During its upfront presentation in May 2009, ABC was so confident in the quality of its new sitcom, Modern Family, that it screened the entire pilot episode for buyers at the event—a show of faith that hasn’t been repeated since by any network at an upfront.
When the show premiered four months later, millions of viewers quickly discovered the same thing that ABC’s upfront audience had: They were watching TV’s next blockbuster sitcom, about three seemingly separate families who—as was revealed in a final twist—were all actually related. For the following 11 seasons, Modern Family became the last broadcast sitcom to rack up both huge ratings and top awards, winning the outstanding comedy series Emmy for five consecutive years.
Modern Family’s journey, which started at that ABC upfront in 2009, ends Wednesday night, when the network airs the show’s series finale at 9 p.m. ET (preceded by an hourlong retrospective). During its 11-season run, the entire TV industry transformed around it, with Netflix and other streaming services drawing audiences away from live linear entertainment shows—making it unlikely that another series will be able to replicate its commercial and critical success.
“It’s an incredible alchemy of elements coming together,” co-creator Steve Levitan said earlier this year of his show’s extraordinary journey. “It’s a rare thing. The old cliché of lightning in a bottle, but it just so rarely happens that the right characters are created, and the right actors come along to play those characters, and then the right writers come along to help bring those characters to life and further deepen those relationships.”
For many years, as ABC languished in fourth place among broadcasters in the adults 18-49 demo, Modern Family and drama stalwart Grey’s Anatomy were the lone bright spots on its schedule. But as the network bids the show farewell, it now boasts an overhauled, robust sitcom slate that was directly inspired by Modern Family’s lucrative run.
“Steve Levitan and I often joke about there’s no other dummy that would have taken the job that I just took knowing that they would lose Modern Family. That’s how big a hole it leaves in our hearts—and in our schedule,” said ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke, who reached a deal to renew the sitcom for one final season in February 2019, a few months after she arrived at the network. “I respect the fact that they want to go out on top. And the fact that they’re still our No. 1 comedy after all these years is a testament to their gift of storytelling and what they were able to accomplish.”
She’s not only talking about Modern Family’s ratings and accolades. After all, the series “started a family comedy brand [on ABC] that endures today, even 11 years later: Black-ish, The Goldbergs, The Connors, American Housewife, Single Parents. We really have the gold standard on family comedy at this network and that is thanks to Modern Family,” Burke said.
That’s one reason why she helped give the series an extra long curtain call with the early announcement about its Season 11 finale. The cast appeared at last May’s Disney upfront to thank buyers and reminisce about that fateful pilot screening in 2009, and spent much of the last year reveling in their good fortune.
Ty Burrell, who plays Phil Dunphy, told Adweek last fall, “I really am feeling a lot of gratitude about actually being able to say goodbye, because most of my career—not most, all of my career—the goodbyes were imposed on us. It was like, ‘You’re canceled,’ or ‘The show is closing.’ It was never in your control.”
The 18-episode stretch
ABC would have liked to air Modern Family’s finale in May as the 2019-20 season was wrapping up, but given that Season 11 was only 18 episodes instead of the usual 22 (in its first six years, the show produced 24 episodes each season), the network was unable to stretch the season any longer than early April.
“Historically, huge comedies have stretched out shorter orders over a longer period of time,” said Andy Kubitz, evp of programming strategy at ABC Entertainment. “In today’s world, this modern day way of viewing has killed the repeat, in which shows just don’t repeat as well—and there’s very few exceptions to that rule. So with Modern, we just didn’t want to put in a whole bunch of repeats and lose the momentum of the season.”
Friends’ final season in 2003-04 was also only 18 episodes, but NBC was able to air that finale in May by slotting in two months of repeats between new episodes in February and April—a scheduling move that would be unthinkable now. “We can’t do that nowadays,” Kubitz said. “How far we stretched it is the most comfortable we felt with it.”
As Burke prepares for life without Modern Family, she’s still hopeful that Levitan and co-creator Christopher Lloyd will someday come to her with an idea for a spinoff.
“Steve and I are old friends, so he knows that there’s nothing that would make me and ABC happier than to see the stories of this family continue,” Burke said. “It really will be about figuring out if there is another story to tell. I have all due respect for him and Chris and what they come up with—or don’t.”
For now, she’ll have to keep waiting: “Right now, there are no plans,” Levitan said in January.
Much like when The Big Bang Theory ended last season on CBS (that show had a bigger audience than Modern Family but, aside from star Jim Parsons, it never received the same level of Emmy love as its ABC counterpart), Modern Family’s conclusion seems to herald an end of an comedy era—especially on broadcast TV.
But Burke is optimistic that she’ll soon find another hit sitcom to take its place.
“I’ve been in this business long enough to have seen lots of genres declared dead and get revived again, and it will surely leave a big hole,” Burke said, “but we will find something—and it will feel very different than Modern Family—that will again capture the hearts and minds of our comedy audience.”