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The Fall of The Multi-Camera Sitcom & the Rise of the Single-Cam

 The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the TVRatingsGuide.

Above is the cast of ABC's 'Last Man Standing'.

Last month, NBC opted to cancel 'The Carmichael Show' after three short seasons. The series was never a ratings hit, so it didn't come as much of a surprise. But, this is just another nail in the coffin for multi-camera sitcoms. Earlier this year, ABC canceled its Friday night multi-cam sitcom lineup of 'Last Man Standing' and 'Dr. Ken' after six and two seasons respectively. While 'Dr. Ken' was barely a passable performer, 'Last Man Standing' was a relatively strong one, so it came as a shock that this long-running sitcom was coming to an abrupt end. While none of these cancellations happened because these comedies were multi-cam, they do show how the multi-camera sitcom is fading from the airwaves. Revivals aside, ABC did not choose to order an original multi-camera sitcom and NBC only has the upcoming 'Marlon' left. Instead, both networks have decided to invest in single-camera sitcoms with shows like 'American Housewife', 'Speechless', and 'The Good Place' doing reasonably well for their respective networks. Fox has left the multi-camera business entirely and while their comedies aren't exactly ratings performers, shows like 'The Mick', 'The Last Man on Earth', and 'New Girl' still keep the lights on for the network. And while CBS still mainly produces multi-camera sitcoms, even they have gone the single-camera way with 'Life In Pieces' and the upcoming 'Young Sheldon'. Outside of broadcast, it's almost impossible to find a multi-cam on high-profile cable networks like FX and HBO. So, is the multi-camera sitcom a thing of the past? Will it continue to fade into obscurity? Before we can get to that, let's look at the history of both type of sitcoms.

Multi-camera sitcom
A multi-camera sitcom is essentially what the title says. It's a sitcom that uses multiple cameras while filming. They are either filmed in front of a live studio audience or use a laugh track and generally play out like a play or stage show. There seemed to be nothing but multi-camera sitcoms from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century. Shows like 'I Love Lucy', 'Seinfeld', 'Cheers', and 'Three's Company' were insanely popular in the decades they aired and are considered classics.

Single-camera sitcom
Unlike the multi-cam, a single-camera sitcom doesn't explain itself through its title. A single-cam comedy is one that isn't filmed in front of a live audience and normally doesn't have a laugh track. It is filmed like a feature film. Also, the same camera is used for different camera angles and shots hence the title. 'The Brady Bunch', 'The Addams Family', 'Bewitched', and 'Gilligan's Island' are all examples of comedies from the 1960s that used the single-cam setup. While these shows were fairly popular when they were produced, they weren't on the same level as their multi-camera counterparts of that era. Outside of the '60s, single-camera comedy was essentially non-existent in the 20th century.

The Single-cam Comeback
After years of absence, the single-camera comedy made a comeback in the 2000s. HBO's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' was one of the many single-cams that premiered in the 2000s. It came from 'Seinfeld' creator Larry David and ran for 8 seasons with a ninth season in the works. On broadcast television, Fox's 'Malcolm in the Middle', 'Arrested Development', and 'The Bernie Mac Show' were relatively popular single-cam situation comedies in the early 2000s with all receiving generally favorable reviews by critics. 'Arrested Development' even won the Primetime Emmy for best comedy. But, those shows struggled in the ratings and only lasted 3-6 season. While 'Malcolm in the Middle' had initial success, it quickly fell in subsequent seasons and fell below the top 100 in its final season. Also, their popularity still paled in comparison to multi-cams like 'Friends' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond'. It wasn't until 2005's 'The Office' that things began to change. While the series had humble beginnings, it soon grew in popularity and became a massive success both critically and commercially. NBC had already had success with 'Scrubs', another single-cam, but 'The Office' was on a different level entirely. NBC continued to air single-camera sitcoms like '30 Rock', 'Community', and 'Parks and Recreation'. While none were exactly rating hits, they were critically acclaimed and had relatively long runs. In 2009, after years of low-rated comedies, ABC premiered single-cam 'Modern Family'. It was an instant success in the ratings and received universal critical acclaim. The series also went on to win the Primetime Emmy for Best Comedy five times in a row. ABC eventually pushed multi-camera comedies to Fridays and got rid of that lineup altogether in May 2017. And while NBC flirted with multi-cams in the 2010s, they've turned to single-cams and now have modest hits like 'Superstore' and 'The Good Place'.

The State of Multi-Cams Now
CBS is one of the few networks to keep producing multi-camera sitcoms. But, only 'The Big Bang Theory' has become a strong performer both critically and commercially. 'Mom' is also a strong performer with the critics, but not of the same commercial caliber. Outside of those two, they don't really have any strong performers in the ratings or with the critics. 'Kevin Can Wait' and 'Man with a Plan' are decent performers, but have received unfavorable reviews by critics to no one's surprise. Outside of CBS, Disney Channel produces many multi-camera sitcoms, but they're aimed more at kids and teens. Ultimately, it seems that the only popular multi-cams are the revivals. Netflix has the revivals of 'One Day at a Time' and 'Fuller House' while ABC and NBC will air new seasons of 'Roseanne' and 'Will & Grace' respectively. Nevertheless, that's not a great place for a medium to be in. Single-camera sitcoms continue to receive more critical acclaim and rating success while non-'Big Bang Theory' multi-cams have had little luck.


Multi-Cam or Single-Cam?
In my opinion, single-camera comedies are usually better. Since they don't use laugh tracks, single-cam comedies can have dramatic moments that won't be interrupted by the constant laughing of a machine or audience. Also, a single-cam sitcom can keep firing jokes left and right while actors in a multi-cam have to wait for the laughter to cease in order to proceed to the next bit of comedy. In terms of investment, multi-cams are generally cheaper, but in recent memory, only CBS has mastered the multi-cam business. The only other broadcast network to have a successful multi-cam in recent memory is ABC with 'Last Man Standing'. 

Can the Multi-Cam make a comeback?
It's incredible how quickly the single-cam overtook the multi-cam despite the latter being absent for many years. So, could the multi-cam return to prominence? At the moment, I don't see it happening. There hasn't exactly been a very popular or highly acclaimed one in recent years. Despite that, the television landscape continues to change so I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if multi-cams were to take the reins away from the single-cam.


What did you think about this article? Do you prefer multi-camera or single-camera comedies? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.