For a while now, TV drama has been in the ascendant with few fresh hits emerging in the world of TV entertainment.
In a two-part special, Tim Dams reports on TV’s fresh focus on entertainment, and new directions in comedy

Just a few months ago, there was something of a pall hanging over the entertainment genre.

Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, ITV director of programmes Kevin Lygo noted that “there haven’t really been any entertainment shows in almost 10 years that have taken the world by storm”, while former C4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said the genre had been “moribund for a long time”.

Their comments underlined the harsh reality of the genre – that landing big new entertainment shows remains difficult, particularly when broadcasters have preferred to play it safe on Saturday nights with tried and tested formats such as The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, The Voice and I’m A Celebrity.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and there is plenty going on. For the past year or so, broadcasters have been ploughing time and energy into searching for new entertainment formats or attempting to resurrect heritage hits.

One industry exec estimates that there are up to 100 entertainment shows in paid development across the main broadcasters. Asked about the BBC’s entertainment strategy, controller of entertainment commissioning Kate Phillips picks on the word experimentation. “I’m trying lots of ideas – and so are all the other channels,” she says.

ITV is also readying a slew of new ideas, while Channel 4 is focusing on entertainment in a way that it hasn’t for years. Channel 5 is experimenting more with the genre after the relaunch of Blind Date last summer, and UKTV now sees itself as a predominantly entertainment network having created a raft of home grown entertainment hits such as Taskmaster. Over at the streaming platforms, Facebook, is hunting ‘appointment-to-view’ formats as its push into original programming gathers pace.

It’s not just new entertainment ideas that are being trialled though. Many classic entertainment hits are being rebooted, aiming to appeal to older fans and a new generation of viewers. ITV relaunched Dancing on Ice in January and is prepping the return of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, while the BBC is bringing back The Generation Game. C4 has relaunched The Price is Right and The Crystal Maze, and C5 is readying another series of Blind Date for this summer.

The reasons for the renewed focus on entertainment are clear. Drama has been the headline story in TV for several years now, with millions invested in shows like The Crown and McMafia. But, at a time when broadcaster revenues are under pressure, entertainment is the place to go for a cost effective way to win audiences. For a reasonable budget, an entertainment show can deliver amazing viewing figures. For example, ITV’s decision to resurrect Dancing on Ice paid off handsomely with a launch audience of 7.5m (compared to McMafia’s 5.6m). Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, meanwhile, was the top rating show in the final week of February, returning with audiences of 7.6m and a 37% share.

Live entertainment shows that bring together the whole family are also seen as a key weapon in a broadcaster’s armoury in their fight against the library offer of online players like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

At a time of political and economic uncertainty, many producers and broadcasters also say that viewers are increasingly hankering after joyful and fun distractions. “Most people are good at heart, and want to be uplifted,” says ITV’s head of entertainment commissioning Siobhan Greene.

It’s no wonder, says C4 head of entertainment and TV events Ed Havard, that broadcaster demand for new entertainment ideas is stronger than it has ever been. “There’s been a factual renaissance, and a drama renaissance. Now it is entertainment’s turn.”

Steve North, the genre general manager for UKTV’s comedy & entertainment channels, says there is huge competition among broadcasters for the best ideas and biggest names. “We are all pushing ourselves…it is much more competitive.”

Producers confirm this broadcaster take. Talkback Thames md Leon Wilson says the entertainment market is “actually quite positive”. The demand from broadcasters is straightforward too, he explains. They want clear, simple formats; there is little point pitching ideas with nuance or where the format is unclear. Big name talent also has to be attached to help a show to stand out. “The expectations around talent are bigger than ever,” says Wilson.

The trend for shows that are generous-hearted rather than confrontational continues too. ‘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. By comparison, some of the top shows on TV are those that exhibit warmth, humour and entertainment – from Strictly through to Bake Off.

The most recent series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, for example, traded conflict for warmth, with many of the camp mates bonding in a way they might not have done years ago. Producers say digital channels are often a better space to try out shows that put conflict to the fore, citing the success of Roast Battle on Comedy Central.

At the BBC, head of entertainment Kate Phillips overseas a huge entertainment slate, spanning over 500 hours of content, including The Apprentice, Masterchef, Top Gear, Dragons’ Den, The Graham Norton Show, Have I Got News For You, Would I Lie To You?, Pointless, Strictly, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show and Robot Wars. Despite this established slate, she stresses the BBC’s doors are open to new entertainment ideas, saying that director of content Charlotte Moore is supportive of trying new shows and taking risks in the genre.

She cites the singing contest All Together Now, which launched in January. “It’s a big play for us,” she says, noting that producers Remarkable have “landed a very distinctive, fun, fresh format for us.” She picks up on the fact that 100 judges from the audience choose the winning talent. “I immediately thought I have never seen that before.”

Phillips also highlights The Mash Report. “Launching a new satirical show is never easy but we’re really pleased with the way The Mash Report has landed on BBC2. It has given us an opportunity to work with new writers and comics.“ She says that as well as good ratings, sketches from the programme have gone viral; Rachel Parris’s piece on how not to sexually harass someone has clocked up 26m views.

Coming up, Phillips cites The Button, a new game show from Avalon. The show will visit five families each week, placing a talking button in their front room which issues spontaneous challenges against the clock to win a cash prize. Phillips says that on the surface it might seem a simple idea, but underneath it is deceptively complex – fixed rig cameras in each house allow the families to compete in real time against each other.

Looking ahead, she says big, ambitious Saturday night entertainment shows are a priority. “We want people to think big – we get pitched a lot of middling shows.” Elsewhere, she notes that BBC3 is a natural home for growing new and diverse talent.

Over at ITV, head of entertainment Siobhan Greene stresses that “entertainment is at the heart of ITV and what happens at the weekend.” She picks out Saturday Night Takeaway as an example of the power of entertainment shows to alter the mood of audiences. “It’s a lightening rod for bringing joy to millions of people. It’s the most uplifting, joyful show we do, and is very close to my heart. There is nothing cynical about it.”

Shows that are well executed and have those values are the big hits of today, she explains, citing Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity as well.

ITV has also enjoyed success by bringing back Dancing On Ice. “Resting it did it the greatest favour,” she says. Greene argues that, contrary to popular belief, the show never limped off four years ago and was loved by audiences. She adds a literary quote from James Joyce – “Absence is the highest form of presence” – to explain its newfound popularity.

That said, it wasn’t a simple matter of replicating the format. The ice rink was built in a new venue, the practice rink was introduced and the lighting and graphics have been overhauled too. “You can’t just bring it back, that is not enough. The set needed to shift and move on – we’ve looked at every area.”

Would The X Factor benefit from a similar rest? The once mighty series averaged more than 14 million in 2010, but last year’s run ended with 5.8 million – the lowest since at least 2006. Greene says ITV is committed to the show and won’t be resting it, citing a three year deal with Simon Cowell that will keep it on ITV until at least 2019. “There is a groundswell of love for The X Factor,” she says. The success of such shows, she adds, is hard won – and they need to be nurtured.

It’s a point backed up across the industry, where there is an acknowledgement that ratings for all shows have been coming down year on year as a result of digital competition, and that it is now incredibly hard to find shows that will rate more than five million.

Greene picks out a number of shows to illustrate the direction of travel for the entertainment genre at ITV. Coming up is Last Laugh in Vegas, which will see veteran entertainers like Cannon and Ball and Sue Pollard prepare and put on a show in Sin City. It’s as much about ageing and relationships, as it is entertainment.  She also cites Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey, which uses a combination of DNA and genealogy research to plot their family histories, from Newcastle to Neanderthal. “It’s one of the best things we have ever done,” says Greene.

There’s also new musical game show Change Your Tune, produced by Twofour – the makers of This Time Next Year. The series is similarly billed as a ‘time travel’ format which will allow viewers to see the transformations from awful singer to a polished performer in an instant. Greene describes the series as ‘warm and uplifting.’

Channel 4
Meanwhile, C4 is focusing intently on entertainment, in particular experimenting with talent led formats. Head of entertainment Ed Havard says his new entertainment team has been busy for months, investing a lot more in development and now has 20/30 ideas that all have the potential to grow into something bigger. Some are at pilot stage, others are in paid development.

Havard says a focus on talent has given Channel 4 “a way back in to authored entertainment”. He also says entertainment is particularly important for terrestrial broadcasters like C4 to “bring a greater sense of anarchy” to the schedule. “Entertainment is one of the genres that can offer something very different to what people are getting on SVoD.” Havard explains that the 11pm slot has opened up once again for entertainment ideas with the ambition of bringing on a new generation of talent. It’s a slot, he says, where producers can genuinely feel comfortable taking a risk and experimenting.

He cites recently announced non-TX pilot, The Big Narstie Show (w/t), produced by Expectation. Grime MC Big Narstie will team up with co-host Mo Gilligan and celebrity guests to present original, straight-talking segments on the news of the week, TV, showbiz, trends, phone-ins, and food.

C4 is trialling ideas for 9pm and 10pm too. Coming up is the Alan Carr-hosted I Don’t Like Mondays which offers the chance for a member of the studio audience to win a paid year-off work.

Channel 5
C5 is dipping its toes into more entertainment. Last year’s run of Blind Date was the first studio based entertainment show it had commissioned for many years. “When the opportunity to bring it back presented itself, we were on board from day one,” says C5 commissioning editor Sean Doyle.

Not only is Blind Date a well known heritage format, but it also gave C5 the opportunity to counter-schedule against the Saturday night singing contests on BBC1 and ITV. The show has been a launch pad for the broadcaster to get back into entertainment and try other ideas, such as Celeb Wind Ups and Before They Were Stars. C5 is also looking for a new quiz show, and plans to order a non-TX quiz pilot. In Solitary, in which members of the public are challenged to spend five days in solitary confinement, will also come back this year with more of an entertainment feel and with celebrities as the main participants.

Doyle notes that C5 had lots of entertainment pitches after the Blind Date commission, but points out that the channel has to be “really precise” in what it commissions. “When it comes to Saturday night entertainment on Channel 5, talent is still key for me at the moment. We either need big names who drive an audience or to use talent you wouldn’t expect in a prime-time entertainment vehicle.”

UKTV has become a significant player in the entertainment genre, which is remarkable given that five years ago its push to boost original content was focused on the lifestyle genre, specifically food and home programming.

UKTV’s lead channels – Dave, Gold and W – are based around entertainment. “There are enormous opportunities for us in entertainment, precisely because some networks are focusing on factual or drama,” says UKTV director of commissioning Richard Watsham.

Watsham credits the commission of 2013 series Dynamo: Mission Impossible as showing UKTV the potential opportunities in entertainment.

Since then, the network has greenlit acclaimed series such as Red Dwarf, Zapped, Murder on the Blackpool Express and Taskmaster. In 2018, it plans to increase commissioned hours by around a third from indies. Coming up on Dave, for example, are comedy format Jon Richardson: Ultimate Worrier from Talkback Thames and Judge Romesh, from Hungry Bear Media, which sees Romesh Ranganathan hold court over real-life disputes. Watsham says he’s after shows that are different from other broadcasters.

Steve North, the genre general manager for comedy and entertainment channels, talks up the partnership with talent and producers that UKTV can offer. UKTV, he notes, has become home to talent such as Dara O’Brien, John Bishop and Johnny Vegas. “10-15 years ago, these people wouldn’t have looked twice at UKTV. Now they come to us with ideas and trust us to make and broadcast their shows.”

Profane and absolutely brilliant: Derry Girls is the funniest thing on TV,” ran The Guardian headline for its review of Lisa McGee’s new Channel 4 sitcom.

Speaking soon after the show landed, C4’s head of comedy Fiona McDermott sounds understandably pleased at the performance of the Northern Ireland set series, noting how hard it is nowadays to launch a successful comedy.

“It is all about backing a writer. Our best shows are when we back writers who write shows that no-one else could. Only Lisa McGee could write about being a Catholic girl in 1990s Derry.”
At first sight, the shows seems an unpromising potential comedy hit – a cast of unknowns, set in a remote part of the UK still synonymous with The Troubles. Yet it also has many of the key elements of a traditional sitcom – it’s set in the familiar precinct of a school and is about ordinary family people in extraordinary times.

As such, the show is a neat example of the diverse kinds of comedy that many broadcasters now say they are looking for.

Over at the BBC, controller of comedy commissioning Shane Allen says he is on the look out for shows that are “specific and reflective of certain communities and subcultures” and that “are very rooted in British settings.” Citing BBC hits such as This Country and Car Share, he says audiences are warming to a sense of place in comedy shows.

This of course plays neatly to the diversity agenda that is so prominent at broadcasters in 2018 – as well as a desire to reflect the reality of modern Britain. “We are looking for a diverse range – in setting, class, race, age and gender,” says C4’s McDermott.

It’s the same at Sky too. Head of comedy Jon Mountague says the#metoo and #oscarssowhite campaigns have created “a bit of a sea change around diversity”. The audience is demanding change, he says, which is great because it allows broadcasters to tell more stories. “I still think British comedy has too few diverse voices. When I get lists of talent who are hot sent through to me, they tend to be white and male.”

Progress has, of course, been made. Female writers and actors such as Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller Bridge and Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel are among the comedy industry’s biggest stars.

Casting an eye over the comedy landscape, execs say that the industry is holding up to the challenges posed by streaming players Netflix and Amazon. Comedy shines in the on-demand era, says the BBC’s Shane Allen, noting that a series like White Gold gets an additional 50% lift from viewing on BBC iPlayer. Similarly, Inside Number 9 might get 1m overnight, then double on iPlayer. Car Share, meanwhile, was a huge hit on BBC iPlayer, attracting over 10.6m requests for its second series. “Comedy is the king of catch up,” says Allen.

It’s for this reason that Sky – now a major player in the genre thanks to hits such as Stella – is looking for premium comedy with a box set feel, much of it that would fit comfortably in the 10pm slot on the linear schedule, says Jon Montague, who notes that an increasing amount of Sky shows are being viewed on catch-up. “The focus for us is about creating shows that customers think are worth paying for.” He picks out programmes such as David Walliams’ Ratburger, which achieved a cumulative audience of 2.61m – the biggest audience that the channel has had across all genres for five years.

Tim Dams

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