Hot In Cleveland: Betty Does Disney

Curator's Note

One of the most successful shows of the summer is Hot in Cleveland, the first original sitcom produced by TV Land, which has just been renewed for 20 more episodes. Apart from cashing in on Betty White Mania, the show's high viewership (on TV Land and CTV in Canada) demonstrates the migration of the Disney Channel formula to older-skewing channels.

After getting rid of shows involving classic Disney characters, the Disney Channel has worked to fill the gap left by the collapse of "family-friendly" programming on the networks. Shows like
Hannah Montana and The Suite Life mimic the rhythms and appearance of '90s shows like Family Matters and Full House; they're written by many of the same people, who fled to Disney when broadcast no longer wanted viewers under 18.

Hot In Cleveland applies this idea to another group of viewers who, like the Disney audience, tend to be outside the beloved 18-49 demographic. According to Josef Adalian, the show was conceived after Estelle Getty's death when Suzanne Martin, a former Frasier writer, wondered why there were no more Golden Girls-style sitcoms about older women. It’s a cheaper version of Golden Girls, just as Hannah Montana borrows from the sitcoms of Miller-Boyett. And Hot In Cleveland is staffed by former Frasier writers, driven to cable just as family sitcom writers were driven to Disney. The show has even signed up Disney's Joe Jonas as a guest, suggesting that it wants to appeal to under-18s as well as over-49s.

Like its Disney counterparts, Hot In Cleveland is cornier than we would expect from modern network sitcoms. In part this is a reflection of lower cable budgets, which don't allow for a massive staff of punch-up specialists. But it's also a reflection of a different view of cable's role than that of HBO. The aim is not to deal in material that is too edgy for the networks to accept, but the kind that they now reject as not edgy enough.

Whether this new strategy can produce a first-rate show in this vein is another question. The precedent of Disney, where most sitcoms tend to hover around a level of middling quality, is not encouraging. The test for TV Land is whether they can do genuinely good middlebrow work.


Nice post! I completely agree with you that Hot In Cleveland is mostly "corny," but I wonder if you (as well as other viewers) are ever taken aback by the show's rather pointed sexual jokes (e.g., sitting up like jockey on your horse, going downtown, etc.)? I sometimes wonder if this is the writers' attempt to infuse "edginess" into their "good middlebrow work."

I think that for better or for worse, sex jokes are a key component of the older-demographic show. So Two and a Half Men, the most broadly popular comedy on television, also tries to be the smuttiest show on broadcast television. Now, that show is also the second-most-popular among 18-49 viewers, so it may be that the sex jokes draw in a younger audience, but it may also be that they have appeal to people who grew up with Soap or The Golden Girls and aren't particularly shocked by sex talk on television.

Great piece, Jaime. I will admit that I haven't actually watched Hot in Cleveland - the premise did nothing for me, and considering how far I expect it to fall in terms of "cultural phenomenon" I don't think that I'm suddenly going to be out of place in terms of either my age group or critical circles.

However, I might end up tuning in to see what the show ends up turning out in its second season: considering its breakout success, will the series be adjusting its demographics to attempt to draw in a different sort of viewer? While TV Land certainly skews towards older demographics, their recent pickup of Curb Your Enthusiasm is very clearly designed towards what Kelli acknowledges as "Edgy," and I wonder if TV Land doesn't view Hot in Cleveland's future as an attempt at making their network "cool" for demographics who might not normally think their lineup is worthy of such a title. While the three leads and the basic premise of the series are designed to appeal to the upper reaches of the key demographics, Betty White and Joe Jonas are "popular" with a decidedly younger audience, splitting the series' appeal and creating an interesting balance for future episodes.

And on a more general note, the 20 episode Season 2 order is a strange one, immediately going into production and effectively creating a massive first season - it will be interesting to see whether they make any changes, or whether the quick transition will force the writers to stick to the formulated game plan.

This is a great microcosm look that widens out to highlight so many issues with the state of the sitcom right now (I haven't watched HiC, so sorry if I 'm taking this too far off-topic): sitcom aesthetics and production techniques, the ties between the multi-cam and the middlebrow, the relationship between tween multi-cams and adult ones, the notion that edgy cable sitcoms have both reverberated onto network strategies but also left open a niche for other-minded cable channels to exploit, and also Kelli's point about the incorporation of sexual content.

In that latter regard, I'm really intrigued by the idea that TV Land might be trying to transition the network brand to edgier territory. I haven't watched TV Land in forever, but I've always assumed it presents its old sitcoms sincerely, not ironically, as an edgier approach would seem to dictate. So would this shift affect the presentation of the classic reruns, or has the sincere presentation of the classic itself now come out the other side as cool by this point? Or does TV Land already present its classics in ways I'm not aware of?

The thing is that TV Land has had to deal with the problem that a channel has extreme difficulty surviving on reruns, the way they (and Nick at Nite, which spun off TV Land) once did. DVDs and Hulu and all the rest of it have made it possible for people to see many of their favourite shows uncut and commercial-free, and to choose which episode they want to see. So Hot In Cleveland is TV Land's attempt to produce a show that appeals to the same demographic that watched its reruns, but give them something they can't get by popping in a DVD.

You make an intriguing point, Jamie, when you write that cable provides a place for shows rejected as not edgy enough.  I think it's important to recognize this part of cable's niche programing, especially when so much of the popular discourse labels cable (especially channels like AMC and FX) as loci of quality television, particularly "edgy" quality television.

Great piece, Jaime.  Tracking the sitcom writers of old as they transition to cable is a great tactic for your broader argument.

I'm yet another person who has not yet seen the show, but I wonder about the other obvious comparison--Cougar Town.  I'm intrigued by this program because so many of my favorite second fiddle ladies are getting top billing here.  Is this program also riding the much-discussed industry "discovery" of a female audience, a la SATC, et al.  What has been the demographic makeup of TVLand's audience--and is this program an attempt to get the ladies or to cater to the ones already watching?  We have a number of female-focused networks on basic cable--but do they do sitcoms?

Drawing on Karen's comments about the sitcom for a female audience...I don't have any data handy, but I recall that in syndication, Golden Girls drew a decent-sized audience of college age women. I wonder if Hot in Cleveland is looking to draw some of that demo as well. As part of the 34-49 audience, I found Hot in Cleveland flat, and was drawn to it because I grew up watching One Day at a Time, Frasier and Golden Girls. And I was rather disappointed, knowing that all of the women featured in this series have done better work elsewhere.

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