Britain's two biggest broadcasters have suddenly got very serious about comedy. In the last two weeks, both the BBC and the ITV1 company Granada have appointed "comedy tsars" to find the next generation of talent. The situation at ITV1 has become so bad that one of Granada's most senior executives has broken ranks to criticise the network.
"The ITV1 position is madness," says Paul Jackson, Granada director of international production and entertainment, who in his younger days produced The Young Ones and Red Dwarf for the BBC. "You can't maintain a primetime broad appeal schedule without comedy. It's important for audience delivery, but also in building affection for the channel. Comedy is very hard to get right, but you've got to do it."
Tastes in TV comedy appear to have changed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make a show that attracts whole families in the way that Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses did. The proliferation of extra channels, and the fact that station schedulers now receive audience figures within 24 hours of a show's broadcast, has left broadcasters nervous. It takes guts to stick with a show if it does not work immediately; in the past, more faith was shown in programmes - a slow start did not necessarily mean that a show would not later grab big audiences.
So what do the tsars - Jon Mountague and Dave Morley - propose to do? Their first step was a vaguely traditional one: a trip to Edinburgh to seek out the newest faces on the stand-up comedy circuit. The need to bring the best of the year's comedy crop to TV is now more acute than ever. Producers from rival broadcasters can end up in bidding wars over the latest "instant sensation" at the Fringe.
Things have changed since the relaxed days when Jackson used to saunter around the courtyard of the Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh's comedy centre.
"We walked around and literally signed up acts there and then," he says. "You could find an internship for them, or, say, get them to come and do a couple of sketches on Three of a Kind."
Edinburgh has always been an important proving ground for new comic talent. Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson and many others landed at the BBC via a fast train from the east coast of Scotland.
But broadcasters can run into problems when attempting to transfer even a Perrier Award-winning show from stage to screen. Al Murray, whose turn as the Pub Landlord won the Perrier in 1999, was lured to Sky TV, but his series flopped badly.
"There were issues with the show and with the platform," says Jackson. "Al can make a bigger success by touring than he can on Sky." Jackson has since tried to woo Murray to ITV1, but has so far failed to find a vehicle for him that is mainstream enough for the network's tastes.
The process of finding and securing comedy hits was very different in the early 1970s, when Fawlty Towers was commissioned, or even in 1981, when Only Fools and Horses emerged. Will Wyatt, who ran BBC television under the former BBC director general John Birt, explains: "Once upon a time the BBC was the only show in town. ITV didn't make comedy work as well and Channel 4 didn't exist, so the BBC was a natural home for talent."
Wyatt recalls how John Sullivan, the writer of Only Fools and Horses, got his first break after landing a job as a scene-shifter at the BBC, with a couple of scripts up his sleeve. One day, Sullivan cornered the brilliant comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson in the bar and asked if he would read one of his scripts. Main Wilson did, and the script became Citizen Smith. "We're not in that world now," says Wyatt.
Jackson says: "The public haven't been looking for broad-appeal sitcom in the last five years. Comedy is like the record industry - it has gone very niche."
Of Granada's only comedy hits, one was a comedy-drama, Cold Feet, while the other was The Royle Family, produced for the BBC and an acquired taste for some. Both were conceived and developed in the mid-1990s; none of the more recent TV comedy successes have come from the ITV1 network. And hits such as BBC2's The Office, or even Channel 4's Graham Norton, have never risen beyond cult status, attracting audiences of three million or less.
"It's unrealistic to hope for a comedy to deliver eight to 10 million viewers," says Jackson. "But if it can deliver four million ABC1, 16- to 39-year-olds that's perfectly valid in certain parts of the ITV1 schedule."
In the past, comedies - like other genres - were given more time to establish themselves. Even the mighty Only Fools and Horses struggled in the ratings at first. But it was allowed to come back, and its breakthrough - like that of The Good Life - came during an ITV strike when audiences had no choice but to tune in to the BBC.
"We had a more gentle environment. But there are no soft slots in the schedule any more," recalls Jackson. "The BBC used to play a lot of its major comedies on a Monday night against ITV's World In Action. Likewise, ITV used to play comedy opposite Panorama."
Even the BBC, which has had its fair share of breakthrough comic performers, including Ricky Gervais and Rob Brydon, realises that comedy will no longer command audiences in the region of the 14 million viewers who used to watch Only Fools and Horses. BBC1's My Family is the only mainstream comedy to have worked in the past six years: it is watched by about 5.5 million viewers. With broadcasters struggling to keep pace with such a shift in taste and viewing habits, it is little wonder they have lost their sense of humour about comedy.Reuse content