“Modern Family” 6 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC
Like its anchor couple, “Modern Family” was formed by shotgun marriage.
The veteran sitcom creators Steve Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”) and Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier”), reasoning they’d find more Hollywood success together, came together expressly to make a network sitcom. They scored a hit out of the gate in 2009 with their story of the extended clan of Claire and Phil Dunphy — only to have a falling out by the second season.
“Modern Family” 6 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC
Instead of ending things, they agreed to split custody of the ABC show, alternating episodes. “Modern Family” went on to became one of the biggest television phenomena of the current age.
ABC on Tuesday announced this fall will mark the show’s 11th and final season.
It’s tough to overstate the success of the series, which regularly has drawn more than 10 million viewers per episode and is one of only two sitcoms in history to win the Emmy for outstanding comedy five times, all consecutive.
Yet for all its success, the show has a complicated legacy. In many respects, it helped define the current business landscape. That’s why it — and anything like it — can probably never exist again.
At the time that “Modern Family” entered the scene, the entertainment world looked a lot more like it had for decades and a lot less like it does today. Netflix has just begun streaming its content instead of sending it by red envelope.
Original programming outside of the traditional television set wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Apart from one win for “Sex and the City,” the broadcast networks had taken every outstanding-comedy Emmy ever.
“Modern Family” was positioned to reap all these benefits. The show, produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television, would gather titanic audiences for a sitcom. For much of its run it averaged at least 11 million viewers per season, boosted by the way it represented a changed definition of the American family (and the ethnic, sexual and racial identities that can be seen on an American family sitcom). In its third season, it averaged nearly 13 million viewers, many of them in the coveted 18-49 demographic.
In contrast, NBC’s “30 Rock,” another repeat comedy-Emmy winner from the 21st century, averaged under 6 million most seasons.
The ad sales were similarly monstrous and old-school. At its peak, 30-second ads on “Modern Family” went for a quarter of a million dollars, among the highest ever for a sitcom.
With its spin on a familiar motley-family conceit and docu-comedy style, the show turned things around for ABC. “Modern Family” came along just in time, its Wednesday slot not only lining its own pockets but giving a boost to other network sitcoms such as “The Middle” and “The Goldbergs.”
Most importantly, it provided a charge to the wider landscape. “Modern Family” brought back the idea that a TV comedy, even as viewership and consumer mind-share began to fragment, could be broadly watched and a critical hit. There have been some other long-running broadcast-network comedy smashes in the current era; “The Big Bang Theory” comes to mind.
“Modern Family” stands out a single-camera comedy — cinema-style shooting, no laugh-track — that still garnered a massive audience.
The show generated not just the usual local syndication deals but a splashy one on USA Network, which paid as much as $1.5 million per episode.
Its role was testified to by the Disney-Fox acquisition, as executives cited it as the kind of jewel ABC wanted to own. The show was so big, the start of its cable reruns had the feel of a new series launch.
And yet. All this success is a reminder of why it was possible when it came on — and how it could never be possible again.
The end of “Modern Family,” will mean the end of an era. The odds that any could achieve what Jay Pritchett and his Closet Empire did are remote at best.
The current landscape is too fractured, too diffuse, to give us broad comedy hits. At the very least, it is unlikely to give us quality comedy hits; the people who can make them simply do not need a broadcast network’s money when there’s so much of it elsewhere.
If you want an idea of how “Modern Family” comes from another business age, here it is: the show is not on Netflix. Yep. Never has been. Twentieth knew it could monetize the show better with syndication deals.
The show’s scripts have by wide consensus been declining for a while, as writers exhaust storylines and reach for contrivances and guest stars. Many fans began dropping off the “Modern Family” wagon a while ago — its viewership began declining in the 7th season, a trend that has only accelerated since.
But the inevitable writerly ebb and flow of a TV show is only part of the story, and doesn’t hit at the more underlying business factors that will prevent a phenomenon of its ilk from happening again. “Modern Family” may be getting long in the tooth creatively, leading to its demise. From a business standpoint, it’s a dinosaur, and its species could soon be extinct.