Just how does a British comedy get on the air?


Fresh from the 2010 BBC Showcase and back on this side of the pond, I thought it might be interesting to everyone who has asked the question at one time or another, “how in the world did that get made” or “I have a great idea for a show, what do I need to do”, etc. to see how the process works and just what is the BBC looking for.

First, you need to understand the difference between BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three and BBC Four. Sounds like an Austin Powers song, doesn’t it? A quick primer. FYI, each link will give you, in much greater detail, what each channel is looking for, along with specific guidelines, potential budgets and the how to submit rules.

bbc1BBC One – as the UK’s most popular channel, BBC One reaches the broadest, most mainstream audience of all the channels. Primarily interested in sitcom, but there is also a keen interest in sketch shows and comedy/drama. In all cases, the important thing here with BBC One is to partner with the brightest and best talent, writers and producers for the widest possible audience. This is where comedy classics of the future have a home.

bbc2BBC Two – more of the laugh out loud channel than a subtle form of comedy. Main interest is not only in the established performers, but those just on the edge of breakthrough recognition. There’s also more of an interest in reaching the twenty- and thirty-something audience as compared to BBC One. There seems to be a clear directive to look for sitcom and sketch shows, but comedy drama is welcome.

bbc3BBC Three – with a core 16-34 audience, comedy is a core genre on BBC Three with a desire developing new talent with cutting edge, bold, inventive and fresh ideas. Same laugh-out-loud requirements as BBC Two, these comedies run the gamut of sitcom to sketch to comedy drama series. In all cases, the goal is to develop new writing and performing talent, to engage the audience and have attitude.

bbc4BBC Four – pretty simple. Comedy is very important. In all cases, the desire if for opinionated, intelligent and passionate comedy. The core goal is to have an impact whether it be through strong ‘content’, a point of view, satire or thought-provoking comedy. Engaging the audience is the start and end point. The key is getting a comedy pilot commissioned is does it both challenge and entertain at the same time.

In all cases, it’s important when pitching to know which channel your show is targeting, who the audience is and, the all-important 21st century catchphrase, how can it be used across multi-platforms to enhance the TV broadcast. Interestingly, shows can migrate across channels if there is a breakout hit on one channel or another they can “graduate” to the next level.

On this side of the pond, KERA and other public television stations acquire broadcast rights to series from any of the four BBC channels along with other independent channels and producers in the UK. In most cases, series need to be on for a couple of years before coming to the U.S. since a British comedy season is traditionally only 6-8 episodes a year. Giving a show two years will provide enough episodes for stations to invest in the broadcast.

Easy, huh? Oh, yeah, now you just have to have an idea and write it.

  • Margaret

    I read that the number one Britcom is “Only Fools and Horses.” Why don’t you ever show that?

    • @Margaret: Even though OFAH was voted on in the UK as the #1 Britcom of all-time, it’s had a rough time connecting with viewers in the U.S. KERA has actually showed the series for years off and on. At the moment, we are not airing making way for others that have tended to be more popular and requested over the years. We will definitely return the show to the schedule at some point down the road.