Commercial TV networks ‘can’t be trusted’ with scripted comedy

Rosehaven and Utopia’s Celia Pacquola has told producers at the Screen Forever conference that free-to-air commercial networks don’t back Australian scripted comedy and can’t be trusted to invest in programs and then stick with them.

Kevin Whyte, Holly Hines, Celia Pacquola and Rick Kalowski on stage at Screen Forever

Pacquola said only the ABC commits to local scripted comedy, while its commercial counterparts will promote “the shit out of it” and then pull it.

“In terms of networks, honestly, if I had a scripted comedy I would not trust it anywhere other than the ABC. With what I’ve seen in the past – I haven’t had dealings with them [the commercial networks] – but from what I see… I don’t trust them to back it. There’s been a history of them promoing the shit out of stuff and then giving it one episode, two episodes, and if it doesn’t rate its arse off, just pulling it,” she said.

“Whereas the ABC are in. They’ve got your back and they’ll work with you, and I just wouldn’t trust it [anywhere else]. Which I think is a shame. I’d love it to get to a point where the other networks are making more comedy.”

Pacquola with Luke McGregor in Rosehaven, which screens on ABC

Rick Kalowski, head of comedy at the ABC, said scripted comedy on Australian television had (thankfully) evolved and was now less self-conscious.

“The shows now are more conspicuously funny and there was this period that made me want to throw up. At a certain point in Australia it was like a war crime to actually be funny on a television show – that the less jokes there were, the better the show was meant to be. And that’s changed a lot, which is good. …. The shows have become more sophisticated and the jokes have gotten – the shows are more overtly comedic now than they were even a few years ago,” he said.

The ABC’s appetite for comedy will only increase under the ABC’s new structure – and will grow even further should ABC’s multichannel rebrand from ABC2 to ABC Comedy be successful, he said.

“In a nutshell, the restructure simply is getting rid of the divisions which used to exist at the ABC which were sometimes sliced by platform, like TV and radio, and really making them focussed on genre. So the TV now sits within a genre called ‘entertainment and specialist’, which includes what you would previously have thought of as TV, iView, radio. News is on one side, there’s a regional and a local, there’s a small internal development lab at the ABC too. But the three big divisions are news, regional/local – which will include local radio – and this massive thing in the middle called entertainment and specialist.

“David Anderson who is the director of TV will become the director of entertainment and specialist. Comedy sits there as it has at the moment as part of the scripted team with drama and indigenous under Sally Riley, who is the boss of scripted. So I’m still the head of comedy. I’m in charge still of scripted comedy, iView. I’m also now sort of effectively co in charge of scripted comedy for radio, which is really podcasts – there’s a radio comedy unit that I’m part of. So we’re doing that as well,” he explained.

“But on top of that as I mentioned before we’ve created this new channel ABC Comedy and to begin with we’ll only have a commissioning budget for a few things a year, but that will, on top of everything else, will play on that channel. If it succeeds, that number of commissioning will go up and up and up. So we’ll be wanting to make far more, not less, comedy. So we’ll be making comedy for TV, iView, radio, podcast and for the new channel… We’re pretty hungry for more comedy.”

In practical terms, he said, the re-structure’s impact would be minimal.

“In terms of, in practice, it hasn’t really changed very much about how you pitch to the ABC or what we’re doing,” he said.

Pacquola later acknowledged while she loved working with the ABC she had possibly damaged her future job prospects, and clarified she would love to see more comedy on more networks.

“I just have to say I’m real paranoid that I’ve burned any bridges,” she said before apologising to anyone from Seven, Nine or Ten who may have been in the room.

She insisted she would be willing to work with all networks, if the opportunities presented themselves.

“I’ll tell you a secret. Comedians, we just love working. We just want a job. Any job. Sure, I’ll go on a panel show,” she joked.


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