Mental space

Is it Legal? If you mean does it conform to a system of laws, then yes.

I went to an event at the BFI the other night – a celebration of comedies produced by Beryl Vertue – and it included the sitcom ‘Is It legal’. which meant that I got to meet Imelda Staunton (my favourite actress), who had turned up for the occasion.  It’s a very funny sitcom, set in a small town firm of solicitors.  You probably won’t remember it, although it did win a British Comedy Award as Best ITV sitcom in 1995.  They stopped awarding channel-specific sitcom awards a couple of years later, probably because a paucity of contestants reduced the list of nominations to a hobson’s choice (and why hasn’t that been a title of a sitcom?)

Funny sitcom...  Needed more nurturing

Funny sitcom… Needed more nurturing

But look at other Comedy award winners from the 1990s.

Only Fools and Horses

One Foot in the Grave

Red Dwarf

A Bit of a Do


 Time after Time

The 10%ers

We all know the first three – they were all shown on the BBC, but the last four were all ITV comedies, and are far less well-known.  Why do we remember the BBC comedies so much better than the ITV ones? Perhaps one or two are better – who can remember?  Another reason is that BBC gives its comedies a chance to find an audience.  The ITV comedies had to make a big impact the first time, because they were rarely repeated.

According to Dominic Frisby, Fawlty Towers was very lucky.  Its audience started with about 1.5 million viewers.  When repeated this jumped to 3 million.  When repeated again it doubled to 6 million, before doubling again to 12 million.  Then, three years after the first series, they made another.  And they are still showing them.  If ITV had made  the first Fawlty Towers, no-one would have heard of it.

And that’s ITV.  In 1995 it had 37% of the total TV audience – more than BBC1.  But the BBC nursed the programme until it found its audience.

I’ve always found it remarkable that ITV was able to make a profit from a programme simply from a handful of commercials in and around it once, without the bonus of repeats.  Nowadays they’d probably run the series on ITV3, and online and all the rest of the 360 degree packaging that goes around a TV programme.  But the exposure provided for a slow-building series is crucial.

It reinforces the marketing wisdom that the way to achieve success of a brand, first and foremost, is to place it front of mind.  It needs to be good quality, but being available to view (and at the front of our brains) is vital.  It’s a bloody LAW of TV programming.

They need to be easy to find, but not ubiquitous (because that means you can watch at any time, so you don’t). Managed scarcity.  It’s why featuring on a published schedule matters.  Our brains will only retain a little information about anything.  So if we think it will be a funny programme, and that it’s on a particular channel or at a particular time, it creates some mental clarity that encourages us to turn up.  It’s not just about being available in the way that everything on the internet is available (the biggest fallacy of the modern age).  It needs to come to mind because we see it knocking around regularly (reviewed in the papers, mentioned at work, high up on the EPG, found when surfing around…).

A marketer might call that brand salience – a blend of top of mind awareness and easy associations within our fevered brains.  And right now, this probably means that a sitcom on ITV would struggle, because there’s a mismatch between comedy as a genre and ITV as a network (unfairly, no doubt).  Then again, if ITV can rediscover its reputation for drama, who knows?

It might start by reshowing Is it Legal on ITV3.  the episode Big Desk Bob is a classic.


I’m not Talking by AC Newman.

‘I say “abandon the search”, For an author of the small work’

Audiences don’t really search for things… to make a programme big, you have to take it to them.


Oh alright, I’ll help you out this time.

(this is from the 3rd series that ran on Channel 4.  It was on ITV for the first two…)

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