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 than apart, 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 their differing sensibilities lead to a falling out by the second season.
But instead of acrimoniously ending things, they agreed to split custody of the ABC show, alternating which episodes each oversaw. “Modern Family” went on to became one of the biggest television phenomena of the current age.
Ty Burrell, who plays often befuddled dad Phil Dunphy, has been a part-time Utahn throughout the run of the show; he’s co-owner of Bar-X and the Beer Bar in Salt Lake City and The Eating Establishment in Park City. He, Julie Bowen as Claire and Eric Stonestreet as their brother-in-law Cameron Tucker have each won two Emmys.
ABC on Tuesday announced that this fall will mark the show’s last season, its 11th. “Chris and Steve have created one of the most seminal and iconic comedies in television history,” ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke told reporters at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif., in announcing the ending of “Modern Family.”
It's indeed 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 different times, all consecutive.
Yet for all its success, the show also has a complicated legacy. In many respects, it helped define the current business landscape. And 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 had begun streaming its content instead of just sending it by red envelope. Original programming outside of the traditional television set wasn’t on anyone’s mind — “House of Cards” was more than three years away from debuting. Apart from one win for “Sex and the City,” the broadcast networks had taken every outstanding-comedy Emmy ever.
And "Modern Family" was positioned to reap all these benefits of a linear world. 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. (That is, when the show wasn’t engaging in some bolder forms of sponsorship.)
By putting its own spin on a familiar motley-family conceit and docu-comedy style, the show turned things around for ABC. Far removed from its TGIF heyday of the 1990s, the network needed comedy hits. "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 important, though, 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 both 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.
But “Modern Family” stands out a single-camera comedy — cinema-style shooting, no laugh-track — that still garnered a massive audience. And the show repeated the rewards. “Modern Family” 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. It even got sold and repackaged in places like Chile and Greece.
Its role was testified to by the Disney-Fox acquisition, as executives cited it as the kind of jewel that ABC wanted not just to air but to own. The show was so big that at the start of its cable reruns had the feel of a new series launch.
“Modern Family” even had some old-fashioned network-cast salary disputes a la the epic clashes between Friends and NBC/Warner Bros in the 1990s — the kind of thing that happened when the networks needed their stars in a way few streamers, with the elevation of brand and writer, rarely do.
And yet. All this success is a reminder of just why it was possible when it came on — and how it could never be possible again.
The end of "Modern Family," along with "Big Bang" at the end of this current television season, will also in all probability mean the end of an era. The highest-rated sitcoms now on broadcast television are either very new ("Young Sheldon") or very old ("The Conners"). The odds that any could achieve what Jay Pritchett and his Closet Empire did are remote at best.
Because 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 sloshing around elsewhere.
Not for nothing are the other broadcast comedies that lasted to their 11th season — “Cheers,” “The Jeffersons,” "M*A*S*H — a who’s-who of TV history; these are not tricks we’ll likely see in the 21st century.
If you want an idea of how "Modern Family" comes from another business age, here it is: the show is not on Netflix. Yep. Not on now, never has been. Twentieth knew it could monetize the show much better with these syndication deals than selling it to a streamer.
The show’s scripts have by wide consensus been declining creatively 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 here, 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. But from a business standpoint, it’s nothing less than a dinosaur, and its species could well soon be extinct.
The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this report.