Newsjack - Non-commissioned & Commissioned

Monday 26 September 2011, 13:32

Gareth Gwynn Gareth Gwynn

So, that's my last episode for this series done. This week, Jon Hunter takes up the reins as Newsjack script editor - but before I hang up my red pen (or at least put the lid on it), I thought I'd spend a bit of time explaining the contribution that the non-commissioned and commissioned writers make to each show.

You've probably spotted that a handful of the same names pop up on the Newsjack credits list every week. It's not all that surprising. I think it would be downright peculiar if every week, 30 unique names appeared, implying that no-one ever got better at writing for the show.

However, the list is jumbled mix of commissioned, non-commissioned and BBC Radio Comedy department contract writers, so it's probably handy to explain who is who. Now, I'm going to use the writer's list from Series 5 episode 2 for the next clutch of statistics. (I considered breaking down a few other episodes, but anyone with a passing knowledge of simultaneous equations would be able to work out who is who, and I suspect that breaks the data protection act).

So, here we go. In series 5 episode 2, there were 22 writers credited (not including myself). Of those: 63% were non-commissioned writers, 22% were commissioned writers, 10% were the BBC Radio Comedy department's in-house writers (Benjamin Partridge and Andy Wolton) and 5% was Jon Hunter (A fellow Newsjack script editor and commissioned writer for episode 2, but who will be inheriting the red pen for episodes 3 and 4 of this series).

So, let's explain each of those roles...

Non-commissioned writers send in material to the newsjack@bbc.co.uk email address and, unsurprisingly, make up the bulk of the writer's list. 63% is a lower figure than normal for this category - but I think that's because this week's episode had fewer JackApps than normal and not as many occurrences of me constructing a gag-heavy Frankenstein's Monster of a sketch, by wedging two (or more) contributions on the same subject together.

I'm sure this process has been documented elsewhere on the BBC Writersroom blog, but we get somewhere in the region of 1000 sketches and 1000 pages of one liners into the Newsjack inbox and every single one of them gets read. Not by me. They get read by the producers of the show, the BBC Radio Comedy department's contract writers, production co-ordinators and the producers of other shows. Good sketches get put into a folder, which the script editor and both producers read on Monday night, deciding what is good to go, what might be fixable and what won't make it.

The Commissioned Writers come into the office on the Tuesday and they write sketches on stories that have broken Tuesday morning, and anything that we had hoped would be covered by the non-commissioned writers, but wasn't. The commissioned writers are people the producers are confident can be given a topic and provide a funny, broadcastable sketch in a fairly tight timescale.

The reason that the deadline for non-com sketches has to be on Monday at the latest is that we'd never have the time to read and edit everything by Wednesday's recording otherwise - that's why we need a handful of trusted writers on the Tuesday to fill the gaps.

Now, these Commissioned Writers aren't plucked from the sky or some pool of established BBC favourites - they are the people who have had a consistently good hit-rate, having submitted material on a non-commissioned basis for previous series of Newsjack. This gives the producers an opportunity to meet the people behind some of our favourite sketches, get to know them and show them exactly how a sketch show is put together. Newsjack would be a thoroughly pointless exercise if we just dished out the occasional on-air credit and did nothing else. Getting people in to see how we operate and how the show works hopefully offers some form of progression, and commissioned writers for the next series will no doubt include a few names that have come to light on this current series.

The BBC Radio Comedy Department's In House Writers are currently Benjamin Partridge and Andy Wolton. They are on a one-year contract and work in the department 4 days a week, on whatever shows need extra writers. You've probably heard their names at the end of The News Quiz or The Now Show. On Newsjack, they are part of the team who read the sketches on the Monday, and are in the meetings with the commissioned writers on the Tuesday. They also do sterling work, saving sketches that the producers or I like the idea of, but aren't quite ready to go on-air. I also show them the opening monologue on a Wednesday morning, as they can always spot an opportunity for a joke that I may have missed.

Benjamin Partridge actually got his first credit on Newsjack, back in Series 2. He was then invited in as a commissioned writer, was recommended to some other BBC producers for other projects and was then invited to apply for the in-house job.

The Script Editor has to turn the sketches into a workable show. Sometimes it's gagging up a sketch or tweaking lines. Sometimes it's taking 4 page sketch and turning it into a 2 page one. Sometimes it's making so many changes, that when the writer receives their cheque in the post, it's a puzzle for them to work out which bit was originally theirs. Anything that helps make a broadcastable show.

I always want to put as much as I can on-air. I want to give as many people a chance at getting an on-air credit. But late on Tuesday evening, when all the sketches are in front of you, it really is only about making a really good radio show. Saying "oh, but it's all by new writers", isn't going to impress someone catching 10mins of it when they get home for work (or, for that matter, impress BBC Radio 4 Extra if we want them to keep commissioning it!) It really is all about making the funniest show we possibly can.

Which is why Newsjack is not a "new writers competition". There are no winners. It is a sketch show with an open door policy, where the team behind it promise to read and consider every single sketch that is sent in. It's also probably the best way to get noticed and get your first radio credit.

Visit the Newsjack website and find out how you can submit your sketches and one-liners to the show.

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