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1998-99 Sitcom Scorecard -- Post-Seinfeld Sitcoms Fade; FOX, WB and UPN Now the Three Nielsen Laughing Stocks

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Whatever!  Written by Bridger Cunningham

Only 10 years earlier, the leading sitcoms experienced ratings in the 30's.  Flash forward as Y2K became a trend, carrying two digits before the decimal meant a show was a phenomenon.  NBC was still sitting pretty in 1st place, followed by re-emerging CBS who weathered tough ratings through 1996.  Next, ABC shadowed its 1988-96 prominence and rested in 3rd.  FOX was perennially in 4th place, yet it wasn't the greatest joke in the Nielsens as WB rest in 5th Place and UPN in 6th further down.  The sitcom ranks, however, handed the gold to ABC, who narrowly edged out a transitioning NBC.  CBS notched down further in 3rd, and the last three networks stayed in line with overall ratings trends.

Though 73 sitcoms made the Nielsen register compared to 27 entries in 1984-85, cancellation rates were high.  A rising trend in duplicate news magazines and reality TV shows spelled trouble for comedies as all consumed 60 minutes vs. the common 30-minute sitcom.


Compared with the mid 80's to 1998, this chart runs less blue-dominant in the upper range,  Troubled ABC claimed 8 of the 19 places in the "Leading the Pack" classification, in spite of Home Improvement ending a long run.  NBC's sitcom stable faded in the wake of Seinfeld's exit the previous season.  They opted to move Tuesday tentpole Frasier to Seinfeld's vacant place, leading to the show's growth.  The effect was opposite for Tuesdays, as the shows collapsed into ranks common in the 70's of the 161 original shows.  Ever heard of Jesse or Veronica's Closet?  Neither made it to syndication as their high Nielsen performances rode the fumes of Friends, Frasier and ER.  News Radio, Mad About You and NewsRadio were all cancelled after modest success.

ABC Tuesdays and Wednesdays were modest at best, with several top-50 players straddled across these comedy blocks.  Fridays, however, failed to recover their dominance in recent years with only Sabrina, the Teenage Witch claiming a register above the 50 mark.  CBS fastidiously maintained its Monday comedy block, while its Wednesday helpings crashed and burned.  CBS placed less emphasis on sitcoms in favor of procedural dramas, lighthearted fares, and a newly burgeoning reality TV trend.  FOX, of course placed emphasis in maintaining the laughs on Sundays.  It also expanded comedies to Tuesdays with mixed results as King of the Hill was its strongest delivery.

And does anyone remember the days of WB and UPN?  They aired five evenings of programming, with WB attempting sitcom success on Sundays and Thursdays, and UPN on Mondays and Tuesdays.  During this era, WB found its stride with younger-skewing dramas, and its sitcoms became filler.  And UPN....  Well it housed a name on an extra network.  And the bottom 11 places on this chart.  1998-99 was like reaching the top of the roller coaster in 1998 with Seinfeld's conclusion.  The carts were pointed downward, and the 2000's presented a steep drop awaiting a tradition dating back to the 50's.