So who would you cast as the typical viewer of They Think It's All Over? A shaven-headed football fan, perhaps, cracking open another can of lager for his cerebrally challenged mates? Not so. According to exhaustive surveys undertaken by the BBC's audience research department, the typical They Think It's All Over fan is a young, middle-class woman. The majority of the show's viewers are female, aged about 15-35, and are broadsheet newspaper readers.
I'm embarrassed to say that all this came as something of a surprise to those of us who make the programme. It shouldn't have done; after all, sport is not so much as the premise for the show as the excuse. Professional sportsmen tend to disdain They Think It's All Over, for its lack of reverence towards such a monumentally serious subject. But for the newspapers, ignoring the show's audience of 12 million and its place in the national viewing top 10, it is ghetto programming, sporting and, therefore, laddish and so by extension, sexist. The sexist assumptions, it seems, are on the other foot.
So, are we a unique phenomenon, or part of a national trend? The BBC was not initially forthcoming. Soviet-style Birtist bureaucracy has yet to loosen its grip on the administrative departments. "I'm afraid I can't possibly reveal any of our audience data," said a spokesman. "Well you sent us the figures for They Think It's All Over without even being asked," I replied. "Oh no, we couldn't possibly do that," retorted the spokesman. "You already have," I made clear. "Out of the question," he maintained stoutly.
But the advantage of bureaucracies is that there are many avenues to explore. Several phone calls later, came the surprising and entirely official information that, in fact, women are generally the main consumers of TV comedy shows. The gulf between the sexes is not a vast one, but women definitely take the lead in comedy viewing.
Programmes traditionally thought of as masculine, such as Men Behaving Badly, are watched by as many women as men. Such obviously female-dominated shows as Absolutely Fabulous, Birds Of A Feather, and Smack The Pony join They Think It's All Over in the principally female-watched camp.
Just one television comedy series in the last year, in fact, enjoyed a majority of male viewers; and bizarrely, that show was the repeated Seventies sitcom, Porridge. Presumably the testosterone-fuelled atmosphere engendered by four prison walls and the almost entirely male cast was just too much for a female audience to take.
So why the female predilection for comedy? Putting aside the old feminist clichÃ© which dismissed the punchline as a purely masculine form of substitute ejaculation, I'd always presumed that women would be more interested in character-driven comedy, in shows with rolling plotlines (soap-coms such as Friends), and - if Victoria Wood is anything to go by - anything that assumed the innate hilarity of obscure brand names. A panel game such as They Think It's All Over, with its regular cast, certainly fits into the category of character comedy; but then so, frankly, does Porridge. No answers there.
What makes all this even odder is the severe shortage of women within the comedy industry. During the Eighties, I produced Weekending on Radio 4. It was a unique show in that writing meetings were open to the public, so that anyone could walk in off the street and join in. During my entirely typical tenure, I'd say about 400 budding writers tried their hand; just two of them were women. Despite being beseeched to stay, neither of them ever came back.
Of course there are women writers and performers working in comedy today, but getting the major female stars to appear on a panel show such as They Think ItÃs All Over, is difficult. Where male guests are keen to appear, only Jo Brand among the top women comedians seems confident enough to mix it. The same was true when I produced Have I Got News For You.
One should be wary of drawing any conclusions in such a sensitive area, but the one that's waving and jumping up and down and drawing attention to itself is that women are passively eager consumers of comedy, but less keen on being actively involved in its production. Let's hope not. Perhaps the male viewers had all just gone down to the pub to watch Live Truck Racing from Idaho on Sky Sports 3. Now that's real sports comedy.
Harry Thompson produces 'They Think It's All Over' and 'Da Ali G Show' for Talkback Productions. The new series of 'They Think It's All Over' starts on Thursday
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