American daytime television is full of first-run children’s programming, soap operas, game shows, news shows, talk shows, and court shows. But there are never any sitcoms (except for reruns from primetime). Why is this?
I mean, I know the simplistic answer is that running new sitcom episodes during the day doesn’t generate as much ad revenue as running new episodes of other programs, and that the networks have probably demonstrated this empirically. But whence this difference in revenue—why do people who watch TV during the day prefer watching new soap operas and game shows to new comedy shows? Or is it a question of sitcoms simply being too expensive to produce in comparison to the size of the viewership?
It’s not that people necessarily prefer to watch soaps and game shows during the day, but those are a lot cheaper to produce, and the audiences are much smaller. Additionally, broadcast networks (where the vast majority of first-run sitcoms appear) don’t generally provide a network feed outside of primetime, except for news and sports.
OTOH, teen sitcoms like Saved by the Bell and such were generally distributed in first-run syndication where stations aired them on Saturday mornings or weekday afternoons for the after-school crowd.
I get how an unscripted game show would be cheaper to produce than a scripted comedy—there’s not much writing to do, there’s plenty of boilerplate material to fill the airtime, you need to pay only one host instead of a whole cast of actors, there’s only one set and the camera angles and lighting are fairly static, etc. But why would a scripted multicam drama (like a soap opera) be cheaper to produce than a scripted multicam comedy? In both cases you need a full suite of writers, actors, and set designers, and the director and crew need to spend time on rehearsals, camera blocking, etc.
I grew up in an era in which many moms stayed home during the day and wouldn’t miss their favorite soap opera. And if you watch a soap opera day after day, you might start to notice that they are damn cheaply made.
First, they don’t do a lot of rehearsals and they rarely do more than one take. That’s actually one of the skills required of a soap opera actor. It’s not necessarily an easy job.
There are a limited number simple static sets that are used and reused for years at a time. They look cheap. The lighting is cheap and static. The audio is cheap. The blocking is simple. Everything about a soap opera is designed to be cheap and easy to produce four or five days a week, week after week, year after year. And the system was developed in an era when they were broadcasting LIVE.
Also a simple, static multi-camera setup makes editing and post-production cheap and easy too—single camera shows are way more complicated.
All this, exactly. Look closely at a soap some time. Individual shots are long, often with all the actors facing camera, and little to no editing. (You know the comedy trope about soap opera actors shooting a romantic scene with the dude behind the woman, both looking straight ahead? That’s hardly an exaggeration.)
Soap sets are basically built like stage plays, with wash lighting and hanging condenser mics. (Booms are used for closeups and two-shots, and body mics are rarely used.) Soaps sound bad and have a lot of reverb and background noise for that reason. (Which is also why they cover all of it up with a near-constant musical score.)
What little editing there is, is mostly done live, by a technical director switching cameras in real time, like a talk show or sporting event. (Some of that will be cleaned up in post, but only what they can do on a very tight schedule. They have to put out five episodes a week usually.)
Soaps never shoot outdoors, and rarely travel outside a single soundstage complex.
Compare that to a multicam sitcom, where dialog is assembled from multiple takes, often involving full coverage (a wide shot of everybody) and individual close-ups. Cuts are short, rarely more than a few seconds each. In a single-cam sitcom, lighting and audio will be adjusted for every setup, just like shooting a tiny movie. All of that is significantly more expensive than a typical soap, and post-production is also vastly more expensive.
Is this really true? My understanding is that a lot of multicam sitcoms are (or were) shot much like a live play—that is, end-to-end, once only, in front of an audience. There were rarely multiple takes, except for pickups to fix any major errors. At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from years of reading the blog of Ken Levine (a writer and sometime director and showrunner of Cheers) and from listening to his podcast, where he often interviews other sitcom producers. I’ve read that some sitcoms, like Three’s Company, would always shoot the entire episode twice, though this seems to have been an exception to the typical practice at the time.
Initially, (going back to radio, in fact) it was just the demographics of the limited afternoon audience; women, retirees, and some children. Soaps and game shows (and reruns for the kids after school) are what broadcasters and advertisers thought that audience wanted and because of the smaller audiences they had to be cheaply produced. Since then, it’s mostly just tradition.
And to add to that, the writing isn’t anything special on a soap either. There’s nothing witty or clever or particularly funny. It wouldn’t surprise me if an hour long episode, dialogue and all, was written in less than a few hours with a handful of writers. There’s a reason why you can miss days or weeks of a soap and return to it not feeling like you missed anything. Nothing ever really changes, it’s more of a same shit different day situation.
I’ve always figured that’s another reason soaps are on during the day. You can have them on and you don’t have to actively watch them. A house wife can turn any number of soaps on and have a pretty good idea about what’s going on even though she’s vacuuming and making beds, darting back and forth to the kitchen getting dinner ready, making phone calls etc. It’s not like a sitcom where you pretty much have to be glue to the TV for at least 22 out of 30 minutes, with just the commercial breaks to do other things.
I think the same goes for court TV and game shows. Also things you don’t have to pay particularly close attention to and still be able to follow.
A typical multicam sitcom shoot will take 3-4 hours (usually in front of an audience, unless they have to do special effects or something.) Multiple takes are common, but not as common as a single-cam setup where you’ll be doing the same lines over and over ad nauseum to get every needed angle. Sitcoms will typically have one camera on a wide-shot, with others doing closeups at the same time, and some amount of live-editing is common too. But sitcoms will also experiment with different timings, try out different punchlines, etc. Sometimes they’ll even ask the audience for feedback if a joke doesn’t work.
They’d write blander material, like what you see in soaps.
I’d swear it was Jim Gaffigan talking about Conan, but I can’t find it, but I recall some comedian talking about writing monologues for one of the late night guys and why they’re so bland. His response was that, his 90 minute stand up act takes about a year for him to write. With late night shows, you have about 12 hours to write a five minute act that has to appeal to a wide variety of people and include events that have happened within the 12-24 hours before the show goes live. There’s no time for cleverness or subtlety or call backs. They just have to crank out a brand new 5 minute spiel every day.
I suspect a lot of sitcoms have two tapings, or at least they used to. I know for sure The Cosby Show did. If a joke fell flat the first time around, they’d do a quick rewrite in the hope that the second audience would laugh at the revision.
If that failed, of course, they’d just “sweeten” the scene with the laugh track.
And yeah, you don’t have to actively watch most daytime TV. It can be on in the background while you do something else. I learned this a long time ago when I started telecommuting. I might lose it if I didn’t have that noise on in the background.
I might be unusual in that instead of soap operas or judge shows, I keep mostly sitcoms on all day long. (There are a lot of them available in my cable package.) I can do this because they’re all reruns I’ve seen many, many times and now know by heart (Frasier, Seinfeld, Cheers!, Corner Gas, et cetera).
It’s all a matter of cost. There aren’t as many soap operas on TV as there used to be, because soap operas are more expensive to produce than game shows, which are more expensive to produce than talk shows, which are more expensive to produce than courtroom reality shows.
Another way soaps keep costs down is by replacing actors instead of giving them raises. The long-running stars of soaps may actually appear in only a handful of episodes each year, while the bulk of work is being carried by young, cheap actors hired for one story arc at a time.
Note that soap operas are dying off each year. There are currently only four being broadcast and ratings drop each year (over 16% between 2019 and 2020). The current shows have been on the air for decades (the most recent is over 30 years old). In another ten years, they will be gone.
At one time, the ratings justified a higher production costs. But no one is going to risk something like a daily sitcom, which probably would cost more. In fact, other than Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2 Night, and All That Glitters (all Norman Lear productions), I don’t think there’s ever been an attempt at a daily sitcom. All three of them used the same cost saving measures as soap operas.
Also, soap operas are very slow moving plot wise so if you miss a week, you can still catch up. Sitcoms can’t afford that.
Ultimately, there’s no reason to invest the money with little chance of success when talk and game shows can fill the time more cheaply. Note that even those are usually syndicated.