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TV – Is The Golden Age of TV Comedy Over?

We all remember packed into living rooms sharing classic BBC sitcoms like Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, Fools & Horses etc. If not ask your parents!

Now UK Producers and even Commissioners have come out to say that UK broadcasters’ success in satisfying the nation’s hunger for sitcoms is “the worst it’s ever been.

Jon Thoday, joint MD of UK indie Avalon Television, which produces Channel 4 hit Catastrophe and BBC1’s long-running Not Going Out, said the genre is suffering from channel heads’ fondness of factual entertainment. “There is a massive market with the public for narrative comedy,” Thoday told online media news C21. “The success of the broadcasters in reaching that market is probably the worst it’s ever been.

It’s because all the channels are run by people who know about factual television. Factual television often works overnight – you launch a show with naked people and it does two million straight away. It delivers for the person running the channel. Comedy takes much longer to find its audience. Channel 4 has supported Catastrophe (co-written by and starring Sharon Horgan) amazingly, and it’s getting big numbers in the consolidated audience, but honestly can you tell me what day and time it’s on?

That point was echoed by Mark Talbot, head of development at Hat Trick Productions, which is known for Outnumbered, Father Ted and a host of other successful sitcoms down the years. “When I was at university I could tell you which nights certain comedy shows were on. We’d go round to a mate’s especially to watch an episode of The OfficeNow, if I were a student, I’d have Netflix, Amazon, iPlayer – the way people watch television has changed.

Talbot also believes the genre may be suffering because of the so-called ‘golden age’ of drama. “Drama is having this great renaissance at the moment; everybody loves it and there’s a lot of money around for it. With a drama you can put Tom Hardy in it and everybody will watch and applaud and talk about how beautifully it was shot. Narrative comedy is much more of a risk.”

One of the UK’s leading comedy commissioners also weighed in saying the UK TV industry is letting down emerging comedy talent and that broadcasters should team up to solve the problem.

Terrestrial television seems to be in a bit of a quandary about comedy at the moment,” UK TV’s Iain Coyle told C21. “As a viewer I find it frustrating, and I can understand why young talent would be getting progressively more frustrated about the lack of opportunities”. While his channel Dave is improving its ratings he recognises “that TV comedy in general is not in good health. As an industry we should look at doing something about it together. There’s a lot of brilliant talent out there not getting on television and if the likes of BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and us could get together and create a solution to bringing on new talent and commit some hours to them that would be fantastic.”

Louise Holmes, the channel’s VP and director of programming for Comedy Central UK, says terrestrial comedy is perhaps suffering from the multi-channel environment.

“Comedy is harder to find on terrestrials; it’s mixed up with other stuff. You don’t know if that’s what you’re going to get.We want to emulate the US model with Friends or Two and a Half Men, where you get to 80 to 100 episodes – serious volume that can cut through,” Holmes said. “Storylines and narrative arcs take a few seasons to build. Season two will move it on again and for season three we’ll start aiming to commission in greater volume. Whether we have more slack to do that than a terrestrial I don’t know.”

Enjoy the clips of yesterday and hope that 2017 is a better year for scripted TV comedy. 

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