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Competitive writing: BBC Public Service television light entertainment and comedy in the 1970s and 1980s

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Comedy has always been the least plausibly public service genre. It is entertaining and consequently seen as trivial, closest to commercial and often close to vulgar. Yet comedy remains the key to attracting audiences and is the aspect of programming most greedily eyed by the BBC's competitors. This article examines how, facing severe competition during the 1970s and 1980s, in the shape of ITV and the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, the BBC responded to the challenges of this competitive landscape, highlighting the Corporation's approach to comedy writers and writing as a key competitive tactic. Whilst ITV and Channel 4 had their successes, the BBC, through its emphasis on organic as opposed to formula comedy forms, was able to articulate clearly the differences between its light entertainment and comedy scripts and those of the competitors. For instance, the absence of a commercial break allowed the development of more intricate plots and sub-plots, alongside in-depth characters; the structure of joke-telling adopted a more dramatic form, bringing to light wider themes, and resulting in comedic work that could inform, educate and entertain all at once. Furthermore, the nurturing approach experienced by writers working for the Corporation allowed the encouragement of new writers (to address new niche audiences) and the taking of risks in writing (particularly those under the heading alternative comedy), ultimately enabling writers to produce scripts that allowed the BBC to not only match its competitors, but to exceed them, principally with regard to the idea of what is termed here popular quality programming. As such, the history of the BBC's approach to comedy writers and the styles and forms of BBC comedy writing can be a means of access to the core debates about what the BBC should do and produce as a public service; here is one strategy that was key to the Corporation's defence of its public broadcaster status and its funding by licence fee. Its comedy department, scriptwriters and scripts act as an illustration of the shifts and tensions being experienced behind the scenes in the Corporation overall at this particular point in time.
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Keywords: BBC; alternative comedy; comedy; commercial break; licence fee; public service broadcasting

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: AHRC, University of Reading.

Publication date: January 1, 2011

More about this publication?
  • The Journal of Screenwriting aims to explore the nature of writing for the moving image in the broadest sense, highlighting current academic thinking around scriptwriting whilst also reflecting on this with a truly international perspective and outlook. The journal will encourage the investigation of a broad range of possible methodologies and approaches to studying the scriptwriting form, in particular: the history of the form, contextual analysis, the process of writing for the moving image, the relationship of scriptwriting to the production process and how the form can be considered in terms of culture and society. The journal also aims to encourage research in the field of screenwriting, the linking of scriptwriting practice to academic theory, and to support and promote conferences and networking events on this subject.
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