'Happy Days'

The situation comedy, or sitcom, has been one of the most popular forms of television programming since its inception. According to William T. Bielby, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “Since the late 1950s the television industry has recognized two basic genres for prime-time network series: the half-hour situation comedy (‘sitcom’) and the one-hour drama… Over the past several years the ‘reality’ series has become recognized as a third basic prime-time genre,” but for the purposes of this essay I will limit my discussion to the sitcom only.

The Dictionary of Film and Broadcast Terms defines a sitcom as “a series in which the main characters are pre-established and plots are developed to involve these characters in an almost-believable situation; one that creates a problem that must be resolved in about 22 minutes (the TV ‘half-hour’).” Although this definition does not distinguish the sitcom as part of the genre of comedy rather than drama, this is understood.

Of course, the genre of the sitcom is far too broad a topic to adequately discuss in such a limited space. Therefore I would like to further narrow my focus so as to consider the sub-genre, of sorts, of the “spin-off” of prime-time network television sitcoms, including its history as well as its supposed purpose.

The spin-off is succinctly defined as follows:

A spin-off occurred when one or more characters from a series, usually supporting characters, subsequently appeared on another series. In most, but not all, cases the supporting characters from the original series became the stars of the spin-off series, and ceased to appear in the original series (assuming that the original series was still in production).

From TV’s earliest example, Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners (a spin-off of the character’s sketch appearances on the variety show Cavalcade of Stars), to today’s slew of Law and Order and CSI clones, the spin-off has remained a fixture in prime-time lineups for over 50 years.

The very idea of a spin-off is problematic, however. TV is constantly imitating itself. Prime-time network television is often criticized for its lack of originality and fresh ideas – as a medium that tends to play “follow-the-leader” rather than take programming risks. Spin-offs would seem, logically, to only further the decline of quality television programming. But why have television networks, throughout their history, supported so many spin-offs?

The first and most obvious reason – and also the most important one – is monetary. We must not forget that the television industry is a business, and like any other business its primary goal is to make money. Advertising is the dominant means of financial support and profit for most television stations and networks in America. Essentially, the bottom line purpose of most television network programming in the United States is not to inform or entertain but to sell an audience to an advertiser. Because a network’s revenue is dependent on advertising, networks and sponsors both depend on a program’s ratings to determine its value.

“Networks, stations and agencies must be impressed with popularity registered in ratings,” writes Roger Kennedy. “They determine what the public will see, because they tell fairly accurately what the public wants to see. All producers know that however successful they may be in mesmerizing agencies, networks, or stations, programs generally go off the air unless they get a rating.”

At the same time, the world of television is extremely unpredictable. There are no guarantees as to which programs the viewing audience will support or reject until they are broadcast. Any new program added to a network’s prime-time schedule represents a risk. But the networks try to reduce these risks as much as possible. As Bielby notes, “In culture industries the success of new products cannot be know a priori. As a result, those who propose new products are likely to be evaluated on the basis of reputations built upon prior successes.”

Therefore, a spin-off offers the network a new program with less risk. A spin-off nearly always follows a show that was successful on its own, and its linkage with that program provides reassurance to network programmers that the new show will also be popular with viewers who had become attached to the characters or themes found in the original. Ronald Berman, Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, explains:

There is the economy of the spinoff: shows that give rise to each other profit from resembling each other. The new venture sells familiarity to the networks and gives the sponsors a chance to capitalize on past ratings. Sitcoms resemble each other not entirely because writers run out of ideas, although that happens. There is so much imitation because it is cheap to copy and expensive to create. That is why All in the Family gave rise to The Jeffersons, to Maude, and to the further adventures of Gloria Stivick. The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided a financial send-off for Rhoda and for Lou Grant. The repetition of a formula is meant to protect sales.

In addition to a successful spin-off’s likely positive impact on the networks’ revenue, other factors determine which new scripts will be produced, which pilots will be aired and which sitcoms will find a home in prime time. Bielby notes the inherent difficulties in determing new programming for a network:

First, network programmers are making decisions about productions for which there are no agreed-upon standards of competence. An experienced programmer can probably distinguish well-crafted from mediocre scripts and can make informed judgments about the quality of acting, editing, and direction for a pilot. Nevertheless, the programmer has no reliable basis for predicting whether audiences, advertisers and critics will accept the series.

Bielby goes on to say that series in development are typically described in terms of genre, reputation and imitation. That means that the programs that will garner the most support from programmers are those that can be easily defined in terms of these three criteria.

A spin-off, therefore, eliminates some of the inherent ambiguity in developing new series. The prior success of a particular genre, in this case the sitcom, ensures that audiences will be receptive to programs within that genre. The reputation of a show’s producers, writers and actors combine to engender trust in the product, as well, and a spin-off enhances that trust by imitating an already-established program.

Thus, defining a new series with respect to an established series provides an immediate frame of reference for the new and unknown cultural product. Even before the pilot is produced, the potential new series is linked to a category that is widely perceived as familiar, understandable, and appropriate.

Beyond the business aspect of television, though, new sitcoms need to entertain and grab their audience on a large scale to be successful. The criticism about the current state of prime-time network television as a repetitive and stale medium still applies. Kennedy contends that “the audience is there, waiting in the living room. So when they are presented with pap night after night, they are being needlessly cheated. When better programs are offered, their ratings skyrocket.”

But just because a spin-off is a spin-off does not guarantee that it is an inferior television show. There are countless examples of a spin-off matching or surpassing its predecessor. The Andy Griffith Show is fondly remembered, while The Danny Thomas Show from which it sprung is all but forgotten; MTV’s Daria was critically acclaimed, even after it followed Beavis and Butthead, which had been bashed by critics for its entire duration; and shows like The Facts of Life, Family Matters and Good Times achieved long-lasting success of their own and are recalled more as hit TV series than as spin-offs.

The following examples are representative of the traditional forms of sitcom spin-offs. Some spin-offs feature recurring characters who appeared only infrequently on the established show; others are based on occassional characters or one-time guests (which are sometimes referred to as “semi-spin-offs”), and still others are created as a way for a prominent starring character to continue to entertain their regular audience. Some of the most successful spin-offs originated from three of television’s most celebrated and influential sitcoms: NBC’s Cheers, ABC’s Happy Days, and CBS’ All in the Family.

All in the Family, which aired on CBS from 1971 to 1983 (after undergoing a change of title to Archie Bunker’s Place in 1979), was the top rated show on television for five consecutive years and won four consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. This groundbreaking series is “the all-time spin-off champion,” according to The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network and Cable TV Shows, spawning “no fewer than five other series, three of them highly successful and two of them spin-offs from spin-offs.” The Jeffersons was the first spin-off program from All in the Family, beginning in 1975 at the height of Family‘s popularity, and ran until 1985.

The recurring character of George Jefferson was Archie Bunker’s neighbor in All in the Family, and was such a hit with viewers that actor Sherman Hemsley was soon cast in his own spin-off series. The fact that “the George Jefferson character was conceptualized as an Archie Bunker in blackface,” as Horace Newcomb recognizes, perfectly describes the rationale of many spin-offs: audiences will return to the familiar themes and characters to which they had already become attached. Even though The Jeffersons was perhaps not as influential as its predecessor, it enjoyed great success and longevity, and continued to thrive after All in the Family had faded into oblivion. The show even had to its own spin-off, Checking In. Other All in the Family spin-offs included Maude, Gloria, and Good Times (a spin-off of Maude).

Happy Days premiered on ABC in 1974 and ran for ten years; by 1976 it had overtaken All in the Family as the top-rated program on television. The iconic series about a 1950s midwestern family had four spin-offs, including Laverne & Shirley, whose title characters appeared only once on a single 1975 episode of Happy Days as part of a double date with main characters Richie and Fonzie, before moving on to their own series in 1976.

Brooks and Marsh explain, “Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of sorts from Happy Days, in which the girls appeared only briefly. It was set in the same city and period, and the girls’ friend Fonzie sometimes stopped by to say hello. With friends like that Laverne & Shirley shot to the top of the ratings.” Since Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley aired back to back, it was easy for the characters to cross over from one show to another. Viewers were able to carry knowledge of one show to the next as characters shared experiences with each other outside the context of their own programs.

The shows were thus able to layer meanings or overlap realities between previously mutually exclusive television families. In this way, the spin-off not only capitalized on the success of the original program, but also expanded the possibilities of each series in storytelling and comedy.

Alex McNeil acknowledges in his book Total Television that Laverne & Shirley “is one of the few spin-offs that proved as popular as the original series.” In fact, Laverne & Shirley (as well as Mork & Mindy, another Happy Days spin-off) was consistently among the top five shows on television in the late 1970s, even surpassing Happy Days during several seasons.

Lastly, Cheers was one of the longest-running and most popular sitcoms on NBC, from its debut in 1982 to its finale in 1993. It garnered top-ten ratings for seven of its 11 seasons and often earned the number one ranking in the weekly Nielsens. Cheers also received 26 Emmy Awards and a record 111 Emmy nominations, all of which combine to make it “one of the most successful shows from the 1980s,” according to Newcomb.

'Cheers'

When Cheers went off the air in 1993, it was not because of a dip in ratings. The show was the number one series on television during its final season, and the final episode remains one of the top-rate television events of all time. But soaring production costs rose to record numbers and became prohibitive to future seasons.

In response, NBC launched Frasier the following season. Dr. Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, had been a regular at the Boston bar that was the sitcom’s namesake, and his new series moved the prominent character back home to Seattle to start a radio talk show and reconnect with his family.

Frasier quickly became a worthy follow-up to Cheers, and was the first comedy series to earn five consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series (one more than four-time winners All in the Family and Cheers), and win 37 Emmy Awards overall, more than any other show. The series aired for 11 years before its cancellation in 2004 – matching Cheers in longevity, and arguably surpassing its past achievements.

The examples of Cheers, Happy Days, All in the Family and their spin-offs should not suggest that a sitcom spin-off is a sure-fire hit for any network. Far from it. The argument inherent to this small sample of network programming is that the spin-off itself, as a subdivision of the prime-time sitcom, is not responsible for the lack of quality programming available. But for every Rhoda there is a Joey or Gloria; for every Mork & Mindy there is an After M*A*S*H or Blansky’s Beauties. The popularity of a specific show certainly does not ensure that its spin-off will also be embraced by the audience.

Rather, a sitcom, like any television program, must be able to stand on its own merit. Its status as a spin-off may help its chances of being produced and broadcast, but audiences will not often accept low-quality programming. Genre theorist Jason Mittel contends,

Even when one text explicitly references another (as in the case of allusions, parodies, spin-offs, and crossovers), these instances become activated only through processes of production or reception. If we watch The Jeffersons without knowing that it was spun off from All in the Family – as surely many audience members have – then we cannot usefully claim that intertextuality is relevant or active at the moment of reception.

Therefore the success of The Jeffersons (and other spin-offs) should not, according to Mittel, be judged solely on its origin as a spin-off. The show, and others like it, was successful because of its high quality production values, well-written script, and good performances from a talented cast – not just because George Jefferson once lived in the same neighborhood as Archie Bunker.

Bielby admonishes that “in a context where formulas for producing successful products do not exist and all hits are flukes,” and “when decisions are made under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty, decision makers often attempt to establish legitimacy by imitating the successful efforts of others.”

Accordingly, network programmers try to reduce the risk of failure by imitating past successes with spin-offs – but there are no guarantees in the entertainment industry.

Works Cited:

Berman, Ronald. “Sitcoms.” Journal of Aesthetic Education Spring, 1987. Vol. 21, No. 1: 5-19.

Bielby, William T. and Denise D. Bielby. “‘All Hits Are Flukes’: Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-Time Program Development.” The American Journal of Sociology March, 1994. Vol. 99, No. 5: 1287-1313.

Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present, 7th Edition. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Jacobson, Ronald L. Television Research: A Directory of Conceptual Categories, Topic Suggestions and Selected Sources. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995.

Kennedy, Roger. “Programming Content and Quality.” Law and Contemporary Problems Autumn, 1957. Vol. 22, No. 4: 541-548.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to 1980. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

Mittell, Jason. “A Cultural Approach to TV Genre Theory.” Cinema Journal Spring, 2001. Vol. 40, No. 3: 3-24.

Newcomb, Horace ed. Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television, 2nd Edition. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

Penny, Edmund F. The Facts on File Dictionary of Film and Broadcast Terms. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Shachar, Ron and John W. Emerson. “Cast Demographics, Unobserved Segments, and Heterogeneous Switching Costs in a Television Viewing Choice Model.” Journal of Marketing Research May, 2000. Vol. 37, No. 2: 173-186.

This essay was written April 2006 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “TV: History and Culture.”

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