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C21 DIGITAL SCREENINGS

Theme Festival - Sitcoms

Programming Profile

Getting the world laughing

26-04-2021

How can sitcoms both appeal to a global audience and retain the local focus that made them stand out in the first place? And could the genre provide an opportunity for traditional broadcasters to set themselves apart from streamers? Oli Hammett reports.

 

For almost any show to be commissioned nowadays, one of the first boxes that has to checked off is its ability to travel. This has partly contributed to, for example, an upturn in crime series and female-led shows in which characters face universal issues. Global streaming platforms, meanwhile, all want content that can appeal to audiences in multiple territories.

 

This new requirement is also affecting the comedy genre. In recent years, viewers have flocked to streaming platforms offering content from all over the world to which anyone can relate. C21 reported last month how audiences are demanding more from comedy, which has led to the genre becoming more dramatic. Shows like I May Destroy You and After Life are making audiences laugh but also making them think about deeper issues like grief and sexual assault.

 

Nicola Söderlund, managing partner of Swedish distributor Eccho Rights, says comedy is less likely to appeal internationally than other genres: “Selling a sitcom is difficult, because they don’t travel easily. What people laugh at depends a lot on local nuances, many of which are lost in translation.”

 

What do not get lost in translation, however, are more serious issues. Comedy producers and broadcasters are understandably moving towards more serious topics as they chase a global audience.

 

This Country
This Country

But where does this leave the traditional sitcom? US juggernauts like Friends and The Big Bang Theory are popular with viewers all over the world thanks to the ubiquity of US culture, but other more modern shows like BBC3’s This Country and Young Offenders rely on a local focus that is specific to UK audiences. As streaming platforms and even traditional broadcasters back more serious comedy content, are there still sitcoms that can be global successes?

 

Pubcasters have traditionally been a haven for sitcoms, as the genre aligns with their need to cater to their public. Josh Cole, head of comedy for BBC Studios Production, says this damages the potential for domestic broadcasters to create shows with international appeal.

 

“The shows that pubcasters commission are very far apart from the kind of shows that would travel internationally. In fact, post-Covid, those same broadcasters have actually begun to double down on those shows that make them unique. Rather than trying to compete with streamers, they’re looking at doing what they do best.”

 

The BBC has a remit to do this, as evidenced by the variety in its comedy slate, from Mrs Brown’s Boys to People Just Do Nothing. BBC Studios is currently working on US adaptations of its shows This Country and Miranda, with local reworkings of successful sitcoms proving increasingly popular – The Office (originally airing on the BBC before being reimagined for US net NBC) being a classic case of an adaptation well done.

 

Derry Girls
Derry Girls

Sometimes, however, a very locally focused show on a pubcaster can become a global hit in its own right. One example is Channel 4’s Derry Girls, which focuses on four Northern Irish teenage girls in the 1990s. The show features on global streamer Netflix and has gathered fans from Mexico to Pakistan, despite its very Northern Irish feel. The show’s creator, Lisa McGee, attributes Derry Girls’ success to just this.

 

“I didn’t think about the show’s global potential at all when creating Derry Girls. If I had, it would have been crippling, and I feel what I was concentrating on ¬– making it specific to an Irish audience – helped its global success,” McGee says.

 

“I worry for writers and producers that have the global potential as the starting point, as it’ll kill off all the unique ideas before they even start. One of my favourite recent sitcoms has been This Country, and I had no idea that world existed in rural England. Even though I don’t understand some of the words, I get the jokes because the storytelling is so good.”

 

McGee is very keen to keep the local flavour for the forthcoming third season of Derry Girls, seeing it as the key to the show’s success both domestically and internationally. Moreover, she feels the last year has created a renewed demand for traditional comedy programming.

 

“When the show was first on Netflix, it felt like it might be a cult hit. It was popular but a slow burner. Since lockdown, it’s all changed. I get correspondence from people saying how much they enjoy watching something joyful while they’re sitting at home. With Derry Girls, it’s the music and the nostalgia, but people have also said to me they’re just looking for something funny and hopeful. It’s quite a traditional show with a high gag rate, and people are returning to that.”

 

Schitt's Creek
Schitt’s Creek

Another sitcom that has travelled around the world with enormous success is Canadian series Schitt’s Creek, which finished in 2020 after six seasons and is still being picked up by global buyers. The UK’s ITV Studios distributes the show internationally, and Greg Johnson, its executive VP of EMEA and Americas, says its themes have made it an international success.

 

“The show benefited from the changes in viewing habits over the last year, as people were looking for 80 episodes of feel-good comedy. However, we’ve also realised there are versions of that family [at the centre of the show] all over the world. Reality TV, social media and the explosion of brand influencers have made it so Schitt’s Creek’s topical proposition rings true internationally. We’re now looking at localising the series for different markets.”

 

ITV Studios began getting global interest in the show during its third season, when it started selling to key broadcasters around the world. Global SVoD platform Netflix bought Schitt’s Creek in 2017, but Johnson says this was no guarantee of the show being successful.

 

“It’s no secret that comedy can be a tough sell internationally, with buyers looking for volume. Even when the show launched on Netflix in English-speaking territories, it just nestled in their library, and it was the word of mouth from viewers that would lead to a step change in its success.”

 

Global streamers like Netflix make very few original sitcoms and tend to acquire them as they finish, like Channel 4’s Peep Show or NBC’s Superstore. As they start to take viewers from traditional broadcasters, this could threaten the number of comedy shows getting made in the future.

 

Jon Thoday, founder and MD of UK prodco Avalon Entertainment, believes this is where streamers are missing a trick. “It’s not true that comedy doesn’t travel, but it is difficult to buy and launch a hit comedy,” he says.

 

“At the moment, there’s a feeding frenzy for brands like Lord of the Rings, which Amazon Prime Video has bought a tiny piece of with no story and a recently made very successful adaptation to make into a drama series. They’re taking a huge risk when, for the same money, they could make 500 comedy shows and try to sell them internationally. Would they have a hit with at least one? My guess is they would.”

 

For Thoday, comedy is just as able to bring in audiences and subscribers as any other genre. However, he says streaming platforms like Netflix are only interested in comedy that has already worked somewhere else, like Schitt’s Creek. In his opinion, the SVoD giants’ acquisition strategies are affecting their ability to launch original comedy, which presents an opportunity for traditional broadcasters keen to set themselves apart from streamers.

 

“SVoDs are spending a huge amount of money on shows, and terrestrial channels feel they have to keep spending to keep up. What I would do is put my money into comedy, where SVoDs find it hard to compete. They tend to spend their money on big drama coproductions, but not comedy.”

 

Thoday says the issue with pitching to a broadcaster, especially in the UK, is that there just isn’t enough money these days. Buyers, he says, are concerned about a comedy’s ability to travel compared with drama series. One of the only ways to sell a sitcom is to have a known comedian attached, he notes.

 

Breeders
Breeders

Avalon sitcom Breeders, starring Martin Freeman and written by Veep duo Chris Addison and Simon Blackwell, was an easy sell to buyers as it came with known talent. However, Thoday says getting a show like the original The Office commissioned nowadays would be nearly impossible, as nobody knew any of the cast when it was first greenlit. He sees this as a threat to the genre.

 

“For there to be a pipeline of new comedy, you have to back the completely unknown. I really believe in the comic voice and trust it to deliver,” Thoday says. “I saw Lee Mack do a sketch show in Edinburgh with three other people, and that was the beginning of our show Not Going Out, which has had 11 seasons on the BBC.”

 

Rather than SVoD services, Thoday says the public broadcasters in the UK have provided the support TV comedy needs. But now that TV costs so much to make, streamers are snapping up comedic talent, diminishing pubcasters’ ability to develop comedy.

 

“They’re trying to sell subscriptions, and for that you need something with an immediate impact. Comedy doesn’t work like that – you need time to get to know the characters and for the show to have an identity. They don’t know how to grow a comedy, and they don’t care because, for the last 20 years, people have wanted reality, and now it’s about coproductions and great drama.

 

“But if I were a streamer, I’d be investing in comedy for 10 years’ time,” Thoday adds. “There’s clearly a demand, but no one knows how to make it.”