Comedy has emerged as a key battleground after this year’s Edinburgh festival, as BBC1 and ITV1 unveiled new initiatives to fend off Sky’s latest offensive in the genre.

BBC1 controller Danny Cohen told Broadcast that comedy was “the theme of the weekend” ahead of inviting pitches for around four studio sitcom TX pilots, to air in summer 2012. The aim is for one or more new post-watershed shows to sit alongside Outnumbered, Not Going Out and the prewatershed Miranda.

Repeating his strategy from BBC3, where he piloted Being Human and Lip Service, Cohen said BBC1 was “particularly undersupplied” in sitcom pitches and wanted to “supercharge the development process”. At the digital channel, he received eight times as many comedy scripts.

Though primetime pilots appear risky, the BBC has form. Comedy Playhouse, which ran from 1961 to 1975, launched the likes of Steptoe and Son and Last of the Summer Wine.

BBC head of in-house comedy Mark Freeland described studio sitcoms as “still the summit” of comedy, adding: “If you feel better after 29 minutes, that’s a great thing.”

Channel 4 has previously aired two series of Comedy Showcase pilots, which led to Pete Versus Life and Phoneshop, but most of the pilots played to small audiences.

This time, C4 is dropping the pilots into the schedule on their own rather than as a six-part weekly run. The first, Simon Bird and Joe Thomas’ Chickens, airs this week, while Simon Nye’s Felix and Murdo is lined up for Christmas. The rest have yet to be delivered.

ITV1, long underserved in comedy, is also planning a heavily marketed and branded comedy season that could play on Friday nights, where Benidorm has done well.

Director of programmes Peter Fincham spoke fondly of Miranda and observed a resurgence in studio sitcoms at this year’s LA Screenings. A returnable sitcom is also top of ITV2 controller Angela Jain’s wishlist.

Sky’s UK content budget boost has seen Sky 1 launch sitcoms Trollied and Mount Pleasant, and director of programmes Stuart Murphy outlined the channel’s push towards the middle ground after failing to poach both Gavin & Stacey and The Inbetweeners.

Top of his list is “silly, daft” comedies in the vein of Airplane! and Three Amigos, and he has commissioned Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier to pen one-off police spoof A Touch Of Cloth. Phase two will be “slightly darker” series.

Meanwhile, both BBC1 and Channel 4 are relying on old hands to boost their comedy slates. C4 premiered The Comic Strip film The Hunt For Tony Blair, with more promised for its 30th anniversary next year, and BBC1 confirmed a three-part return for Absolutely Fabulous.

COMEDY RENAISSANCE
INDUSTRY VIEWS

“Sky has been a game changer - aggressive in a good way. They are quick in decision-making and you can get to the execs at the top. People have been keen to predict the death of the sitcom but all it needed was something to come along to give it a shot in the arm, which Miranda arguably has.”
Jimmy Mulville, managing director, Hat Trick Productions

“The DNA of success at ITV1, BBC1 and Sky 1 is very similar. Sky has created more competition and demand. Pilots are great because the cost of failure is small all round. If BBC1 or ITV1 gets one hit, that’ll be pretty good and it raises the stakes in development, because you know it’s going to be on TV.”
Ash Atalla, managing director, Roughcut TV

“It’s great news for comedy production. Comedy Showcase has been enormously fruitful as a springboard to series. On-air pilot seasons are another way we can stand shoulder to shoulder with US television and also let the audiences decide what appeals.”
Shane Allen, head of comedy, C4