In a two part special, Tim Dams reports on TV’s renewed focus on entertainment and growing demand for comedy
In recent years, entertainment seems to have been eclipsed by drama as the most dynamic genre in television.
Industry talk is all about the millions pouring into drama production from the streamers and US studios, and about the latest watercooler show, whether Bodyguard or Killing Eve. By comparison, there’s less focus on entertainment – where key brands have dominated the scene for years.
That said, entertainment remains one of the most potent ways for live terrestrial broadcasters to win audiences – and in a more cost effective way than with drama. Channels like BBC1 and ITV are arguably more defined by their entertainment shows than any other.
I’m A Celebrity, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent and The Great British Bake Off all made it into the top ten list of most watched shows of 2018. Other top rated shows of the year included Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Dancing on Ice and Michael McIntyre’s Big Show.
I’m A Celebrity, for example, consolidated with a massive 11.8m viewers and a 45% share of viewing – making it the most watched series ever, despite being on its 18th series. Only World Cup football and Bodyguard rated higher.
The main entertainment broadcasters, BBC1 and ITV, are also placing big bets on new shows too. All Together Now was recommissioned for a second series after launching on BBC1 last year in Saturday night primetime. So too was The Greatest Dancer, after debuting in January. ITV, meanwhile, is set to unveil some new shows in the autumn, including one stripped event. It has also successfully brought back Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Dancing on Ice, as well as launching new game show Small Fortune.
Elsewhere, Channel 4 has recommissioned The Circle and The Big Narstie Show after they debuted last year, while Great British Bake Off has bedded in successfully (it was the ninth biggest show of 2018). UKTV is also building on the success of panel shows like Taskmaster, commissioning a raft of new series. The streamers are also pushing more heavily into the genre: Netflix has greenlit action comedy game show Flinch from Stellify Media, and has bought international rights to Studio Lambert’s The Circle.
Big entertainment plays are also taking place in America, where The Masked Singer – based on a South Korean format – has launched well for Fox this year. But it’s not just the big talent or reality shows that broadcasters are after. They want cheaper formats to bolster their schedules too, whether quiz or game shows.
Time of opportunity
“There is more opportunity in entertainment,” says Amelia Brown, md of Thames Television which co-produces BGT, The X Factor and has just launched The Greatest Dancer with Syco Entertainment. Asked what is performing well in entertainment, she says I’m A Celebrity is a good example of a show that, “has grabbed hold of two things that are working really well in the current landscape.” The first, she says, is celebrity – which also underpins Strictly and Dancing on Ice. “Audiences like seeing celebrities in those situations.” The second is ‘niceness’. “I’m a Celebrity has changed in the last couple of years, so that everybody is being nice to each other. And that is working. In a world where lots of horrific things are going on, nobody tunes into entertainment to see people being horrible to each other any more.”
She adds: “We don’t want to make mean shows where people are laughed at. Laughing with is the rule now for all of our shows. We are all about entertainment – we are meant to be happy, sparkly and with a smile on our faces.”
Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, she adds, are about people succeeding and being given an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have – and fundamentally enjoying themselves all the way through. The two shows now also seek to involve audiences more by adding more reality and behind the scenes components, shot so viewers feel like they are there. “It’s what Strictly also does brilliantly. Often on the show, the celebrities will say, ‘This is the best experience’ or ‘We’re like a family now.’ And it works, because by the end of Strictly you feel like you are at a party that you have been invited to,” says Brown.
Getting lift off
Launching new entertainment shows, however, remains a very tough job. “Entertainment is the most loved of genres and the most criticised of genres,” says BBC head of entertainment Kate Phillips. She says new shows like The Greatest Dancer and All Together Now have had to launch ‘hard’ on Saturday nights, against established rivals on ITV – all the while facing a possible backlash on social media and in the papers. “If a drama or a factual show doesn’t work, it’s a shame – but that’s it. But if an entertainment show doesn’t work, it’s headline news…which proves that entertainment TV is still part of the national conversation.”
It’s a point echoed by Siobhan Greene, ITV’s head of entertainment. ITV’s big entertainment brands create a high bar for new shows. “The difficulty for us is launching new stuff. On this channel, the stakes are high.” It’s hard, Greene adds, for new shows to generate the same buzz as the long-runners that have been around for years.
Thames’ Amelia Browns likens it to launching a new cola against a brand like Coca Cola or Pepsi. “It takes time to grow a brand. And the successful shows are brands – they are big household names that everyone recognises.”
The BBC’s Kate Phillips says that one of the toughest jobs in entertainment TV is “just getting a new show in people’s minds – that they know and are aware about it.”
Social media, she adds, can work both ways for new entertainment shows. Often it can be harsh and negative. “I said to the production team of The Greatest Dancer, you’ve just got to strap yourself in and ride this out and let people get used to the show and to come to it”
But social media is also crucial for bringing in audiences, particularly the young. “We’re now seeing a lot of love for The Greatest Dancer. Younger viewers may not watch a show straight away. But they might see a clip, meme or trails on social media, and come to it later.” Phillips adds: “When we launch a show now, the social media campaign is just as important as the trails we run on BBC1 beforehand.”
Another way to bring in viewers is through talent. “There has never been a better time to be a star. Talent rules,” says ITV’s Greene. “Stars really help us to launch shows and to stand out.” She says ITV worked hard to get Dermot O’Leary to front Small Fortune. “He is brilliant and his personality really shines through. I wouldn’t want to make that show without him.”
UKTV talent focus
Over at UKTV, head of comedy entertainment Ian Coyle says the broadcaster has sought to make itself a first port of call for talent. “In a multi-channel world, talent will always be front and centre,” he says.
He explains that the key focus for Dave is comedy entertainment, “which seems to have slipped down the priority list” at other broadcasters in favour of big talent shows. “There can’t be any singers left in Britain that have not yet been discovered,” he says.
The panel show genre, he adds, hasn’t really moved on on other channels. Taskmaster, of course, has made waves on Dave, and has been joined by newer show such as Judge Romesh and Hypothetical. Coyle says Dave now wants more female fronted shows. “The fact that we haven’t got one is a source of slight embarrassment.” Dave, he adds, is perceived as male skewing, but its audience is more like 55% men and 45% women.
At Dave, he says, talent has a bigger voice – and is allowed to do things that might not be possible at other broadcasters. “No-one knows their audience better than them. If they are packing out arenas, they know what works. You would be crazy not to take their advice.”
Listening to the audience is also a key piece of advice from Thames’s Amelia Brown. “It’s the most important thing. It sounds obvious, but I don’t think we do it enough. We can get quite sucked into our industry world, but listening to audience research is vital.”
This will inform changes to the second series of The Greatest Dancer, which she says will include more dance. “Viewers were crying out for as much dance as possible. So we’ll be making sure that from start to finish there is as much dance as possible.”
Elsewhere, the BBC’s Kate Phillips says that shows with ‘a big narrative arc’ will always draw in viewers. By this she means ones with an elimination element in a competitive environment. “All the biggest entertainment shows – whether Strictly, BGT or factual entertainment like Love Island and The Apprentice – have got it. Viewers like that, they want to come back and know the results.”
Phillips adds: “Those sort of shows are still sustaining – they are not going anywhere.”
This makes the success of closed narrative shows like Saturday Night Takeaway or Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, which have different items each week, all the more impressive. “But they have got big talent at their heart, like Michael or Ant and Dec,” says Phillips. “And people trust that talent and will go on the journey with them.”
Phillips says that looking for big primetime shows remains a key priority. But she acknowledges what a challenge they are to get right. “It’s having the great format, the great production values, the talent behind it, the scheduling, the marketing – there are a lot of stars that have to align to make a show a hit.”
“What seems to be working are the shows that have a very, very specific sense of place and authorship.” So says BBC head of comedy Shane Allen about the kinds of comedies that are succeeding at the moment, citing BBC shows such as Fleabag, This Country, People Just Do Nothing and Car Share, or rival successes such as Derry Girl on C4.
He also picks out a show like Famalam, saying the hits often come from voices, communities and subcultures not often seen on TV – but are broad enough in appeal that everyone can enjoy them.
“When people say, ‘What are you looking for?’ you don’t know what to say other than, ‘Can we have something that we haven’t already got or seen?’"
After a lean patch, comedy also seems to be in greater demand at key broadcasters and streamers – after many years being seen as an expensive, risky genre. Bigger bets are being placed on comedy. Netflix, for example, has ordered a raft of comedies from UK indies including Katherine Ryan’s The Duchess and Idris Elba’s Turn Up Charlie. It has also had great success with Sex Education. C4, meanwhile, recently announced it is investing £1m in short form comedy for its social channels.
Audiences are searching out comedy on on-demand services. “Comedy is proportionally the genre that does best on iPlayer,” says Allen, who explains that shows like Inside No.9 almost double their audiences when catch-up is taken into account.
Crucially, many of the audiences tuning in to shows like Young Offenders or This Country on catch up are from the hard to reach 16-34 age group. “Internally at the BBC, it has been noticed that comedy has this evergreen quality,” says Allen. “This sounds like a cliché, but we are not looking at overnights on comedy, we are looking at +28 days.”
UKTV is also investing heavily in comedy, such as Gold’s Murder on the Blackpool Express, Death on the Tyne, or the remake of the missing three episodes of Dad’s Army, through to Dave’s Sliced and Porters. Pete Thornton, senior commissioning editor for scripted content, says: “Drama has had such as long boom period, and comedy is now starting to pull up its skirts and chase after it.”
Thornton says the fashion now is for slightly more narrative in comedy – for comedy with a very strong storyline. "That has definitely been triggered by the success of shows like Catastrophe, Fleabag and Chewing Gum. Shows that are really joke driven – studio sitcoms – are much harder to land.”
He also thinks more slots are opening up for comedy. “Perhaps drama has become so expensive now that a half hour comedy starts to make much more sense.”
Controller, BBC entertainment
What’s working for you? Strictly is still on great form – the production team did a really good job of making subtle tweaks to the format but not too radical. Michael McIntrye’s Big Show is growing and growing, and this year has felt like a really funny and confident run. We learnt so much doing series one of All Together Now, and it’s now a very distinctive show and throughout the second series it really found an audience. We’ve also seen really good consolidated figures and a good young share for The Greatest Dancer.
What are you looking for? We are always looking for those big, big titles for Saturday night. Having said that, we see how well long running quizzes like The Chase on ITV or Pointless on the BBC are doing. They can be made for a reasonable tariff, but are still getting good numbers. On BBC3, we’re always looking for great wind down entertainment ideas. I think BBC3 went away from entertainment a bit, and the fact that Drag Race is on there now indicates that we are placing big entertainment bets on BBC3 if they stand out. People probably look at BBC2 and think it is a more factual channel, but there is a lot of entertainment in there. I’m excited about bringing Top Gear back with Freddy and Paddy next time. We have Love in the Countryside returning, and we’ve weekly topical shows like The Mash Report.
Anything you’re not looking for?
I would never rule out anything. Before The Voice, everyone said we’ve got quite enough singing shows. Then The Voice very cleverly puts another spin on it, and is now one of the biggest talent brands. You could say the BBC has a lot of cookery competitions, or business competitions with Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, or talent competitions with All Together Now, The Greatest Dancer and Strictly. But they’re doing well for a reason. We would always consider more of that – but it is about what you are doing differently, and what twist is being putting on it this time.
ITV Head of Entertainment
What’s working well for you? Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Dancing on Ice have both delivered. We’ve loved having Jeremy on the channel for Millionaire, the show has been terrific this year. And the amazing press around Dancing on Ice is the stuff of entertainment fairytales. The big thing of the last 12 months, that did beyond what we could imagine was I’m A Celebrity. There was a huge amount of pressure around that show. It was its most watched series ever.
Why did it work? It has always been brilliantly scheduled. Christmas is coming, and it’s a wonderful three week event. The cast this year was amazing. Then there was curiosity around Dec and Holly. Obviously that was a one off, because Ant is coming back and that is brilliant. She brought a real feeling of newness to it. The audience got to see the show through her eyes as well.
What is the climate like for entertainment TV? It is an amazing time to be a producer, there are so many places to go. And there is some fantastic stuff happening everywhere. It means that we as broadcasters have got to make decisions better and quicker. And we have got to really support the shows when they launch them – how they are advertised and where they are placed.
What are you looking for? We have got a big strip coming up. And some interesting things that will happen this autumn. Our big focus is what goes before and what goes after the main shows. Particularly what goes after. That is the main thing – holding on to that audience after the big show. I still think that is a work in progress.
What’s impressed you recently? The Masked Singer (which launched on Fox in the US). It is a fun, funny show that felt like a bit of a curveball. On paper you go, ‘What is this?’ But in execution, it has really done it for them.