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The Fast Five: Is Network TV Comedy Dead?

September 1, 2020
5 min read time

It feels like major changes happen across the industry on a weekly basis. This week, it looks like independent studios are no longer developing network comedies, and a group of major agents are planning a coup to create their own joint venture. While it’s a confusing time to be a writer, it’s important not to dwell on things that are out of your control and instead focus on what is in your control… Writing.

Are We Seeing The Death Of The Network TV Comedy

Deadline is reporting that independent studios—including Sony TV Studios and Lionsgate TV Studios—are considering getting out of the network comedy game to focus on more lucrative ventures. The network sitcom used to be the goldmine for producers, but the realities of the television industry have made the back end of these shows not as long as it used to be. There are several things to consider when discussing this decision, the first being that there is no such thing as a fully independent show on network television anymore. In order to sell a show to ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX, an independent entity has to give up 50% ownership to that network’s studio. They may help with financing, but it also eats into the profits. The other thing to consider is that networks do not cover the cost of the show they air. Networks pay a licensing fee to the studio, but the studio loses money on each episode because that fee does not cover the budget. These losses were traditionally made up for when a show hits 100 episodes and can be sold into syndication. One hit sitcom’s syndication deal would more than make up for the losses from all of the shows that didn’t make it to 100 episodes. Unfortunately, syndication deals are not as valuable as they once were, and with ratings eroding, networks don’t keep shows on the air as long as they used to. So while streaming deals are nice for major shows like Seinfeld and Friends, those deals won’t be coming along anytime soon for new shows, as vertical integration demands they go to the network owned streamer. Does this mean you should put down that comedy spec you’re writing? Absolutely not! Trying to write towards industry trend predictions is a fool’s errand. Nobody has any idea what the marketplace will look like six months from now, and comedy specs are still valuable as writing samples. If network sitcoms are where your passions lie, keep writing your spec pilot! Your passion will come across on the page and help you get a good read from the people you get it in front of.

The Agency World Is In The Middle Of A Major Shake-Up

It’s been a crazy few years while the WGA and the ATA continue to wage their war over packaging fees and agency-owned studios, and major ramifications are still being felt. Now a new agency with agents from CAA, WME and UTA is being pitched around the industry as a celebrity-focused representation firm. In the meantime, writers have been left in limbo since being forced to fire their agents en masse, and they are anxiously awaiting a resolution to the conflict so they can see what the entertainment landscape looks like when the fighting stops. So far, the WGA has been able to get major agencies to give up packaging fees on writers—although the agents I spoke with said they can still get packaging for representing a non-writer on the project, so expect to see the agencies repping a lot more ‘producers’ and forcing them on their clients’ projects. These shake-ups have a meaningful impact on the industry as a whole, as WME and CAA continue to fight back against giving up their studios, Endeavor Content and Wiip. But what does this mean for an unrepped writer? There are plenty of agencies that have signed the WGA code of conduct and are allowed to represent writers, and the market is still eagerly reading projects. So don’t get discouraged with things that are out of your control, and keep writing. When the dust settles on the agency world, you’ll want to be standing there holding a fully fleshed out project that any agent will want to sell on your behalf…probably with a producer they represent attached.

FX Announces Director Diversity

In 2015, a journalist called out FX Chairman John Landgraf for the network’s directors being made up of 85% white males. Landgraf admits to becoming defensive and blaming the industry as a whole before sitting down and realizing a change needed to be made. FX, now under the Walt Disney Television umbrella, just announced 63% of its directors for the 2021 season will be made up of females or people from diverse backgrounds. The industry has been attempting to diversify behind the camera as much as in front of it and it’s nice to see some meaningful statistics behind the change.

Critics Take A Stand And Refuse To Review The New Mutants

Disney has opted not to provide press screenings for The New Mutants, the last of the remaining Fox movies based on The X-Men comics. Instead, they’ve asked any critic who wishes to review it to attend a public screening. As a result, many critics are choosing to boycott the movie, citing the dangers in sending a critic to a public screening. Health experts still agree that attending a movie in a cinema—even a socially distant one—is dangerous, and media publications don’t want to put their employees in an uncomfortable situation. There’s no word on whether this was always Disney’s plan, considering studios often choose not to hold press screenings if they believe the movie will get bad reviews. It does highlight one of the complications about getting back to normal. What do we do with the people whose livelihood requires them to review movies? Are they forced to put themselves in harm’s way if they want to keep their job? I understand why studios don’t want critics reviewing digital copies, but it shouldn't be too hard for them to host safe press screenings. The question is whether or not it’s worth it to the studio if they don’t expect the reviews to be kind.

Steven Soderbergh Remains Busy In Quarantine

Writer-director Steven Soderbergh has continued to put in the work while isolating; not only has he finished three new screenplays (include a sequel to Sex, Lies and Videotape), but he has now re-edited three of his features as well. The rights to his directorial debut, Kafka, have recently reverted back to him, so he used his free time—in between promoting Bill & Ted Face the Music—to transform the movie into something with more of an art-house feel. If you’re struggling to stay motivated in these dark times, use Soderbergh as your inspiration. He speaks about many of these as “fun projects” that are meant to keep him creative as opposed to business opportunities. That should be the right lesson to take away. Many aspiring screenwriters are too concerned about writing what they think will sell in the marketplace, or bouncing between projects, and they end up avoiding writing all together. You should find some time to write every day. Even if it’s ten minutes before you go to bed to write something off the top of your head with no planning, every sentence you write makes you one sentence stronger as a writer. And if you’ve taken the time to read this article, then you had at least five minutes free that could have been used for writing. Don’t be discouraged, just keep plugging away, even if it’s a fun project only meant to keep you creative.

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