A Look Back At ABC Comedy (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

This article is more on the lengthier side. As a result, I will be releasing it in parts. Please enjoy Parts I and II below. The title and content will be updated as more material is released.

Part 1: 2009-2010

Pre-2009: ABC's Struggling Comedy Slate

In December 2008, ABC made the landmark decision of canceling According to Jim after eight seasons. That is not to say they made the wrong decision—in fact, it was never really considered to be a hit show. SpottedRatings estimates that if the show aired today in an era where live-viewing is less prominent, its early seasons would be getting Adult18-49 ratings around a 2.0, and its later seasons around a 0.8 or a 0.9. There came to be a point where it was almost comically how long the show stayed on the air—after all, it hadn’t been seeing half-decent ratings since its fourth season. However, it was all ABC had, similar to NBC’s recent situation with Community and Parks and Recreation. There were two factors which kept in on the air for so long. One of those factors was syndication money, being one of ABC’s most profitable, if not the most profitable, comedy due to the fact that it was in syndication and most of their other shows were cancelled after one season. The other factor was, as mentioned before, they really didn’t have anything else. But although finally canceling According to Jim may not have been a surprise, there was a surprise in that ABC renewed only one comedy for the fall schedule: fellow low-rated sitcom Better Off Ted, which would be entering its second season.

2009-2010: The Beginning of a New Comedy Era Pre-2009: ABC's Struggling Comedy Slate

Well, technically they did have one returning comedy: they acquired Scrubs from NBC. ABC had little other choice than to start an all-new night of comedy. These comedies more or less had to depend on one another to survive. No longer were the days where the comedy with the most potential could be launched out of a high-rated veteran—because there were no veterans. Furthermore, none of these shows were guaranteed successes. For example, both CBS and NBC passed on Modern Family, and The Middle was flying under the radar for the entire pilot development season.

Someone who follows TV ratings would be able to get a sense of which shows ABC thought would work and which ones may not work based solely off of the scheduling. Modern Family was seen to be the show with the most potential, hence the reason why they aired it at 9 where not only could they air it at the top of the most-viewed hour, it would also benefit from a comedy lead-in and lead-out. Second on the list was Hank. Starring in the show was Kelsey Grammar, who spent the years 1984 through 1993 on the smash hit Cheers, and 1993-2004 on yet another smash hit, Frasier. Both were two of the highest-rated shows in America at the time, so ABC had much reason to believe that this show would do a great job at leading off the night.

Third and fourth on the list were The Middle and Cougar Town. I’m not sure exactly which show I consider third and which show fourth, though. Regardless, both shows were to air at the half-hour, benefitting from their Hank and Modern Family lead-ins, respectively. I may give the slight edge to Cougar Town, only because The Middle  was more or less off the radar for the duration of the pilot development season.

The Early Days

I don’t think too many people expected to happen what actually happened. Instead of premiering the entire block on the same night, ABC launched Modern Family and Cougar Town on September 23, with Hank and The Middle joining them a week later.  Modern Family premiered to a humongous 4.2 Adult18-49 rating, and Cougar Town still defied the odds and out-rated it, at a 4.4. Both improved significantly from their Dancing with the Stars lead-in, which had a 3.3 rating.

So ABC must have been extremely happy with those results, to say the least. What was even more surprising, though, is what happened at 8pm the following week. Hank premiered to a dismal 2.1 rating, while The Middle miraculously grew on it at a still-lackluster 2.6 (remember, this is 2009 we’re talking about, not 2015). The former was yanked off the schedule after just five episodes. ABC seriously misjudged that one.

Of course, the remaining three comedies took a little bit of time to level off. The Middle, at this point airing out of Modern Family reruns, hit a very cancellation-worthy 1.6; Modern Family also went low at a 2.5 rating, and Cougar Town went as low as a 1.9. Despite underwhelming ratings, The Middle was issued an early renewal along with Modern Family and Cougar Town at the January 2010 TCAs.

Wait, There Were Other Comedies?

In addition to the Wednesday comedies, ABC also aired three half-hour comedies at one point or another on Tuesdays. One of these comedies was Scrubs, which ABC acquired from NBC that season. Interestingly enough, Neil Flynn left the show that season in order to star in fellow ABC sitcom The Middle. It was given a winter premiere airing Tuesday at 9, and paired with Better Off Ted. Both could be safely called flops, hovering in the low 1s. Both had similarly low-rated seasons the season before, making it pretty clear that they were only on the schedule in the worst-case scenario that more than one Wednesday comedy premiered DOA (Dead On Arrival). 

Another comedy was spring 2010 arrival Romantically Challenged. It had the fortune of premiering out of the very massively-rated Dancing with the Stars, at Mondays at 9:30. Perhaps ABC didn’t think it was compatible enough to air Wednesday? After all, we’re still looking at an era where The Middle is airing at 8:30 out of reruns, despite the fact that it was holding its own in the ratings. Despite premiering to a 2.9 rating (making it the third highest-rated season premiere of the seven comedies) and holding up well after that, Romantically Challenged was pulled off the schedule after airing just four episodes. 

Why did Romantically Challenged only air four episodes while The Middle aired 24, since the former was higher-rated than the latter? Ratings followers were able to see here that ABC really looks at retention when they decide which shows to renew and which shows to cancel. Romantically Challenged retained only about half of its Dancing with the Stars lead-in, while The Middle consistently grew out of its reruns lead-in. So in essence, that Monday time slot could be seen as both a blessing and a curse, since with higher exposure comes higher standards. Remember: Networks do not renew a show based solely off of its seasonal ratings, but rather how they think it will do the following season.

Part 2: 2010-2011

ABC Ditches Monday and Tuesday Comedies 

Let’s count: ABC aired Hank, The Middle, Modern Family, Cougar Town, Scrubs, Better With You, and Romantically Challenged in the 2009-2010 TV season. The first four aired on Wednesday; the next two on Tuesday; and the last one listed on Monday. 

Of these seven comedies, ABC renewed three, cancelled four, and picked up three. Interestingly, all six of these comedies aired on Wednesday. Clearly, the network saw the first season of ABC Comedy Wednesday enough of a success to ditch the other hours and instead air the new comedies there.

Now, into the scheduling. Only one of the three new comedies aired in the fall: Better With You. ABC decided to air it at 8:30, shifting The Middle to 8pm. They left the raunchier Cougar Town on at 9:30 after Modern Family, most likely because it needed the lead-in support and was the only ABC Studios-owned comedy. As far as the 8pm hour, they new from historical cases that a The Middle-Better with You line-up would average higher than Better with You-The Middle, as having another freshman show lead off the night would be a risky move. The Middle has aired at its new 8pm time slot ever since, being trusted to open up the night to reliable ratings.

Now: the competition. ABC had to have been pleased that three of the four Wednesday comedies rated way higher than According to Jim or Better off Ted. However, ratings followers had every reason to believe that the comedies could crumble in their second season. The day before ABC announced their fall 2010 schedule, FOX announced that they were moving American Idol’s performance show to Wednesday. The year before, they aired the lower-rated (but still huge) results show there, and only in the 9pm hour. So that meant Modern Family, Cougar Town, and especially The Middle were going to have to face much harder competition. And then the day after ABC’s upfront, CBS announced that they would be moving their hit reality series Survivor to the 8pm hour.

The fall would definitely be easier on the ABC comedies, considering that American Idol wouldn’t start its new season until January.  They premiered on a high note: The Middle to a 2.7 Adults18-49; Modern Family to a 5.1; and Cougar Town to a 3.4. That made for a series high in viewers for The Middle and one of its top demos of the series to that point, and a series high for Modern Family. Elsewhere, Better with You premiered to a 2.5, holding about 93% of its lead-in. But this isn't a press release, so I’ll move on.

Understandably, the comedies dipped a little bit when American Idol premiered to a 9.7 Adults 18-49 rating. The Middle and Cougar Town settled in the lower 2s, and Modern Family in the lower 4s. Better with You was affected to the point where it was in the mid 1s, and was subsequently cancelled.

The Midseason Comedies

ABC had two other comedies to premiere, and saw Wednesday night to be the best place to do so. In February 2010, they premiered Mr. Sunshine after Modern Family and put Cougar Town on a two-month hiatus (it still aired 22 episodes that season). After premiering well, the show saw a dramatic drop in ratings in subsequent episodes.  Just nine episodes into its run, it was pulled from the schedule, leaving four episodes unaired. 

They also had Happy Endings, which premiered in mid-April. After giving it a post-Modern Family premiere, they opted to double-pump it at both 10pm and 10:30pm in order to fit (more or less) the whole season into the spring. Why it aired so late (both time of day and time of year) is anyone’s guess, considering it was co-produced by ABC Studios, whereas Mr. Sunshine and Better with You were not. Many fans and ratings followers alike agree that it would have had more of a chance if airing at 9:30 pm instead of Mr. Sunshine. Regardless, ABC renewed the show for a second season, while also renewing Modern Family, The Middle, and Cougar Town.

Part 3: 2011-2012

Down Goes Another 2009 Comedy...

You know how I said the 8-10pm comedies were going against American Idol midseason 2011? Imagine Ryan Secreast reading the fates of the three remaining 2009 ABC Wednesday comedies. “The show which will be leaving ABC’s schedule after a short final season is…Cougar Town” *gasp*.

If you have been following ratings, you know that when a show receives a full third season, it will likely receive a full fourth to try to get it a syndication deal. If it gets a short third season after two full seasons, the writing is on the wall for cancellation. That’s exactly what happened to Cougar Town: exiled like a failed Survivor contestant to Tuesday. And with that move, we all learned something: ABC comedies truly work better on Wednesdays than any other night.

I mean, in the 2009-2010 season we knew that the three Wednesday comedies were much higher rated than the two Tuesday comedies. However, the floundering of Cougar Town on Tuesdays proved that the comedies simply worked better on one night rather than the other (and it works the other way around, too, as we’ll see later). Sure, it had probably the most mis-matched comedy lead-in ABC could have offered it (conservative multi-cam newbie Last Man Standing) but being a comedy in its third season after having the best lead-in ABC could offer, surely many expected it to do better.

…In Comes Another Staple

In the place of Better with You, ABC premiered Suburgatory. The show became the only show in The Middle’s first four seasons as the 8pm anchor to actually hold or grow upon it. The two proved to be a perfect ratings match. Both The Middle and Modern Family were up year-to-year in the ratings for their second straight season, something incredibly notable because of the fact that most other shows were down. Arguably, this is the best season that ABC Wednesday has seen. 

What About Happy Endings?

Happy Endings’ final in-season episode in the 2010-2011 season aired at 10:30, receiving a 1.7 ratings out of a 2.0 from an hour-long Cougar Town. Oddly, they waited until August to air the final episode of its first season. Considering that ABC’s new schedule saw Cougar Town on Tuesday and Happy Endings post-Modern Family, they aired the episode at 9:30. It saw a minuscule 1.3 rating, out of a 1.9 from a Modern Family rerun. Surely, ABC had to have been concerned about this show’s true strength. Its second season premiered high (3.7 out of a 5.1) but ended on a low note (1.7 out of a 1.8).

And the Other Ones

ABC had three other comedies on the air that season. Both Man Up! and Work It flopped in the Tuesday at 8:30 time slot until ABC finally brought Cougar Town in—which also flopped. Despite having a full season, Happy Endings ended its season in April, making room for the premiere of Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. Its ratings reminded me somewhat of the aforementioned Romantically Challenged—meaning, the raw numbers were good enough to be on par with The Middle and Suburgatory, but that is very underwhelming considering the lead-in and Happy Endings’ typical performance in the time slot. Despite that, it was renewed, alongside Modern Family, The Middle, Suburgatory, Happy Endings, and Last Man Standing. Have you noticed the trend yet? ABC renewed six comedies in 2011-2012, way up from the three they renewed in 2009-2010 and the one they renewed in 2008-2009. At this point, it was safe to say that ABC comedy was truly reborn. Right? 

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