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Goodbye old 'Friends,' goodbye sitcoms?

Central Perk is closing. Frasier is signing off. So where are the comedies to fill their slots?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2004


The couch is scuffed, the little frame around the door's peephole is slightly askew, and the famously purple walls of one of the most-scrutinized apartments on TV could use a touch-up. But no one's calling the painters. The curtain is about to fall on the No. 1-rated sitcom.

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As it does, the cast and writing staff of "Friends" gather on the set to deconstruct the show's success.

"It's one thing becoming a success, it's another to maintain it," says Jennifer Aniston, perched in a director's chair on the fake wood parquet floor of the "Friends" set. "[The writers] didn't get lazy and sort of sit back and go, 'Well, we're the biggest hottest thing on television' and get sloppy."

No word on the title for the finale yet, but here's one suggestion: The One Where People Quit Sitcoms. Over the next calendar year, some seven veteran sitcoms will be turning off the laugh track for good. In addition to "Friends," this year marks the end of "Frasier," "The Drew Carey Show," and HBO's "Sex and the City." By next May, industry experts expect the lights to go out at CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond," Fox's "That '70s Show," and "Malcolm in the Middle." And so far, newer laugh factories are having trouble churning out mass chuckles. While shows such as "Scrubs" and "Arrested Development" have garnered critical kudos, they lack the high ratings and buzz of "Friends" and "Raymond."

"The sitcom isn't dead," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. But "we're in an arid period for sitcoms right now. The unscripted show is in a flourishing period and like it or not, it's still in its infancy."

As with every new genre, he says, the best of each iteration is fresh and engaging. Like "Friends" in its heyday, says Thompson, " 'The Apprentice' is what people are talking about."

Indeed, until a certain poufy-haired New York businessman popped up to save NBC's real estate, the network's top brass were worried that their Thursday lineup was about to become "Must-Flee TV."

Interestingly, says Matt McAllister, professor of communications at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, some of what made "Friends" a water cooler hit also has driven the prominence of the unscripted shows: They appeal to the young viewers, who networks are most desperate to attract - and who watch less network TV than ever before.

While it's now a truism that advertisers will pay much more to reach the 18-to-34 age group, professor McCallister says that "Friends" was one of the first shows to turn advertisers' interest to that narrow demographic. (Before, 18- to 49-year-olds had held most-favored status.) In fact, in the early days, "Friends" had to fend off pressure to broaden its potential audience by adding grandparents or kids.

He cites two ABC shows, "Alias" and "Judging Amy" as examples. " 'Alias' gets lots less people watching," he says, of the No. 74-ranked show, "but is much more expensive to advertise on than 'Amy' [No. 24] because of the ages of the audience."

"I can see why [TV] writers would be worried," says McAllister, "because things that make money for the networks, like prominent product placement, are much easier in these reality shows." "The Apprentice" winner took home a shiny new car, he says, adding, "that entire show is nothing but a giant marketing initiative for Trump Enterprises."