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07/13/2001 - Single-Camera Sitcoms
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How to Produce Movies for Television

"I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it.I want to have lived the width of it as well."

-- Diane Ackerman (b. 1948) American poet and writer


Single-Camera Sitcoms

When Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball created "I Love Lucy" some fifty years ago, their popular series was filmed on a proscenium stage with three cameras working simultaneously before a live audience. That's how the three-camera sitcom got its name and became a popular television art form.

The look of the 3-camera sitcom may be changing. This fall, 8 out of the 46 sitcoms filmed in prime time across the six broadcast networks will be shot like movies, with a single camera, on film and without a live audience.

And three single-camera sitcoms are due to be shot during mid-season. The single-camera sitcom is not a new process. Back in the 60's, many popular half-hour comedies were filmed without an audience. Laugh tracks were added later to each episode.

During the 70's, the multiple-camera format took over and dominated the sitcom scene. Norman Lear was the first to shoot a sitcom on videotape, His "All in the Family" was shot to look more like a stage play giving it a topicality of its own and a sense of immediacy as well.

And in the 80's, there were also some single-camera sitcoms produced without laugh tracks including such shows as "Doogie Howser M.D." and "The Wonder Years."

Single-camera shows are more expensive. They require more hours from technical crews than multiple-camera sitcoms. But the networks are willing to take the financial risk with single-camera sitcoms. The reason being that new comedies are failing at a higher rate and there have been virtually no breakout hits last season.

The popularity of reality shows has motivated network executives to take their chances with single-camera shows. "Malcolm in the Middle" is an example of a popular show that has earned high marks even though it's shot on film with no audience or laugh track. "Malcolm" is basically a physcial comedy which relies on rapid-fire sight gags.

Being a hit, "Malcolm" has paved the way for a trend to try more single-camera shows. Television is a very imitative medium and executives feel more comfortable trying things that work. After all, many viewers complain that most sitcoms look alike.

There's another great advantage to shooting a sitcom without a live audience. The show isn't limited to interior sets. There's more opportunity to shoot exteriors on the studio lot or on location.

Proponents of single-camera shows also feel that showing the world through a single-camera lens will be more real and have a greater impact on an audience.

Some network executives are very apprehensive about playing non-laugh track shows but the truth is that if a show is genuinely funny a laugh track won't make it funnier.
Funny is funny and that's what really matters. Audiences are cued to laugh with a laugh track. Today's audience are more inclined to decide for themselves if something is really funny. They don't want to be told that it's funny. And that's where laugh tracks err.

The simple truth is that nothing will ever replace good writing, acting and directing. In the end, content will always win over form when it comes to satisfying an audience.

"Sooner of later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these."

-- Susan B. Anthony (1820 - 1906) American reformer

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