BBC Three and the future of Comedy

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There are so many reasons why the decision to make BBC Three an online presence only are wrong, but before we get in to those reasons, let me give you some background.

I am, and have been for quite a long time now, a Director in TV Comedy. Like most of my peers I am freelance and work for whichever Production Company or Channel is lovely enough to hire me. Now here’s the thing that some younger readers won’t remember. Only 12 years ago, comedy was in a parlous state. ITV had stated very boldly that reality TV events were it’s future (I’m a Celebrity, X Factor etc.), effectively opting out of commissioning comedy. Meanwhile,  the BBC was limited in it’s comedy output- there were only so many places in the schedule for comedy and there were fewer slots available than there had been in the decade before.

Now in 2001, the BBC decided to try and get young people watching TV again, realising that they were becoming increasingly irrelevant to an under 30 audience more likely to check out the internet than the BBC for their news or entertainment. So from the ashes of the recently deceased Play UK (a BBC co-venture with Virgin Media,  which gave people like Matt Lucas & David Walliams and David Mitchell & Robert Webb their big break) was formed the template for the shiny new BBC Three. It was a bit sweary, a bit naughty and likely to commission controversial, headline-grabbing content to upset Daily Mail readers across the land, that is true.

But here’s what it also did: It made shows like Little Britain, a show that Matt & David had tried to launch for so long. It made Ideal, which harnessed the genius of Graham Duff’s surrealist writing and harnessed it with the brilliant performance of Johnny Vegas. It made Gavin and Stacey, without which we’d never have had James Cordon and Mat Horne doing the amazing work they’ve done since. It made Pramface, which dealt with teen pregnancy in a heartfelt, funny way and hit an audience much wider than the channel’s remit. It made Bad Education, the record-breaking Jack Whitehall show that made broadcasters realised how many viewers you could get on a digital channel.

I’ve been lucky enough to Direct 3 of those shows I’ve mentioned. And they are the tip of the iceberg. Some of the brilliant moment in their archives include 15 Storeys High, Coupling, Little Miss Jocelyn & Nighty Night. They had one of the most successful sitcoms of all time with Two Pints of Lager, which brought Sheridan Smith to everyone’s attention. More recently the channel has given us Uncle, Bluestone 42, Way To Go & Some Girls.

No matter who has been in charge, the channel has always worked with new, fresh comedy talent. In an age where the major channels want guaranteed hits and safe casting where are these talents to emerge in the future?

Because here’s the kicker- the bit no one’s talking about that spells the death of an era and the end of a training ground for some of the brightest sparks in the comedy firmament – ‘online presence’ and ‘cost-cutting measures’ mean only one thing. And that is less money. No broadcaster, BBC or otherwise, will spend the same money on an online version of a show as they will on a broadcast version. But there’s a massive problem; it doesn’t suddenly get cheaper to make a set or hire camera equipment just because the show is online. It still costs as much, so proportionately you are spending more of your budget just to cover the essentials. And what does that mean? It means that everyone working on that show from me, to the talent (posh term for the folks clever enough to do that stuff in front of a camera), to the runner will have to be paid less. Having said that I’m not actually sure it’s possible to pay runners less than their paid now, without violating several of their human rights and breaking several laws.

And that’s bad for you the viewer. Because do you know what? Great writers, like the people who have created any of the titles mentioned earlier do not work for nothing. Theirs is one of the most underpaid roles on a show as it is. They can hardly make a living now- they certainly can’t make a living working for the new ‘iPlayer exclusives’ rate. Likewise, neither can those actors in any of the aforementioned great shows. Neither can I.

Now I know a lot of people think the world of TV is full of over-paid wankers who think they’re doing life-saving work and spend their time sipping champagne at the licence payer’s expense, but that is just not true. I have spent the last 10 years of my career working trying to make BBC shows cheaper each year (by 20% or more, because of their financial difficulties) but also trying to up the production value at the same time- i.e. make it look better, more expensive and shoot more ambitious stuff. To put that in perspective, if you ran a restaurant, and your average dish cost £10, could you still keep up the quality if, 5 years later, that average was £5.10? And remember your costs increase each year because of inflation. So what all of us in TV will be asked to do, once we add to this the “can’t pay as much because it’s only online” factor, is ‘can we now make that dish for £2 a head?’

So who suffers out of all of this? Yes, a few media types that no one cares about. But what about you. If there is any one of those shows listed that you actually like, maybe even love, then you suffer too. Because the quality of talent will not be attracted to a channel offering wedding video budgets to make BBC shows. And worse, where will we find the new talent? How does a now desperately financially crippled channel afford to have people develop new talent? Scout clubs and venues to find who should be on TV? Spend the countless hours it takes to read new scripts? Someone has to do this and that someone has to be paid. In this brave new model for BBC Three, there is no line in the budget to cover this.

So, if you quite like having a laugh of an evening after your stressful day, please stop this awful decision from becoming a reality.

There is a brilliant saying that the people get the politicians  they deserve. Well do nothing  now, and believe me, you will get the television you deserve. And it won’t be very funny…

P.S. Sorry I couldn’t work more jokes into this blog, but I’m practising for the working on future BBC Three comedies.