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Why ITV were wrong to cancel all their scripted comedies

This week, ITV boss Kevin Lygo announced that Birds of a Feather has “come to its natural end” and that Bad Move would also not be returning.

The news follows last year’s cancellation of Benidorm and leaves ITV’s main channel without a single scripted comedy for the first time in its history. And with Lygo suggesting that comedy fans should “get their fix of character-based comedy from Corrie” it seems the sitcom door for ITV has been bolted shut. And the news has hit mainstream comedy audiences the hardest.

As expected, the news caused quite a stir on Twitter with many angry at the decision to axe the last remaining scripted comedies on ITV. But there were also people saying that the channel has never had success in this area, which is a common misconception.

Growing up, my parents used to watch the likes of George and Mildred, Man About The House, Bless This House and Robin’s Nest over and over again - all of which aired on ITV and all of which were huge hits. And it was watching these shows that kick-started my love affair with British sitcoms.

Throughout the years ITV have had continued success with sitcoms such as Duty Free, Home to Roost, Barbara, Men Behaving Badly and The Job Lot.

But I get it, in recent years ITV has become much less of a destination for new sitcoms, with only Benidorm really keeping the genre alive for the channel. But it's not like they've really been trying is it? In the last few years they have launched very few new sitcoms and don't appear to be as hungry for new scripts as the BBC.

I think the issue lies with the man at the top, Kevin Lygo. When I attended the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2017, he described the future of scripted comedy on ITV as "quite bleak". Hardly a ringing endorsement for the genre is it? And not exactly an invitation for new writers to bring the channel their best ideas.

Of course comedy is subjective, and I'm not going to tell you what is and isn't funny - but the ratings for Benidorm, Bad Move and Birds of a Feather suggest that there's still a huge appetite out there for mainstream, mass-appeal comedy.

Sure, the ratings for these shows were lower than they once were, but the same can be said for the soaps, for the channel's biggest dramas and that dreadful singing competition which ITV insist on wheeling out every autumn. So why is it the sitcom that should suffer?

Birds of a Feather returned to ITV in 2014 with an audience of 9.51m and the latest Christmas special in 2017 was watched by 4.83m people. At its highest, Benidorm was watched by 8.61m people with the final series peaking at 5.89m and Bad Move launched in 2017 with an average of 4m viewers per episode.

Looking at these numbers, it's hard to justify the decision that ITV have made to turn their backs on the genre. This means that there are now millions of ITV viewers left without a sitcom to enjoy, at a time when they need it the most.

What better way is there to escape the political unrest that the country's facing than getting lost in a laugh-out-loud, easy-to-follow sitcom? Something ITV used to be so good at.

Where does that audience go now? They could go to ITV2, who haven't yet shut the door completely on scripted comedies. In March they'll launch the second series of Timewasters and Plebs will return for a fifth series later this year.

But it's safe to say that both these shows appeal to a much younger audience, not the same audience that were enjoying Benidorm, Bad Move and Birds of a Feather. The best place for them to go instead would be BBC One. But even they have a diminishing number of mass-appeal comedies that return year after year.

Peter Kay's Car Share was their most recent success story, but that ended in 2018 and Mrs Brown's Boys (which critics loathe but viewers love) returns every year with just two new episodes. Elsewhere, Not Going Out will be back for its tenth series, Still Open All Hours is returning for its sixth series and the channel's newest hit Hold the Sunset is being given a second outing.

But I have to applaud the channel for at least attempting to find the next big mainstream hit. They might not always find it, but they give it a bloody good go.

So far this year we know of a number of new titles that will launch on BBC One including the highly anticipated return of Alan Partridge to the network in This Time with Alan Partridge later this month as well as Ghosts from the Horrible Histories team, Mister Winner by Spencer Jones, Scarborough by Benidorm creator Derren Litten and Warren starring Martin Clunes.

And if they're after an easy win, I'd suggest promoting Two Doors Down to BBC One. It's arguably the best mainstream sitcom available on television right now, tucked away on a Monday night on BBC Two. If it were to be repeated in a primetime slot on BBC One, I've no doubt that the series would find the millions of viewers it so richly deserves.

Television comedy in the UK is actually in a very healthy state at the moment with some fantastic new stories and great new talent coming through. If anything there is more comedy available to watch than ever before, but audiences are struggling to find them.

A lot of the newer, more successful titles such as This Country, Derry Girls and Sex Education are tucked away on BBC Three, Channel 4 and Netflix and don't appeal to a mainstream audience. And it's because of this that people jump to the conclusion that the only scripted comedy on television is Mrs Brown's Boys which of course isn't true. But it's the most-watched and easily accessible.

This country has a number of great comedians and writers who I know for certain are coming up with great sitcom ideas, but very few of them make it to screen. So whilst it's great to see BBC One championing some of these new scripts, they're not doing it nearly enough.

More than ever this country needs a mainstream hit that can rival the success of Miranda, Gavin & Stacey and Only Fools and Horses, and with ITV now firmly out of the running, it's been left to BBC One to find it.

This week's news marks the end of an era for ITV and I sincerely hope that one day they begin to re-introduce scripted comedies into their schedules.


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