Radio comedy fears laughs will dry up as TV muscles in

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The Independent Online
BBC programme-makers are warning that the independence of radio comedy - the creative hothouse responsible for many of Britain's most acclaimed television performers, and popular shows such as Have I Got News For You and Room 101 - is under threat.

A move to streamline the corporation's light entertainment division, bringing television and radio under one umbrella, is causing friction within the corporation. And producers affected by the changes predict that radio's independent, maverick status will be undermined and that the individuality of its shows will suffer.

The entertainment reshuffle, mooted a month ago, is the final stage of a merger that mirrors the "bi-media" structure already in place in news and current affairs. It follows the announcement that Jonathan James Moore, radio's Head of Light Entertainment, will leave the BBC in April. The shake-up that is to follow his departure is ostensibly to protect radio's burgeoning shows and make sure they are not poached by rival television channels. It means Mr Moore's post will become redundant and comedy's existing television supremos - Geoffrey Perkins, Jon Plowman and Trevor Dann - will take control of humour on radio as well.

Over the past decade, BBC radio, and particularly Radio 4, has been an arena for proving the worth of highly-successful comedy formats, such as Whose Line is it Anyway?, Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge, They Think It's All Over, and, most recently, the innovative ethnic show, Goodness Gracious Me. Some of the best-known names in British entertainment were made on the back of these and other shows, including those of Angus Deayton, Clive Anderson, Steve Coogan and Nick Hancock.

Radio 1 and Radio 5 Live also scored big comic hits of their own with, for example, The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Room 101. Both were swiftly pinched by television. But senior producer Sarah Smith is one of several programme makers who believe the Beeb is now tampering with the conditions that create good comedy.

"Radio ... has always been slightly in a world of its own," said Miss Smith, who produced Saturday Night Armistice on television. "There is a terrible danger that radio will now just be used as a testing ground for television, something which will not necessarily make for good programmes, since not everything that works on radio is appropriate for television. Everyone agrees that distinctiveness is the answer; it is just a question of how you safeguard that distinctiveness."

Miss Smith, who will leave the BBC this month, agreed that action is necessary to stop talent going to rival television channels. She added: "But the flip side of that is the danger that television will just swallow radio up."

Another senior comedy producer with the BBC said he suspected the up- coming changes are really about increasing the power of television's presiding entertainment chiefs.

He said: "They don't like the idea that any programmes will be developed without their involvement," he said. "It is partly because some of them are fond of radio, and used to work there, but they should have the courage to let it work in its own way."

Miss Smith pointed out the essential differences between news and comedy. She said: "There is a lot more television snobbery in the world of entertainment than there is with current affairs," she said. "The kind of people who work in news probably listen to Radio 4 anyway and already know that radio is perhaps the most grown-up medium of all."

Paul Jackson, the controller of BBC Entertainment and the man who is implementing the changes, said producers' fears are unfounded. "The BBC's development of the right programmes is crucial and I understand these worries," he said. "But the key to commissioning shows and allowing quirky talent to come through is the passion of the individual producers - and we will make sure we respond to that."

Mr Jackson, who handles a turnover of pounds 120m a year, said radio would remain a cheaper medium than television, and thus the "powerhouse" of British comedy. "You are talking about pounds 8,000 for quite an expensive radio programme, as opposed to pounds 80,000 for a television show, so radio will always be more flexible."