|01 April 2010
What LE commissioners want
As recession kicked in, the smart money was on light entertainment TV benefiting as audiences turned towards feelgood telly and channels turned away from pricey drama. The smart money wasn’t wrong. Jon Creamer reports
(see below for commissioner Q&As)
Saturday night LE extravaganzas are still pulling in the kind of live audience figures that were previously presumed extinct a generation ago. That, coupled with the old truism that viewers want a big serving of frothy fun while the economy languishes in the doldrums, means it’s still a boom time for light entertainment TV.
Broadcasters are keener than ever to pour airtime and resources into LE. ITV has opened up its Friday primetime to the genre, Five is banking heavily on its new Justin Lee Collins chat show vehicle, Sky One is funding LE shows at terrestrial TV levels and Channel 4 has jumped back into the game with both feet under the guidance of new entertainment boss Justin Gorman.
“Entertainment is the front-runner in the creative renewal process,” says Gorman who’s fresh from his tour of indies where he’s been setting out Channel 4’s post Big Brother stall. “At the moment it’s the best time to be doing this job because we’re saying anything goes. Bring all your ideas to us, even stuff that you wouldn’t normally think would be on Channel 4 and see how we can make them into Channel 4 propositions whether they be reality shows, game shows, live entertainment shows, new ways of doing clip shows – literally anything.” He’s already commissioned a big interactive physical game show, The Million Pound Drop, something that wouldn’t have seemed a very Channel 4 thing to do in the past.
Sky One has been commissioning LE shows since Richard Woolfe’s era but, under Stuart Murphy’s regime, those commissions are being made at terrestrial budgets. “There’s been a perfect storm,” says Sky One’s head of entertainment Duncan Gray. “A lack of money in commercial free to air TV, a lack of appetite for risk in free to air and we’ve got the slots and we’ve got a bit of money. And with the exception of a couple of companies who super-serve ITV, we’re talking to everybody.”
STICKING TO THE SCRIPT
But for all of those commissioning LE, a boom in the genre doesn’t mean they want to leap too far from the mainstream. For BBC entertainment boss Mark Linsey, shows like the upcoming 101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow and Total Wipeout are “taking traditional forms with a slight twist, something a bit unpredictable. There are a lot of traditional production points but it’s a definite distinctive reinvention of those traditions. That’s what we’d like to work harder at achieving with our formats so it’s traditionally Saturday night but it’s subverting the form slightly.”
UKTV entertainment commissioner Tess Cuming is also after shows that are the same but different. “What we look for is distinctive shows but always in familiar territories, so it’s never that niche. It must feel universally relevant. We’re looking for bespoke shows, they mustn’t appear to duplicate terrestrial content.”
“You can be modern and front page news, mainstream without being quirky or niche,” says Sky One’s Duncan Gray. “We want to develop programming that is original and exclusive, that’s what Got to Dance and League of Their Own are. You can’t get programmes like that on free to air TV because they skip a generation in terms of the talent they’re using. You don’t have Arlene Philips as a judge you have Ashley Banjo and Kimberley Wyatt and James Corden as a host. But they’re broad mainstream topics.”
And for the major ratings winners, like ITV’s Saturday night talent shows, it’s about constantly tweaking rather than total reinvention. “We’ve shown over the years that we’re capable of refreshing these brands every time they come back,” says ITV’s entertainment and comedy boss Elaine Bedell. “The X Factor had the extra show on Sunday and the brand new set last year. There’s a different feel to it and we’ll be as determined that it’s on its toes when it comes back this year as well.”
FUNNY HA HA
Outside of those talent shows though, and there’s a renewed focus on making the audience laugh. “Stand up is coming back into the mainstream,” says the BBC’s Linsey. And he cites the success of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Russell Howard’s Good News. “Let’s Dance and Total Wipeout have a lot of humour and fun at heart. That undertone of comedy is very important to us. Even if you look at formats like Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum – there’s a lot of humour in there.”
Even ITV, not considered the home of comedy in recent years, is looking to increase the genre. “Obviously we have TV Burp, which is comedy entertainment par excellence,” says Elaine Bedell. “But we’re looking for some later night shows. We’d like places where we can introduce new comedy talent without the burden of them having to host their own show immediately in peaktime.”
Because although most commissioners are keen to keep things mainstream, there’s also the sense of using these boom years to experiment around the edges. “We do have to think ‘what next?’ We’ve got to be open to more development, more risk taking,” says Linsey. “We’ve got to be thinking about the next big thing. It’s not more of the same in 18 months or two years time.”
Controller, BBC entertainment commissioning
What’s been working for you lately? Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow. Russell Howard’s Good News was a huge success. Let’s Dance and Total Wipeout have a lot of humour and fun at heart. That undertone of comedy is very important to us. Even if you look at formats like Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum – there’s a lot of humour in there.”
What about specifics? What are we going to be doing at 10.35pm on BBC1 with Jonathan going? That’s not to say that Graham Norton won’t move there but if he does then that leaves a vacancy on Monday night. So we are thinking of 10.35pm on Mondays and Fridays. We want fresh, new formats. We’re trying not to be too proscriptive. We want people to come to us with risky out-there ideas for BBC1.
What about other channels? On BBC3 it’s fact ent. Undercover Princesses is on air now and we have another series of Young, Dumb… but what next? It might have humour and it will have a strong premise and it always helps if it’s got a neat title as well.
Director of entertainment and comedy, ITV
What have you commissioned lately? The Whole 19 Yards – a physical gameshow combined with Q&A. It’s a huge scale, very entertaining show presented by Vernon Kaye. And a new interactive show for the summer called Magic Numbers where you can play along from the sofa using your telephone.
Are you looking for comedy entertainment? Obviously we have TV Burp, which is comedy entertainment par excellence, but we’re looking for some later night shows. We’d like places where we can introduce new comedy talent without the burden of them having to host their own show immediately in peaktime. I’m less keen on a traditional panel show format but there are other ways of coming at comedy entertainment.
What slots do you need to fill? 9pm on Fridays, that’s a brand new entertainment slot for us. We’re trying a lot of different types of show there. There are opportunities still to pitch ideas for that slot. We’re trying some factual entertainment formats, we tried a shiny floor singing show [Popstar to Opera Star]. We’re determined to try a range of shows to see what fits.
Head of entertainment, Channel 4
You’ve just taken on the job, what shows are you after? Sort of everything. In 2011, with Big Brother having left these shores, there’s 150 hours-plus of stuff that we need. At the moment we’re saying anything goes. Bring all your ideas to us, even stuff that you wouldn’t normally think would be on Channel 4 and see how we can make them into Channel 4 propositions and find some new, exciting ideas whether they be reality shows, game shows, live entertainment shows, new ways of doing clip shows – literally anything.
What slots are you concentrating on? Primetime is the focus. But if something came along that had a broader reach there’s no reason again we couldn’t talk about where it could sit. That’s the open view at the moment.
What shows are you not after? What I never want to be is a closed shop. That’s what’s changed about Channel 4, we’re saying let’s open the dialogue to people who wouldn’t normally come here, bring us your ideas. We’re a bit broader.
Head of entertainment,
What’s the future for Sky 1 entertainment? The mantra is fewer bigger better. That means fewer new titles a year but when we do them they’re done to an ambition that will encourage people to value their subscription and their relationship to Sky more highly.
What kind of shows do you need? We want to develop programming that is original and exclusive to the pay television platform and that’s what Got to Dance and League of Their Own are. You can’t get programmes like that on free to air TV because they skip a generation in terms of the talent they’re using but they’re very broad mainstream topics. You can be modern and front page news, mainstream without being quirky or niche. That’s what we’re trying to do.
One of the best ways to pitch is to design your marketing poster because if you can’t then I’m not sure we’ve got a show. And I don’t want that to appear like it’s a marketing led culture, what I’m trying to say is unless the ambition of the show and the creative talent attached to the show is sufficiently exciting enough to put up on a billboard then the odds are we’re unlikely to do it.
Commissioning editor, entertainment, UKTV
What channels are you commissioning for? We have ten channels and six commission to varying degrees. I work mostly across Watch, a bit of Gold, and Dave. The real action at the moment has been on Watch.
What’s been ordered recently? Tarrant Lets the Kids Loose, What Do Kids Know? and the upcoming Scream If You Know the Answer, a game show played on roller coasters. It’s extremely funny.
What do look for in your commissions? They must feel distinctive. We’re looking for really bespoke shows and they mustn’t appear to duplicate terrestrial content. But Watch is very shared family viewing, so we look for distinctive shows but always in familiar territories so it’s never that niche.
What are you after specifically? The next challenge is that midweek 9pm to 10pm slot. We want formatted entertainment shows and we are keen to spread the net wide. We want self contained, ideally hour-long shows. They may be formatted entertainment shows, docs a la World’s Strictest Parents or it could be a concept involving a celebrity or some hybrid we haven’t thought of yet.