Tag Archives: Acorn TV

Serial killer

Acorn TV’s London Kills will quench audience thirst for the kind of episodic, procedural storytelling that is now overshadowed by long-running serialised dramas, claim writers Paul Marquess and Sarah-Louise Hawkins plus Robert Franke of distributor ZDF Enterprises.

The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video has, in part, been responsible for television series shifting away from episodic procedural storytelling towards long-running serialised dramas. Stories no longer have to wrap up within a single episode, offering writers, directors and actors the chance to take a deep dive across 10 to 13 hours.

Yet one online platform, US streamer Acorn TV, is bucking the trend with London Kills, its second original programme and first straight-to-series commission. Acorn has ordered two five-part seasons of the British show, which dramatises the experiences of a team of top murder detectives in London, focusing on a different murder in each episode while also featuring a serialised story involving the lead detective’s missing wife.

“There’s a substantial international appetite for English-speaking crime procedurals that isn’t being catered to by the UK broadcasters. Straightforward murder-of-the-week doesn’t get commissioned anymore for various reasons,” says London Kills creator and head writer Paul Marquess, who was also responsible for Channel 5’s improvised crime drama Suspects. Acorn had bought Suspects to the US and, knowing the interest in procedural crime dramas among the platform’s Anglophile audience, Marquess pitched the streamer the idea for London Kills.

“I’ve had the title for a long time – I’ve known what the show was,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do a murder procedural in London for a long time, I like murder procedurals, I wanted to shoot in London and shoot as much of the city as I could, and so the whole thing came together. Obviously I’ve made a few cop shows in the past [such as The Bill, Crime Stories and MIT: Murder Investigation Team] but it felt like the one I wanted to make now. And they really liked it.”

L-R: Paul Marquess, Sarah-Louise Hawkins and Robert Franke

With European broadcasters also in need of episodic dramas, Acorn partnered with German distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) to finance the series, a decision ZDFE’s head of drama Robert Franke called “a no-brainer.”

“There is a demand for English-speaking crime procedurals and we’re having problems procuring these types of programmes internationally. What we said was instead of having to run around trying to find additional coproduction money, we come in and match the Acorn investment and all of a sudden we have a greenlight,” Franke recalls. “That was important because we wanted London Kills as fast as possible. It was just like all the stars aligned.”

With the commission announced in March 2018, filming began in June and the series was subsequently launched to potential international buyers with a premiere screening at C21 Media’s Content London last November. Less than 12 months on from its order, London Kills launches in the US on Acorn TV today.

“What I hear when I talk to our buyers is they say they’re looking for something that is low commitment for the viewer,” Franke says of ZDFE’s decision to back the series. “Horizontal storylines mean viewers are committed for the whole show. What we see is a lot of people like to have something they can enjoy for an episode or two, and that’s exactly what a crime procedural provides. There has been a misconception in the market about what kind of buyers are actually buying these shows. They haven’t gone away.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Marquess, who compares the current situation to a period when he worked at global production giant Fremantle and many people believed talent shows were on the wane. That, he remembers, was not long before Pop Idol first aired in the UK in 2001, with the show going on to reinvent television singing competitions around the world.

“I’ve been in television long enough to see things come and go. People really like crime-of-the-week shows and the thing about London Kills is it’s also a serial story,” he explains. “That element is low in the mix compared to other [serialised] shows, but it’s there and it connects you with the detectives. But the show does give you that weekly satisfaction that a lot of the audience really like. Anecdotally, I’m finding more and more people are saying to me they would like a beginning, middle and an end. These shows are not particularly sexy or fashionable but it doesn’t mean they’re not good and the audience doesn’t like them.”

London Kills’ first season was filmed across just 10 weeks

London Kills, a coproduction between Acorn Media Enterprises and Marquess’s PGMTV, saw the creator bring together Sarah-Louise Hawkins, Sally Tatchell and Jake Riddell to write the series, after he had written the pilot.

Having worked with Marquess on Suspects, Hawkins says she found the pilot script “absolutely compelling” and quickly began pitching potential cases to feature as the ‘story of the week’ in the writers room.

Marquess says his background in soap operas such as Coronation Street means he prefers a collaborative writing process. “I write very reluctantly. Lots of people are better writers than I am, and a problem it would take me a day to solve on my own in my office, I can solve in two minutes in a room with some good writers,” he notes.

“It was a totally crucial part of the process and it pays off in spades. The more you bring the writers into the room, the more you sit and talk together, you all know what you’re doing. Twenty years ago, I went to LA and sat in some writers rooms there and have never looked back.”

Episode one begins with the discovery of a body hanging from a tree in a park overlooking the city, while another story, penned by Hawkins, opens with a corpse found underneath a garden patio. “It turns out three years ago it was buried when it was a student house, and the detectives then unpick what happened,” she says. “Some people start with the death first, but I find if you find some kind of emotional hook, that’s the thing I have first and everything else comes after that. Also, when you’re able to work with complete freedom and someone allows you the latitude to work that way, you can see how it ends up as such an enjoyable experience,” she says of working with Marquess.

Marquess notes that these days, most television detectives are “dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky.” The team at the heart of London Kills – played by Hugo Speer (Britannia), Sharon Small (Mistresses), Bailey Patrick (Bodyguard) and Tori Allen-Martin (Unforgotten) – are decidedly lacking in fancy headgear, nor do they have any recent deaths to overcome. That’s why he says London Kills is a series that simply lives up to its title.

The show follows a ‘story of the week’ format but also features a serialised element

“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it,” he says. “Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what detectives do. And we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK murder-of-the-week series being shot at the moment that’s just that, and that is OK. People really like that.”

Marquess likes his productions to be shot hard and fast, with a single episode filmed in five days via three cameras operating at once. “I took this idea to Hugo, thinking, ‘You’re not going to want to do this.’ But Hugo loved it. He said it was like acting on the stage because the directors and actors work together, put it on its feet, we shoot it with three cameras and then we move on. It’s bloody exciting actually. I am famously impatient. I still think it’s slow! But compared to everything else, it’s an express train.”

Shooting this way offers “huge dividends,” Marquess says, including the fact actors are spared from continuous retakes. There is still that safety net of redoing a scene if it doesn’t work first time around, but otherwise the team can move swiftly on.

“We’re able to do it because the cameras are small and lightweight,” Marquess adds. “We don’t have to light it because they’re really light-sensitive. I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago but now I can. The edit is also less stressful now and more limber so you can make it work. I love it. I’m pitching shows that are bigger budget but, if I could, I’d shoot everything like this because you end up with much more electricity and energy.”

The remarkably long heatwave enjoyed by the UK last summer took its toll on the crew during filming. Marquess admits it makes the series simmer on screen, though the finished product stands in contrast to the rain-soaked London he had envisioned when he wrote the pilot. The 10-week production schedule, as opposed to the more common 30 weeks, also meant making the show was incredibly tough, but that the crew could see the finish line from the start.

“We shoot five days a week, not six or seven, so the actors get two days off to recover and learn what’s next,” he says of the schedule. “As a process, I think it works really well. We had a great building in Whitechapel where we had our production offices and our set. In each episode there’s something iconic of London, but we also shot around the East End, which is a great area to shoot in.”

From an international perspective, Franke adds that London Kills is very much in tune with what ZDFE believes is missing from the UK. “We were happy Paul was able to do something [financially] competitive with a great story that looks good. It is a show that delivers. It’s not gimmicky. It’s very straightforward and it just gives the people what they want to see.”

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Raisin’ the dead

With cancelled comedy-drama Agatha Raisin set to be brought back to life on US streamer Acorn TV, star Ashley Jensen discusses what makes the show special.

By her own admission, Ashley Jensen was “extremely surprised, extremely despondent and dismayed” when comedy-drama Agatha Raisin was cancelled by UK network Sky1 after a TV movie and a single eight-part series in 2016. So she was equally thrilled and delighted when US streamer Acorn TV brought the show back to life by commissioning a second season of three new stories (6×45’ or 3×90’). They are due to launch this fall.

The new films pick up just three weeks after the previous season’s conclusion, with Jensen’s Raisin, who lives in an idyllic English country village, finding herself drawn into solving a series of mysterious murders, often in entirely unorthodox ways. The stories are once again inspired by the novels written by Marion Chesney under the pseudonym MC Beaton, with episode one, Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, premiering today.

“To me, it’s got everything,” Jensen says of the series. “It’s good, fun, family viewing, it’s got a cast of eclectic characters set across the bucolic English countryside and stories that are already formed within the wonderful books Marion has written. Everybody likes a detective story but I think what we have that sets us apart is that it’s slightly camp, it’s kind of whimsical but there’s a good detective story in the middle of all that.

Ashley Jensen believes Agatha Raisin has ‘got everything’

“And although it’s a comedy, it’s dealing with murder so there’s always a victim, always someone who’s bereaved, so you’re able to tap into proper emotion as well. So one moment I’m throwing myself over a wall in four-inch stilettos and the next minute I’m having a conversation about someone who’s potentially been murdered.”

Acorn Media Enterprises has partnered with Free@LastTV and Company Pictures to coproduce the new season. Acorn Media International is distributing in all English-speaking territories, while All3Media International is distributing in the rest of the world.

Extras and Catastrophe star Jensen spent six years living in the US while working on series including ABC drama Ugly Betty, so she is well placed to understand why Acorn decided to pick up more episodes of Agatha Raisin. “A lot of Americans enjoy our eccentricities and our beautiful landscapes and countryside,” she says. “It’s very much set in a chocolate-box England. To an American, it’s almost a whimsical, unreal world, if you’re living in New York, Ohio or Texas.”

The actor says part of the series’ charm is it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while a lot of the characters and storylines are particularly heightened. “Sometimes I think it’s almost cartoony, and even the way it’s been designed is very much in technicolour,” she explains. “People would say Scandi noir is very much in vogue at the moment; we call ourselves ‘Cotswold technicolour,’ even down to the costumes, my lipstick, my shoes and handbags – everything just looks like the colour has been turned up on it.”

The drama originally aired on Sky1 in the UK

Having recently starred in Kay Mellor’s BBC1 drama Love, Lies & Records, the actor enjoys the privilege of jumping between drama and comedy. She has since reunited with Extras co-star Ricky Gervais for his forthcoming Netflix series After Life, with a fourth season of Channel 4’s Catastrophe also on the way. “It was interesting working on three different comedies simultaneously – I was literally bouncing from Agatha, then at the weekend I’d go and do Catastrophe and then I had a couple of days with Ricky. It was bouncing between three quite different styles and three very different characters as well, which was great for me to do.

“Ricky and I have a laugh about the fact every character he plays is from Reading and every character I play is from Scotland. Even though they’re all Scottish accents, I had different hairstyles for them all! But they are all different, nuanced characters. Agatha is probably more heightened and then Catastrophe is not as heightened, and Ricky is very real. So there are degrees of darkness to them all.”

Jensen now has aspirations to write her own material, having been encouraged by friend and Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan. “Maybe the time has come,” she says, adding that shifts in the industry mean she is more likely to be heard now than 10 years ago. “Women have so many stories to tell that have not yet been told. The weight still needs to shift a little bit more in our favour, but that only comes with people in positions of power being able to make those decisions. But it is shifting a little bit.”

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A busy August in Edinburgh

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.

One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.

The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.

Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”

The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”

The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.

Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.

There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries is being adapted for BBC2

Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.

Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”

Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.

Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”

Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.

Anna Friel in Marcella
Anna Friel in Marcella

While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.

Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”

Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.

The Kettering Incident
The Kettering Incident has been picked up by Amazon

In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.

The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.

In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.

“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”

The End has sold across the world
The End has sold across the world

In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.

The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.

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Nordic drama in good company

Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh
Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh

London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.

The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”

Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.

ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season
ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season

Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”

Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”

Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.

Cleverman is BBC3's first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network
Cleverman is BBC3’s first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network

Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.

A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”

DRTV's Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada
DRTV’s financial crime drama Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.

Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.

US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla
US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla

The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.

As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.

The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.

Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC's Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan
Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC’s Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan

“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”

As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.

Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season
Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season on A&E

Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.

Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”

Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.

Don Cheadle in Showtime's now-axed comedy House of Lies
Don Cheadle in Showtime’s now-axed comedy House of Lies

Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”

In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.

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Out with the new, in with the old

As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.

In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.

Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.

Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.

Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?

ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.

Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.

Nordic noir drama Jordskott
Jordskott has performed well on ITV Encore

From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.

Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?

At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.

Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.

One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.

It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).

And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.

Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.

Law & Order
Law & Order is a popular re-run choice among viewers

With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.

But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.

As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.

FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.

Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).

Love Hurts
Could classics like Love Hurts be remade, or sold as formats?

After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).

The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.

Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.

“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”

Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.

US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.

The Sweeney
We could see a remake of the hit series The Sweeney

UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.

Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”

Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”

As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).

In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.

Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.

And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.

Antenna Spain's Grand Hotel
Antenna Spain’s Grand Hotel

Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”

Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”

Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.

One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.

AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.

The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).

This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.

Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.

These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.

With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

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