By Simon Lupton, Senior Commissioning Editor, UKTV
TV is a serious business. So much so I once heard of someone describing working in TV as like being on the front line in the Helmand Province. It's not actually like that at all, but when you work for a broadcaster the battle for ratings is intense. Viewers have plenty of alternatives, so if you want them to spend time with you, you've got to grab their attention and cling on for dear life. It is probably more like a horrendous speed dating experience, where channels only have a few short minutes to convince the picky audience that they are the one.
So how do Controllers make their channels look attractive? Well, I would argue the most potent weapon in our armoury is a 'Good Sense Of Humour'. Laughter - a guaranteed way to make yourself popular. Being a comedy commissioner, I am naturally advocating that in this battle for viewers, demonstrating the channel's sense of humour through comedy is vital. Be funny and your audience will love you for it, yet sadly, comedy, once the cornerstone of every schedule, has plummeted down the list of priorities. I'm not suggesting the days of comedy are numbered, there are plenty of brilliant shows around, but it is noticeable that 'mainstream' has become a dirty word when it comes to comedy.
To be fair to the channels, and mentioning no names, there have been some high profile attempts recently that have not been good enough. Equally, it seems many writers are reluctant to go for the big, 'obvious' laugh preferring instead to be subtle or niche. That's fine - we need those shows too. But we also need comedy to be in the front line, helping win the ratings battle, and to earn that place we have to be able to deliver broad, accessible 'mainstream' comedy that brings in the numbers.
The landscape for achieving this is by no means ideal. Mainstream sitcoms can be expensive, require a massive leap of faith at a time when our industry has become risk averse and audiences incredibly quick to judge new shows (and damn them on social media), all of which is disastrous when trying to develop new sitcoms. However, just because it's hard doesn't mean to say we shouldn't keep trying. It's time for comedy to fight back.
The evidence that the public still crave shows with mass appeal is there. Birds of A Feather, The IT Crowd and Still Open All Hours demonstrate that comedy can still punch above its weight in primetime, whilst Car Share proves that studio sitcoms are not the only deliverers of big numbers. And it's not just the preserve of the terrestrials. Ever since Dave smashed all ratings records with the return of Red Dwarf, scripted comedy has been a real priority for UKTV. Gold in particular has embraced the idea of commissioning original, mainstream comedy to build on the success of its first foray, You, Me & Them. Committing to four new sitcoms with pilot runs of three episodes, allowing the writing talent a real opportunity to explore their idea, and the audience time to discover the world and the characters, at the same time sparing the channel the inefficiency of a one-off pilot, or the financial risk of plunging into a whole series. Production of the first two, Marley's Ghosts and Bull, has been a fantastic and rewarding experience, and they transmit over the next six weeks, with the others following in 2016.
UKTV's growing commissioning budget means we can enjoy trying out interesting and innovative new ideas. Taking risks is all part of developing and I'd like to think we've been bold with some of our choices. Yes, the number of eyeballs tuning in is undeniably important, but so is the breadth of that audience and knowing they have been thoroughly entertained. All of which makes up the important basis for us turning a pilot run into a full series.
Gold is all about comedy, and the response from writers and producers to the challenge we set to help create modern mainstream has been overwhelming. The ideas and talent are out there, so we have the ammunition to get this right. It's definitely not the Helmand Province, but it is a fight for the hearts and minds of the audience and comedy needs to be one of the big guns. Viewers are desperately seeking a Good Sense Of Humour, so controllers ignore comedy at their peril.