Skip to main content

LATV Fest: ‘Modern Family's' Levitan on How to Get Primetime Comedy Back on Track

Consistent scheduling and sticking with programming choices is Emmy-winning producer Steve Levitan's advice for achieving a successful primetime series in the current rocky network television landscape.

"Sometimes programmers still think that audiences are going to know when you move a show around and are going to follow it," Levitan said to the attendees at the NATPE LATV Fest Industry Insight Luncheon July 9 in Los Angeles, moderated by B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego.

Levitan, whose credits include Wings, Frasier, Just Shoot Me and the upcoming ABC comedy Modern Family,
says the networks have gotten very impatient and the audiences have so
many more choices than they used to; you have to grab them even more.

He recalled how his NBC series Just Shoot Me was in 13 different time periods during its seven seasons and pointed to CBS' scheduling as a model for success.

"They stick with shows, they leave them in time periods for multiple years," he said. "Don't touch them, let them be. You can build an audience over time."

He noted CBS' success with it's Monday night comedy block and said he hoped that his new series Modern Family will find a strong home in ABC's new Wednesday night comedy slate.

"[The new comedy block] is really risky but I think [ABC] had no choice," Levitan said. "I think it's the right move. Just stick with idea of a comedy block. Leave [Modern Family] there and promote us. We will find our audience. I think it's the way to do it."

Levitan said ABC felt right to him and network entertainment president Stephen McPherson pursued the show aggressively. McPherson was no stranger to Levitan as he was the junior network executive during Levitan's Just Shoot Me days. "It's funny how it kind of came full circle," he said.

He did not have a similar positive experience with Fox. After the cancellation of Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton starrer Back To You, Levitan has vowed to never to work with the network again. (RELATED blog at BCBeat LATV Fest: Steve Levitan Flips Fox The Bird)

However, he now believes if Back To You had not been cancelled, he probably wouldn't have done Modern Family.

Levitan described Modern Family as a realistic mockumentary about three families--one very traditional and two non-traditional--and was quick to shoot down comparison's to popular mockumentary series The Office.

"We're not ripping off The Office; we're ripping off Spinal Tap," he said of Modern Family, which he created and exec produces with Back to You collaborator Christopher Lloyd. "We have kids and families and the show actually goes out in the world. It has the potential to be warmer than The Office [which focuses] on corporate life."

Levitan enjoys the pseudo-documentary style because of the freedom it offers.

"A lot of [single camera] shows are about style and if there's a little bump or it goes out of focus it could have been the most brilliant take and you can't use it. In documentary, you can use it because it makes it seems more real," he said. "You can shoot it faster and I love the edge that it gives the show."

After creating series with big stars attached such as Back To You with Grammer and Heaton and Stacked with Pamela Anderson, Levitan has concluded that big names don't always make a great show.

"I don't think it does anything for you, that's my new opinion," he said. "People like to discover new talent."

Modern Family doesn't have major, recognizable starts attached, besides Ed O'Neill (Married With Children), Levitan said.

Now that the pilot has been well-received, Levitan and Lloyd have the daunting task of making it into a great series.

"Quite often you are trying to overcome the problems in the pilot," he said. "Here we have the opposite problem. Now the mission going forward is living up to the pilot. We have a really good writing staff and are putting in a lot of hours early on."