Wednesday 14 September 2016

You Can't Have Your Sitcom Cake and Eat It

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sitcom will never get 10m+ viewers. Not outside Christmas. And certainly not on at 9pm on a Wednesday night in late August.

The Great British Bake Off does. It’s a truly astonishing monster hit. It really shouldn’t work that well, but it does. They’ve found the perfect recipe. Good for them.

The whole edifice now appears to be crashing down in a bit of TV brinkmanship, but one of the products has been the revelation that the BBC were prepared to pay £15m a year to keep the Bake Off for three more years.

Why did the BBC want to keep the Bake Off so badly and pay a huge sum for it? Is it committed to the propagation of excellence in amateur baking? Is it trying to find a new generation of bakers to feed the nation? No. Did I mention it gets 10m+ viewers?

That’s interesting. The BBC clearly has some hidden war chest containing £15m to throw at something to get 10m+ viewers for one series. So here’s my question:

Why doesn’t the BBC throw that kind of money at trying to find some new mainstream hit sitcoms? 

I would argue that a decent mainstream sitcom will last longer than almost any reality show. Most of these reality juggernauts run out of steam after eight years or so, and then limp along for a couple more. A sitcom can last so much longer.

Exhibit A: Still Open All Hours

The BBC has just commissioned a third series of Still Open All Hours. Quite right too. It’s got characters people love, a truly great central performance in David Jason, and it gets really decent numbers. All this with relatively little press and fanfare, as opposed to the Bake Off, which is teaser-trailed like a Hollywood blockbuster weeks in advance. Maybe Still Open All Hours would get 10m midweek if it got that level of hype.

The show began life, of course, as Open All Hours, a pilot in 1973. Let’s take a moment to savour that. 1973. That’s two years after we in the UK went decimal. That’s a long time ago. And yet Granville and the Ghost of Arkwright will be on TV again in 2017, 44 years later.

That’s an extreme example, sure, and there were only 26 episodes of Open All Hours, but look at Exhibit B.

Exhibit B: Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather began life in 1989 and ran for nine series until 1998. And we’re not just talking standard series of six episodes. Series 2 was 16 episodes. Sixteen. Series 3-7 had 13, 14, 14, 14 and 12 episodes respectively. That’s a lot of telly. (They had writing teams. TV Execs, please take note. It can work. It does work and it has worked.) By 1998 they’d notched up a 100 episodes. And it’s still on and doing just fine on ITV, 27 years after the original episode aired on BBC1.

As if further proof were needed, let’s look at Exhibit C.

Exhibit C: The Landmark Sitcom Season

The Landmark Sitcom Season resurrected 7 shows, including Hancock’s Half Hour, a show that premiered on BBC Radio in 1954. Yes. 1954. What the series proved is clear: Mainstream sitcoms hits last for generations.  Not only can you keep making new episodes. You can keep repeating old ones.

Exhibit D: Dad’s Army

I tweet this all the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Easily the most successful sitcom on BBC2 and Channel 4 this year has been reruns of Dad’s Army. It’s beaten the competition almost every single week all year. A show that began life in 1968.

What’s the lesson? Stop showing reruns because it’s not fair? Or invest in mainstream sitcoms that will outlast this current baking fad, and almost every pop career launched by Popstars, The Voice and X-Factor combined?

Let’s re-examine Exhibit C, The Landmark Sitcom Season, a little further, shall we? There was a huge song and dance about it in the media, but in what way has it helped?

I don’t want to be overly critical of it. In a way, a celebration of sitcom is an end in itself. I personally enjoyed some of the remakes, Hancock especially. But in terms of laying the groundwork for the future, the Landmark Season gave us four new pilots on BBC2. Four is not many compared to the four BBC1 reboots and three BBC4 remakes. Plus a panel game for some reason, and a one-hour documentary that was more about changing attitudes than sitcom itself.

Only time will tell what becomes of the new BBC2 pilots, but, erm, shouldn’t BBC2 be making sitcom pilots anyway? Of course, BBC2 comedy is an end in itself, and that’s fine. But its role in finding hits for BBC1 is crucial. Mainstream hits like Miranda and Ab Fab started on BBC2, as did the slightly more nuanced The Royle Family.

What It All Comes Down To

I don’t want to get too bogged down in commissioning policy and scheduling because ultimately it all comes down to one thing:


And it turns out the BBC have £15m to spend on a baking show (that began life on BBC2) that is at its peak – and probably wouldn’t have lasted more than another couple of years, even if they’d managed to hold onto it.

Now, I know that £15m is just a figure that probably covers making the show and masterclasses and Comic Relief versions and the Extra Slice for a whole years. You’re quite a fair bit of TV for your money.

But let’s be honest. It’s dead money. People will not be watching Bake Off Series 10 Episode 3 in 2026. Not in any significant numbers. And they won’t even be watching this year’s Extra Slice next year. My argument is purely that reality/entertainment doesn’t last in the way that characters and stories do.

A Modest Proposal

So, here’s my proposal. Rather than spend £15m one one year of Bake Off, how about spending £10m  over three years on finding a sitcom that could last as long as Open All Hours? Or that people will want to remake and watch in 40 years time.

A sitcom pilot can cost anywhere between £180k and £400k. Let’s not muck about here. Let’s go to the top end, to attract top talent and do this properly. In a studio. There is plenty of top talent around, both writing and performing. The problem that this talent is winning Emmys in USA, not BAFTAs in UK. Or they are engaged rewriting shows they started in the 1970s.

So let’s push the boat out here. Let’s fund each pilot to the tune of £400k. And how about BBC1 makes eight pilots a year for three years? One more than the seven pilots they did with Ronnie Barker in 1973. And one more than the seven pilots they did the year earlier in the Comedy Playhouse that unearthed Are You Being Served? So five more than they did in the Comedy Playhouse of 2014 and 2016.

Eight pilots a year. At £400k. Insist that most are multi-cam studio shows. That’s £3.2m a year. Let’s do it for three years. That’s £9.6m for 24 fully funded pilots. So £5m cheaper than a year of Bake Off, for something that could last much longer. And you could have all the press and hype and national debate to go with it. Even have audience vote on their favourite. Have an Extra Slice-type show to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We take our sitcoms very seriously.

And Then What?

I’m pretty sure I can predict the results of these 24 shows. Not because I’m smart, because this is just how the numbers seem to shake out when you look back over the hundreds of pilots that have been made and how this tends to work.

18 of these 24 pilots will be, on first inspection, dreadful. Critics will hate them and make the usual snide and sneery comments. But that’s okay. It’s just telly. No-one died (hopefully). Let’s not get too upset. But the audience will like two of those ‘dreadful’ 18 shows, and one will go to series and do fine, like Brushstrokes or Three Up, Two Down. They were good shows at the time, but not hits. And the other one will go to series and be a huge Mrs-Brown-style hit.

Of the remaining six episodes that weren’t ‘dreadful’, one will be a timeless classic like Porridge or Only Fools and Horses, go to series and run and run. And three should’ve worked but didn’t quite. Two of those three will be deemed fixable and go to series. One will do fine. And the other won’t. And two probably shouldn’t have worked, but did. And go to series. One will work. And one won’t.

And there we have it. For a £9.6m investment, and a lot of work, 24 pilots should generate five or six mainstream sitcoms. One crowd pleaser that will get Bake Off numbers. One transcendent classic. Two other solid performers and one or two that won’t quite go the distance.

Of course, this is all on top of the pilots and new shows that are commissioned anyway.

But wait:

Objection, Your Honour!

I can already hear the defenders of the BBC saying they already do almost exactly what I’ve just outlined. Add the four BBC2 pilots from the Landmark Season to the three from this year’s BBC1 Comedy Playhouse and hey presto! A seven episode Comedy Playhouse split over two channels, fully funded, promoted and broadcast.

Yup. Fair point. I’m glad I thought of it. But I’d reply with the following.

Firstly, that my suggestion is this be a BBC1 thing, front and centre. And it should focus on mainstream studio-audience comedy. We can still make that stuff and it’s what audiences really like, so I think we should focus on that.

Secondly, my plan is a three year commitment to BBC1 studio audience comedy.. BBC1 had a three-ep Comedy Playhouse in 2014. But not in 2015. Why not? Don’t know. And again in 2016. Only one was a studio audience show. And they were all broadcast at 22.40. Schedulers really should have more confidence in the sitcom talent that’s out there.

And finally, the Comedy Playhouses of the 1970s were in addition to the dozens of new shows being piloted and tried out only three channels. Except in comedy terms, there were more than three channel because in those days, ITV regions like Central and Anglia were making sitcoms of their own. Hits like Rising Damp were commissioned and made by Yorkshire TV. Which also means there was an awful lot of expertise around and plenty of experience to draw on.

The landscape was very different then, and yet they still made seven pilots a year in their playhouse series. They just knew how many flops you had to make before you found the hit.

I love the Bake Off, but Channel 4 can have that. Can we have some new classic sitcoms, please? You can have them, BBC. If you want them. But do you want them?

1 comment:

  1. As two further exhibits - Red Dwarf XI premieres today, 28 years after series 1, and now sheltering outside the BBC. Ben Elton has successfully rehashed Blackadder II as Upstart Crow, which could run to a few series if the will is there. All good studio sitcoms!