Media: Game for a laugh no longer: The governors of the BBC are gunning for all that is cheap and cheerful in light entertainment on televison. But, asks William Phillips, how will they paper over the cracks?

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The Independent Online
IT IS an area of programming the BBC does not boast about: light entertainment, filled with cut-price 'celebrities' or so-called real people, that fills the television schedules between the prestigious peaks of news, drama and classic comedy.

Now, it seems, the Board of Governors is gunning for this cheap and cheerful viewing. Its leaked, but reliable, report on the corporation's future advocates scrapping 'derivative 'formula' comedy or entertainment formats; simple and unchallenging game shows or people shows which will be provided in such abundance on other channels'. BBC 1 is to keep a respectable, if reduced, viewing share without recourse to humiliating the public, while quizzes must 'test the audience's imagination and creativity'.

The report names no names. So which series and performers could be stranded by this part of the retreat to 'higher ground'?

Every season BBC 1 screens about a dozen potentially embarrassing items. These tend to feature old troupers, often poached from ITV: Bruce Forsyth (The Generation Game, Bruce's Guest Night), Paul Daniels (Every Second Counts, The Paul Daniels Magic Show), Les Dawson, Bobby Davro, Anneka Rice - 'personalities' adept at marshalling game show contestants and charitable challenges, and playing jokes.

The shows' formulae often mimic ITV's. This year, the BBC has belatedly copied the LWT/Granada strain of real-people mockery established by Game for a Laugh (1981). This kind of humour has been fitfully popular since Candid Camera in the late Fifties; indeed, the only BBC show to hold its own against the fledgling ITV in 1956 was Ask Pickles, a typical people show.

BBC 1 ripped off Blind Date with last autumn's abortive Jimmy Tarbuck pilot, Old Flames, since picked up by ITV. It has canvassed for videos of private mishaps in Caught in the Act, which resembles Jeremy Beadle's You've Been Framed]; and both channels have played compilations of amateur gaggers in Joker in the Pack (BBC 1) and Only Joking (ITV), which were no more successful than two similar ITV efforts in the mid-Seventies. BBC 1's newly launched Bobby Davro - Public Enemy Number One is manifestly inspired, if that is the word, by LWT's Beadle's About.

Relying on collaboration with the public to supply light entertainment smacks of desperation. Historically, the BBC fought shy of genres it thought were too tainted by commercial television. It produced no year-round soap operas from the late Sixties, when three flopped, until EastEnders in 1985. It has never run quizzes with big cash prizes: the archetypal BBC 1 quiz was Blankety Blank (1979-90) in which Terry Wogan spoofed the proceedings. BBC 1 left talent contests to the other side until Bob Monkhouse was lured to revive ITV's Opportunity Knocks], which quickly fizzled out.

The service that gave us It's a Knock Out, The White Heather Club, Come Dancing, Nationwide, Juke Box Jury, Are You Being Served? and the Eurovision Song Contest, has never quite lost the urge to beat ITV at its own fun and games. But the British feel uneasy with Auntie in party mood: her clowns are perceived as clones, and inferior at that. The figures (above) show that their audiences average well under 10 million viewers, compared with between 10 million and 18 million for most of ITV's red-nosed output.

A few low-brow BBC series have done well, such as Jim Davidson's snooker game show Big Break, whose debut in 1991 averaged 10.2 million viewers. After coming sixth in that season, it was down to 43rd in 1992. The only other new(ish) show to break through has been Noel's House Party, which collected 12.2 million viewers an episode over its 19-week run in 1991-92.

Edmonds is about the only bossyboots host to become a star on the BBC recently. Noel's House Party might pass the governors' quality test on the grounds that its technique of ambushing viewers live in their homes is innovative, although Cilla Black did much the same on BBC 1 20 years ago. Yet Edmonds cannot overcome a dull format: Noel's Addicts this summer polled poorly, and with a long run of Telly Addicts beginning, he risks Wogan-style burn-out.

The problem with these kinds of light entertainment is that gimmicks require continual reinvention, whereas a beloved situation comedy can be repeated almost indefinitely. If the BBC's efforts are not winning big enough audiences to make up for the embarrassment they cause, why not do as the bosses wish and ditch the lot?

The trouble is that peak hours must be filled, and alternative sources of cheap dross have dried up. In the mid-Eighties, Dallas and Dynasty gave BBC 1 high ratings, releasing money for the 'National Theatre of the Airwaves' that the governors want to refurbish. But no subsequent Hollywood drama has packed anything like their punch. BBC 1's own stab at sin and class, Howards' Way, served for a time, but the network is short of popular drama. For instance, it lacks a strong police-procedural to oppose The Bill.

Old faithfuls in the factual entertainment line, such as Tomorrow's World, That's Life and Jim'll Fix It, have withered. Alternative comedians have not filled the 'star' void in traditional variety and sketch shows created by the retirement of Ronnie Barker and the death of Eric Morecambe. Chat shows suffered because sophisticated viewers grew impatient with their conventions, a fate that the 'spontaneous' contrivances of some people shows, such as Blind Date, may now be facing.

This vacuum in professional entertainment has been filled partly by people shows, but also by the spiralling sensationalism of current affairs coverage, with its crime reconstructions, and concentration on sex and feared diseases. Even BBC 1's Inside Story documentary series kicked off its latest run with Teenage Virgins Sold into Sex Slavery, that old News of the World standby. And World in Action's first autumn offering was a profile of the newspaper owner David Sullivan.

John Birt's BBC cannot be expected to give over all its peak-time factual programming to shock and sleaze, so its dilemma remains. It is easy for the governors, like captious restaurateurs, to cross junk food off the prime-time menu; but what if their chefs lack the materials or know-how to broaden their repertoire of haute cuisine dishes?

(Photograph omitted)