Welcome to February.
Apologies if January was boot camp in tone. I find it hard not to get swept up in the excitement and anticipation generated by the artificial deadlines we impose on ourselves around this time of year. As though if we have a new idea on 28th December we should wait until the 1st of January before we even think about implementing it.
I can’t help spending December reflecting on the year gone and looking to the year ahead even though I find the seasonal transitions to spring, summer and autumn are just as significant. But it does bring an intensity to our goals as if “2021 is finally the year I lose a stone!” is any more likely to be meaningful than “I want to lose a stone.”
Happy Not So New Year
January was spent talking about how to build your comedy career from the point of view of starting out, as I am now doing as a first-time novelist (“2021 is finally the year I publish a novel!”), taking small but gradual steps towards a future aim, which in my case is to be able to spend more time writing novels.
I’ve talked about writing topical, creating your own content using your phone, watching more, helping save the BBC as your first point of entry. Let’s step away from that jungle for a moment, peer into the open, take some deep breaths and look at the sky (as opposed to Sky). This, we are told, is the limit.
My co-podcaster James has been writing a great deal recently about sitcoms, and he’s released an excellent masterclass about how to write them.
As the world around us changes, commissioners talk of comedy drama and streaming takes over from terrestrial TV, James points out that sitcom – good old-fashioned laugh-out-loud sitcom – remains one of the most popular forms of TV. Over Christmas an old Blackadder episode proved popular with viewers not even born when it first came out. Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys continue to attract millions. For all the talk of revolution in the world of TV, your best bet as a comedy writer is still to Write That Sitcom.
Netflix And Bill
As I said last week, the BBC has continued to survive political onslaught mainly because it is many times more popular than the politicians who hope to destroy it. But popularity, we are learning, is no longer so important. Having millions of people watch your programme is nice, as I’m sure is having millions of followers on Twitter, but none of that counts in the world of subscription and pay per view. It’s been around for a while but only now is it beginning to become a major model.
In today’s online world where the illusion persists that everything is free, everything that used to be free now costs money. We assumed that TV, the mass medium as it was called, would always be available. We pay our licence fee, for sure, plus however much of our household budget goes on products purchased thanks to TV advertising, but we expected in exchange that we would receive everything.
Now, if you want more telly you have to pay for it. Posh telly. Award-winning telly.
Your show might get millions of British people watching when it goes out on BBC1, but that counts for nothing. I remember the grumbles about DVD sales in the writers’ room where I was working on a hugely popular audience show, compared to massive sales of a far less watched show that had a much younger hipper (and hip-owning) audience. You only need thousands out of a population of billions to be buying Netflix for your show to get commissioned. Can you find 20,000 people around the world who’ll pay a Netflix annual sub to watch your show? That could be enough to finance it.
Bespoke Too Soon?
Netflix currently has around 200 million subscribers which sounds like a lot but there’s still enormous room for expansion. And for some of the people I started out with writing topical jokes for BBC radio, subscription TV is offering them jaw-dropping sums to decide “you know what, maybe there is another way of becoming a paid comedy writer.”
Charlie Brooker was the pioneer. His Black Mirror series for Channel 4 was niche viewing but the niche happened to include a lot of wealthy American TV executives who wanted more. Last year Brooker signed a $100m deal with Netflix. A lot of that money will be spent in the States but I get the feeling that part of what streaming companies like about our star TV writers is their Britishness. Tony Roche, Georgia Pritchett, Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley all began their careers writing one line jokes for BBC radio in the 1990s, they are now winning Emmys for shows like Veep and Succession.
For the time being the BBC continues to seek out and make comedy shows and they remain our principal source of work. But as TV transitions from tool of mass communication to luxury purchase, you might find your bespoke ideas for British shows could find a smaller but richer audience around the world.
It’s nice to dream. And nicer to stream.