminder that the tackle was born deaf—that’s character development, and it’s what makes a great TV show.

“We’re searching for the kinds of programs that will work on our services,” a media executive said a few months ago at a conference, with the at-sea bafflement that I heard at lunch all those years ago. Well, what kind of programs are those? As media companies—studios, streamers, broadcast networks, all of them—face the headwinds of competition and oversupply and an audience showing reluctance to add another charge onto the monthly credit card bill, it’s a question everyone in show business is asking.

Football is the answer. Football has the winning recipe. Success in the entertainment business requires the same thing today as it did at an outside table at the old Pinot Bistrot, when I couldn’t keep my mouth shut: Keep the supply tight and your notes to yourself.

Photo: AP Photo/Doug Benc

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