If I ruled the airwaves

in which independent producer Mick Pilsworth has his own way with the tv schedule
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The Independent Culture
SUCCESSFUL sitcoms attract huge loyal audiences, but untested sitcoms remain the riskiest genre for broadcasters and producers alike. The problem is that the very feature which pulls in big audiences, the attractiveness of the characters, is extraordinarily difficult to communicate within the first, or "pilot" episode. We don't know the characters and we have to know the characters to understand the jokes. It's comedy's Catch-22. Many series take years to catch on. Recent "slow burns" include Last of the Summer Wine, Men Behaving Badly and One Foot in the Grave.

For a sitcom pilot to hit its target immediately is very rare. My theme night would feature those first episodes which not only achieved high ratings, but also ran for years.

A good sitcom pilot has to have a great "hook" - an intriguing situation which sets up a strong plot and sets the characters against each other. Each line of dialogue has to do three jobs: it must advance the plot, give us background to the character, and at the same time be funny.

The premise of the show must also hit a nerve; it must be contemporary and fresh, and in tune with what's happening in society. Few writers achieve this.

My theme night is made up of some of the best sitcom pilots ever made, and all illustrate the brilliance the writers have shown in getting around the sitcom Catch-22. They will air chronologically, in historical order, and will be introduced by Clive James, the former Observer television critic and international television guru, .

Kicking off the evening, the first-ever episode of the hit US series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which has a cracking premise and the added advantage of a well-known character. Mary Tyler Moore had already been in a hit sitcom, The Dick van Dyke Show, for many years and her character in her own show was an evolution of her character in van Dyke's.

Newly single, she moves from New York to Minneapolis, to a new job in an all-male local TV newsroom, headed up by a patriarchal Lou Grant. The conflict between the liberated young cosmopolitan career woman and the misogynistic middle-aged provincial news chief provides plenty of conflict in the office scenes. The writers also created conflict in the domestic scenes by having Mary attempt to move into an apartment which turned out to be occupied by someone else.

The Likely Lads, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, was another classic pilot episode. The conflict in this series was based, unusually, on the internal conflict within Ian La Frenais' own psyche: the character of Bob in the show was the aspiring middle-class boy that La Frenais' mother wanted him to be, whilst Terry was the solid working-class lad that Ian imagined himself to be.

Birds of a Feather, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, kicked off with one of the slickest pilot episodes ever written. It featured a bank robbery which went wrong, a car chase, a separation, the discovery by the sisters Sharon and Tracey that their husbands were bank robbers, a sex toys party, and a climactic courtroom scene in which the husbands were sent down for seven years.

It achieved an audience of 13 million, one of the highest ever ratings for a sitcom pilot, and is still on the air 90 episodes later.

My other choices, Drop the Dead Donkey, Porridge and I Love Lucy, also show that by hitting the zeitgeist, building in plenty of conflict and creating strong, clearly defined characters, writers can overcome the sitcom Catch-22. But then not many writers can do it. Those who can, and are prepared to live in a mansion in Bel Air, earn upwards of $1m a year. It's a tough job... a really tough job.

Mick Pilsworth is Chief Executive of independent production company Chrysalis Visual Entertainment. He is executive producer of a new ITV sitcom, Babes in the Wood.

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