Entertainment looks set to be the big broadcasting battleground in 2017.

The conflict began in earnest last month when ITV’s version of The Voice went head to head with new BBC format Let it Shine on Saturday nights.

At both broadcasters there’s a determined push for more entertainment. There’s also a willingness, after many years of stasis that has seen the likes of The X Factor start to wilt and panel shows to lose their lustre, to try new things.

ITV alone has 38 new projects on its slate, while the BBC has over a dozen shows in paid development. Channel 4, meanwhile, has started to focus on the genre once again, and has tendered for a major new entertainment format.

The reasons for the renewed focus on entertainment are varied. Drama has been the big story in broadcasting for several years now, with TV channels and SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon investing billions in big budget shows such as The Crown, The Night Manager and War and Peace.

However, budgets at traditional broadcasters remain under pressure. A tight funding settlement at the BBC and a slower post-Brexit ad market for commercial broadcasters has highlighted just how costly big drama really is. “There’s a realisation that drama is very expensive, takes a long time to come to air, and that there is loads of it on all sorts of different platforms,” says James Fox, joint managing director at Remarkable Television, which makes Pointless Celebrities.

At a time when broadcasters are looking at tightening their belts, entertainment is the place to go, adds Fox. “We can deliver at a fairly reasonable budget and still get amazing viewing figures. He cites Pointless Celebrities which averages around 4.5m viewers on BBC1, and can on occasion peak above The X Factor. Strictly, meanwhile, regularly tops 10m, while the final of I’m A Celebrity hit 10.5m. The X Factor has weakened to around 6m viewers, but programmes like Michael McIntyre’s Big Show are consistently getting over 6m. By comparison, the most talked about drama of 2016, The Night Manager averaged about 9m.

Feel good fun
At a time of political and economic uncertainty, many producers and broadcasters also say that viewers are increasingly hankering after joyful and fun distractions.

“It has been tough economically. I think people just want a bit of escapism,” says the BBC’s new head of entertainment Kate Phillips. “They want feel good telly and they want stuff that makes them laugh.  There is not enough stuff on television that makes them laugh.”

This desire for ‘feel good’ telly spans all the broadcasters. ‘Nasty’ formats like Big Brother and Weakest Link – which thrived at the turn of the century when the economy was booming – have very much fallen out of favour.

“There has been a bit of a backlash against reality meanness. The audience is starting to want a bit more warmth, and a bit less of the heavy hand of the producer,” says ITV head of comedy entertainment Peter Davey.

This kind of thinking very much informs the development of new entertainment projects at Remarkable Television, says James Fox. “The brief I give to my team is you have to make me laugh as well as make me care there is going to be a winner.”
Fox adds: “Going back, a lot of our formats tended to be a bit more confrontational whereas now they are more joyful. Pointless is a good example. It’s all a bit of fun.”

Indeed, some of the most admired shows currently on TV are those that exhibit warmth, humour and entertainment – from Strictly through to Bake Off, First Dates, Gogglebox and The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds.  Even Simon Cowell has toned down the meanness on The X Factor’s most recent run.

Refreshing ITV’s slate
ITV has already unveiled a swathe of new entertainment shows for 2017, including Dance Dance Dance, where celebrities have to recreate iconic pop videos and dance movie sequences against augmented reality sets; Little Big Shots, a kids talent show hosted by Dawn French; panel show Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule; physical game show Bigheads; and new weeknight entertainment series The Nightly Show, billed as a cross between The Late Late Show With James Corden and Saturday Night Takeaway.

“We are trying to refresh things, that is no great secret,” says ITV’s Peter Davey, who wants indies to bring him “anything you think you would want to watch on ITV…bring us your whole box, from heartland to bonkers.” ITV, he explains, is looking for shows that are entertaining and funny and that could play during the week, not just on Saturday night. He cites ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s desire to “have a few more laughs and more entertainment” on the channel during the week.

He picks out Little Big Shots, produced by Wall to Wall. “It fits in with the warmth. It’s very straightforward with very young kids, and they are not judged – it’s about letting brilliant kids show off.” Dance Dance Dance, based on a Dutch format by ITV-owned Talpa, is a very easy show that will allow viewers to “sit back, experience and enjoy.”

BBC wants more
Kate Phillips similarly stresses that the BBC wants more entertainment shows. “I’m not developing just two or three big pilots. I am spreading the development money. So already I have got well over a dozen shows in paid development and I have only been in the job three months.”

Phillips adds: “The message I am getting from the upper echelons above me is, ‘Go for it, we love entertainment and we want more of it.’”

Phillips says BBC director of content Charlotte Moore wants to try entertainment in different slots as part of the entertainment push.

Still, the focus is on “feel good proper belly laugh entertainment on Saturday nights, especially early Saturday night.” That could be quizzes, like Pointless. “It’s a brilliant format – you can all have a crack at Pointless. Everyone can shout out an answer, so no one feels stupid watching it But only the very clever will get the Pointless answer.” Or it could be a Total Wipeout style game show.

She is also working closely with other genre heads in factual and comedy, and notes that entertainment is ‘threaded through’ many shows on TV. “Bake Off came out of docs,” says Phillips. “There is a lot of crossover between what we all do.”

This is a point echoed by Remarkable’s James Fox, who says his indie is looking at “how you change the conventions of entertainment shows whose quite rigid structures have been around for 50 years.” Many are now borrowing factual storytelling and applying to entertainment formats. He cites Remarkable’s upcoming Sky1 series The Big Spell, a kids spelling format hosted by Sue Perkins. It’s part game show, but incorporates a MasterChef or Bake Off-like competition and behind the scenes interviews with the kids and parents.

Fox also cites ITV’s Dance Dance Dance, which is experimenting with an augmented reality set. Augmented reality, he says, “could be a real game changer”, allowing shows to have enhanced sets at potentially the fraction of the cost of a physical build.

Over at Sky, meanwhile, there is a sense that the broadcaster has focused its commissioning budget much more on drama than entertainment in the past few years. This may change under Phil Edgar Jones, a former Big Brother exec, who took on responsibility for the genre following the departure of head of non scripted commissioning Celia Taylor in November. 

C4 rethinks strategy
It’s all change at Channel 4 too. C4 has not had a dedicated entertainment team for some time. The genre was merged with the factual entertainment department last year, run by Liam Humphreys.

Its entertainment slate includes traditional studio shows like The Last Leg, but much of its output is a mixture of entertainment and factual entertainment like Gogglebox and First Dates.

However, amid signs that C4 is up for investing in more pure entertainment shows, Ed Havard has recently been appointed head of entertainment, adding to his TV events and sports brief. Havard is also set to hire an additional entertainment commissioner in the new year, and is reportedly looking for a “major entertainment format” too. The channel has also just greenlit a reboot of 1990s classic entertainment series The Crystal Maze.

C4’s move is perhaps symbolic of a renewed TV industry focus on entertainment for 2017. And with new commissioning heads in place at the BBC, ITV, C4 and Sky, there is a sense of opportunity. “Often some of the biggest and bravest commissions happen when heads of commissioning departments are new in their roles,” says Remarkable’s James Fox.

This article is taken from the January edition of Televisual magazine. For subscription details, visit https://www.escosubs.co.uk/televisualsubs/index.asp

Tim Dams

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