From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.
Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.
Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.
Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.
Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).
Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.
Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.
In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).
Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.
A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.
On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).
Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.
As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.
The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.
Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.
There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.
Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.
Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).
On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.
Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.
Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.
Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.
Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.
HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.
And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.
We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).
In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.
In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).
Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).
Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.
Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?
Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’
The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.
The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”
This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.
At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.
Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.
“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”
The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.
Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”
The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.
Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.
Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”
Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”
Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].
“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”
While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”
Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?
On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”
This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.
This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.
On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.
Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”
On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.
Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.
Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”
He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.
To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.
More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.
Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.
The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.
Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.
“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”
The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?
Game of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.
Hannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.
Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”
American Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.
Vikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.
The Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.
Daredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”
Boardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”
The Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.
Oz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”
The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…
Fox will go to Mipcom in Cannes next week with a spring in its step thanks to Lethal Weapon, its TV reboot of the classic movie franchise.
Now three episodes into its first season, Lethal Weapon is one of the US fall season’s top-performing shows. It’s currently pulling in 7.3 million same-day viewers, a figure that rises to 11.5 million after a week’s catch-up viewing is added in.
The network has responded to the show’s strong start by giving it an additional five episodes, taking the total for season one to 18. This is less than the traditional 22-episode US network model, but Fox is still describing it as a full-season order – something that may reflect a wider trend towards shorter-run scripted series.
Commenting on the award of the extra episodes, announced this week, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “Lethal Weapon delivers an explosive and wildly entertaining core relationship between two cops, with dynamic performances by Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, surrounded by cinematic action, endearing humour and true heart. It has proven to be a self-starter and solid companion to Empire.” (Lethal Weapon directly follows Fox hit series Empire in the schedule.)
Another movie reboot that has got off to a strong start is HBO’s Westworld. Blessed with a talented cast, a strong creative team and cult name recognition, the first episode attracted 3.3 million for the first showing via cable and streaming. The second episode dipped to 2.7 million, but some of this decline has been put down to competition from the second US presidential debate.
Strong ratings in the US were mirrored in the UK, where Sky Atlantic reported a record-breaking performance for the show’s first episode.
A statement from Sky said: “After being watched by an overnight audience of 458,000 on Tuesday October 4, more than 1.38 million viewers have taken advantage of catching up on the show flexibly over the following seven days [i.e. 1.84 million total].”
HBO will be encouraged by the fact the show has attracted a strong 9.2 rating on IMDb. However, it is early days for a series that is thought to have cost US$100m to produce. HBO would like Westworld to build the same kind of momentum as Game of Thrones, but it is built on a much sparser mythological foundation. For this reason, it is difficult to prejudge how much traction the show will gain with the audience. The true potential of the franchise should become clearer around episode six or seven.
Another US series that merits a mention is FX’s long-running American Horror Story anthology franchise, which this year is sub-titled My Roanoke Nightmare. Four episodes in, the show is averaging 3.58 million viewers. The figures are on a slight downward curve but they are similar to last year’s series Hotel, suggesting the show has a pretty robust core audience.
This year’s series takes the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina as its storytelling starting point. During the 1590s, the colonists vanished. Moving to the present, a couple’s new home near the settlement is full of paranormal activity. The cast includes Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr, with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga (who also appeared in Hotel).
Away from the US, Zodiak Rights is reporting strong sales for Public Enemy, the Belgian drama that won the inaugural MipDrama Screenings Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in April.
Produced by Belgium’s Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for RTBF Belgium, the 10-part drama centres on the story of Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer at the end of his prison sentence. His release on parole to the custody of the monks at Vielsart Abbey leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and to the rest of the country. Then when a young girl disappears on the outskirts of the Abbey, the entire village is in uproar.
The French-language show was a ratings hit for RTBF Belgium, securing an audience share of more than 25%. Now Zodiak has sold it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany; free-to-air broadcaster TF1 in France; Movistar Series Xtra and Movistar VOD in Spain; and Ale Kino Channel (Canal+ Group) in Poland. It will also air on Scandinavian broadcaster C More’s linear and premium SVoD services in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.
Producer François Touwaide of Entre Chien et Loup said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium, we are happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by the Zodiak Rights team. Zodiak Rights believed in the show from the beginning and has been a great support.”
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, added: “The demand for innovative, globally relevant drama that works across platforms continues to be very strong and we expect these deals to be the first of many for this compelling series.” The sales also underline the promotional value of the new MipDrama award.
Still on the subject of distribution, SVoD platform Netflix has acquired global rights to Syfy space drama The Expanse. Season one will be available to Netflix members outside North America and New Zealand from November 3, with a second run due in 2017.
The Expanse is set 200 years in the future, after humanity has colonised the solar system. It follows a tough detective and a rogue ship’s captain who stumble across a huge conspiracy while looking for a missing woman.
The first series aired on Syfy in 2015 and didn’t rate especially well, starting at 1.19 million and dropping to 0.55 million. The show is a good indication, however, of the new economic model that exists in the Netflix era, where modest ratings on a US host channel don’t necessarily result in automatic cancellation because of the opportunity to secure a secondary revenue stream from an SVoD partner.
More generally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned this week that the chance of the SVoD service entering China “doesn’t look good.” The company has been plotting an entry into China for a couple of years but seems to be suffering the same barriers to entry as other US brands. “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down. It doesn’t look good,” he said at the New Yorker TechFest conference last week.
With shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story performing so well, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to climb aboard the horror show bandwagon.
FX sister channel Fox, for example, has already backed Scream Queens and is now planning another horror comedy series based on Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road. Called Haunted, the new show centres on a military agent who is partnered with her demonologist ex-boyfriend to help a family overcome a demonic infestation at their house. William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has been signed up to write the project.
ABC Family, soon to be renamed Freeform, is also moving into horror for the first time with Dead of Summer, which is set in a doomed summer camp in the late 1980s. The network, which has given the show a straight-to-series order, is from Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Once Upon a Time writer Ian Goldberg.
Meanwhile, Syfy has advanced a horror project it first started talking about in the summer. Channel Zero is an anthology series developed by Nick Antosca (Hannibal). This week Syfy greenlit what is being described as two six-part seasons. The first is based on Candle Cove by Kris Straub, which originates from an online horror concept known as creepypasta. There is no news yet on the second batch of six, though the assumption is that it will centre on a different story.
Meanwhile, in the UK, broadcaster ITV has ordered a three-part horror miniseries called Him. Produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy with a hidden supernatural power inherited from his grandfather.
In the realm of sci-fi, one of the week’s most interesting projects comes courtesy of The CW, which is working on Cry, a drama about a doctor who works out how to bring cryogenically preserved people back to life. In an interesting twist on the Frankenstein myth, he starts by unfreezing his own father – but there are, of course, unexpected consequences. The show is being made in partnership with Paulist Productions, a Catholic-oriented company that makes shows exploring moral dilemmas.
Bigger news for sci-fi geeks is that Netflix is planning a remake of cult classic Lost In Space, which ran for three seasons in the 1960s. Created by Irwin Allen, the original story centred on an ordinary family called the Robinsons that becomes marooned in space along with the reprehensible Dr Zachary Smith. The franchise, which started life in a comic book, was brought back in 1998 as a not-very-good movie starring Matt LeBlanc. However it is probably better suited to TV. The challenge for writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless will be getting the tone of the project right. While it will need to be more plausible than the original to satisfy sci-fi fans, it would probably be a mistake to take it too far from the family-adventure feel of the original.
In the UK, meanwhile, actor Ray Winstone is to star as visionary author HG Wells in a new drama for pay TV channel Sky Arts. Called The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, the Clerkenwell Films drama will be an anthology series consisting of four stories about madness, obsession, hallucinations and horror (there it is again). These are based on Wells’ stories and will be adapted by Graham Duff. The series was commissioned by Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones, who says: “One of my earliest memories is seeing row upon row of blue-covered HG Wells books on my grandad’s bookcase and being fascinated by the strange and disturbing worlds inside them. The team at Clerkenwell has brought four fantastic Wells stories to life in a wonderfully realised, stunningly performed compendium.”
There’s also some buzz around medical series this week. After a strong opening on NBC for Chicago Med, CBS has now given an extended order to its own medical show, Code Black. Although the show has not rated well, it now has 18 episodes to prove its worth.
In the UK, another ITV commission announced this week is The Good Karma Hospital. Set in Goa, India, this six-parter follows a team of UK and Indian medics as they cope with work, life and love at an over-worked, under-resourced hospital. ITV says: “Run by a gloriously eccentric Englishwoman, the Good Karma turns no-one away – locals, ex-pats and tourists are all welcome. With a stunning location, exotic medical cases and unforgettable characters, the series mixes the heartbreaking with the humorous, as the doctors, nurses and patients discover that the hospital is more than a rundown medical outpost – it’s a home.”
The show goes into production next year and is being produced by Tiger Aspect. It is created and written by Dan Sefton, whose credits include Death in Paradise. There’s some logic to this since Death In Paradise (about a British policeman in the Caribbean) is another show that uses the interaction of different cultures as a backdrop.
UK dramas that showcase the Indian sub-continent are in vogue at the moment. First came Channel 4’s Indian Summers (shot in Malaysia but set in India) and then ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Also in the mix have been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.
The Good Karma Hospital has been commissioned for ITV by director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea. November says: “Dan Sefton’s scripts are beautifully written and deal with themes we’ll all identify with – love, loss, relationships, family conflict, facing adversity and the importance of seizing the day. The Good Karma Hospital is a feel-good drama full of warmth and characters we will love.”
From Germany, news this week that ARD is producing a series based on the novels of Swiss author Martin Suter. Allmen, produced by UFA Fiction and Mia Film in the Czech Republic, is the story of a rich bon vivant who gets caught up in a murder after turning to crime to pay off his debts. Filming is taking place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic until mid-February next year.
Finally, there was bad news this week for showrunner Kurt Sutter whose medieval drama The Bastard Executioner has been axed after just one season by broadcaster FX. Having opened in September with an audience of four million, it fell away to 1.9 million by the end of its run. But this probably doesn’t signify the end of the sword and savagery genre. HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s Outlander and History’s Vikings continue to do well while the BBC’s The Last Kingdom has also received decent reviews. Also coming up is ITV’s retelling of the Beowulf saga, which should provide us with another indicator of the genre’s popularity.
The big four US networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are playing a strange game this year. Usually by now they would have axed their underperforming new shows.
But instead they have adopted a policy of reducing the number of episodes they initially ordered then letting the shows in question quietly crawl away to die.
A case in point is Fox’s Minority Report, which was initially meant to have 13 episodes. But after failing to impress in the ratings, its order was cut to 10. The same has happened to ABC’s Blood and Oil and NBC’s Truth Be Told, also reduced to 10. NBC also cut Wesley Snipes drama The Player to nine episodes after poor ratings.
Various theories have been put forward to explain this emerging trend. One is that the networks have decided to give scripted shows more time because of the complex nature of audience behaviour these days. With so much time-shifting going on, they don’t want to kill a show off before they know for sure it is a dud.
This thesis takes on added weight now that subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon have started picking up and reviving a few axed shows. The last thing the networks want to do is produce a show and then hand the benefit to their fast-growing rivals.
Another possibility, mooted by E! News, is that networks don’t want to face flak from fans by axing a show early. By giving these shows a reasonable run out, it’s a way of reducing the size of the social media backlash that invariably follows cancellation.
Alternatively, there may be a commercial agenda here. Possibly the networks have decided there’s more value in having nine or 10 episodes of a show with closure than four or five without a satisfactory end. Such is the international demand for drama content that maybe there is an opportunity to recoup some of the cost of production via the distribution side of the business.
Some international channels would rather have a single series of a big-budget American series (complete with star) than none at all.
Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see what it takes to finally push one of the big four networks over the edge into cancelling a scripted show. There is, for example, a particularly badly performing anthology show on ABC right now called Wicked City.
Three episodes in, the show has seen its ratings fall from 3.3 million to 2.4 million to 1.7 million, making it the joint lowest-rated non-Saturday drama original on the major four broadcast networks in Nielsen People Meter history. If that isn’t a good enough reason to axe a series then we may never see a cancellation again.
While Minority Report has failed to live up to expectations, another Philip K Dick-based project is receiving plenty of plaudits ahead of its appearance on Amazon. The Man in the High Castle, a 10-parter that will launch on November 20, is an alternative-history drama that imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japan each control half of the US (having won the Second World War).
Adapted for TV by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), a recent screening of the show received a swathe of positive reviews. While we are unlike to ever see any ratings for The Man in the High Castle, Amazon is confident it could be a game-changer for the platform.
Russell Morris, marketing and merchandising director of Amazon Video in the UK, says: “All the data points to this being our out-and-out success.” It’s unusual for Amazon to be so openly enthusiastic, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the series is already starting to build up some decent momentum.
There are also positive noises for Crackle’s The Art of More, which debuts on November 19. Starring Dennis Quaid as a ruthless real-estate billionaire, the 10-episode first season is set in a high-octane version of the art world, where rival auction houses battle to secure the best clients and works of art are smuggled into the US from exotic locations.
Deadline – particularly impressed with Quaid’s performance – has declared itself a fan of the show, which has already managed to rack up quite a few international sales.
While The Man in the High Castle and The Art of More are yet to launch, one show that has already established itself as a huge franchise is FX’s anthology drama American Horror Story (AHS), created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Now in its fifth season, AHS: Hotel, the show is averaging 3.8 million viewers, which makes it the channel’s highest-rated scripted series. As a reward for its strong showing, FX this week announced that there will be a sixth season.
John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, says: “American Horror Story has unquestionably joined the ranks of television’s landmark series. From Murder House to Hotel, AHS has pioneered a new TV form as well becoming FX’s highest-rated show – while also pushing every conceivable boundary of creative excellence and audacity.
“This is even more remarkable because Ryan and Brad tear up the playbook every year, challenging the entire creative team to come up with something even more spectacular, frightful and entertaining. You could not ask more of an artist, their team or a series.”
The icing on the cake for FX is that AHS is not just a ratings success, but also an award winner. The first four seasons received 71 Emmy nominations and 13 Emmy wins, including five awards for its fourth instalment, AHS: Freak Show.
Finally, this week, it’s interesting to note that there is another trend in the market right now – the ‘falling off a cliff’ phenomenon. This is where shows start incredibly strongly then see their ratings collapse almost immediately. ABC’s The Muppets is a case in point, with its ratings dropping from nine million to 5.8 million viewers between episodes one and two and then continuing to slide, so that they are now below the four million mark at episode seven.
CBS’s Supergirl is now experiencing something similar, with ratings for the first three episodes going from 12.9 million to 8.9 million to eight million. Although some ground will be clawed back once the time-shifted numbers are in, that’s still a pretty precipitous drop. NBC’s Heroes Reborn and ABC’s Quantico are showing similar fragility.
What’s behind this? It seems to be a combination of two factors. First, networks are getting very good at generating a movie-style buzz around their new series so that audiences feel compelled to be in at the start. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a rebooted idea, because large swathes of the TV population are lured in by the promise of a nostalgia fix.
Having grabbed the audience’s attention, however, the slightest misbeat on the part of the show and viewers lose interest – creating the mass migration effect seen with programmes like The Muppets.
Like the apocryphal script reader who knows 10 ten pages whether he or she is in the presence of a great script or another addition to the recycling pile, a significant part of the audience will cut its losses before the first ad break has occurred – turning to rival channels or second-screen entertainment.
An interesting premise or unusual setup may hold the audience in for a little longer, but in the end the only thing that will get them to come back for a second helping is genuinely compelling work. And even in this ‘golden age’ of drama, that is still quite rare.
From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.
There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.
Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.
There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.
By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.
Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.
With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.
A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.
“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”
At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.
SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.
“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.
“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”
Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”
Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.
“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”
Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”
Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.
“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”
Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”
American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.
As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.
FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”
Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”
Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.
The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.
Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.
“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”
Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”
The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?
That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.
“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.
Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.
By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.
The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.
Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.
NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.
Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.
Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.
Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”
It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”
Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”
Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”
While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”
US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.
When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.
In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.
He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”
Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.
But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.
Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.
WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.
Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.
Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.
“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”
Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.
“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.
“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”
Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.
“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.
Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.
“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”
While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.
With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.
Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.
“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.
“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”
Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”
It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”
Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.
“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”
That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.
“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”
Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).
“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.
“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”
Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.
This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?
“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”
The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.
“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”
At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.
“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”
One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?
“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).
“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”
Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”
Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.
“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”
From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.
“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”
Following the PBS path
US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.
For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.
The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.
“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”
Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.
More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.
Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”
Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.
“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”
PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.
It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.
“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.
“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”
PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.
Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.
Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”
Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”
That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”
So many shows that appear in this column start strongly but then fade away, like books that people can’t be bothered finishing.
A clear exception to this is Game of Thrones, which has just come to the end of its fifth season. Packed with the usual array of murder, mayhem and fan-enraging reversals of fortune, the final episode of the latest run, Mother’s Mercy, brought a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers to HBO in the US (not including any laggards who will watch on a delayed basis).
This season is approximately one million up on season four, which itself was a massive hit. Only AMC’s The Walking Dead has achieved higher ratings on US cable.
Game of Thrones has also proved a big hit for Sky Atlantic in the UK, where the show has averaged 1.2 million across its 10-episode run. When time-shifted viewing is factored in, the figure is more like two million. These numbers are well ahead of season four, and more than fives times higher than the channel’s slot average.
But Game of Thrones’ success shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a superb launch for Kudos-produced robot thriller Humans on Channel 4. An eight-part coproduction with AMC, the show achieved a record-breaking four million viewers, making it C4’s biggest ever original drama series launch. With an 18.3% share, the show more than doubled the channel’s 21.00 slot average.
Humans’ strong ratings have been reinforced by generally positive reviews. The Guardian called the show “a clever, high energy thriller,” while Neil Midgley, writing for Forbes, said Humans “hasn’t yet reached Blade Runner’s standards of greatness. But its first episode offered a pretty good start.”
Slightly less enthused was The Telegraph, which concluded: “With seven episodes still to come, it’s hard to imagine working up strong feelings for these robots with feelings. As a dystopian sci-fi police thriller satirical family drama, Humans felt like it was suffering from conceptual overload and in need of a reboot.”
All that remains then is to see how the show holds up in episode two. While there is bound to be a drop-off as some of the audience pull out and others set their TVs to record the series, the degree of the decline will tell us a lot about the Humans’ future.
One thing the series has in its favour is that it was scripted by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, whose staying power was proven with spy drama Spooks and its recent movie spin-off Spooks: The Greater Good.
Back in the US, one show that seems to be doing well enough to merit a renewal is Fox’s Wayward Pines. Directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, the show’s on- and off-screen talent meant it was always likely to get off to a good start. But five episodes into its first 10-episode season, it is holding up very well, with same-day ratings coming in around the four million mark.
Indeed, the general consensus is that episode five (The Truth) is the strongest so far, a fact that has boosted Wayward Pines’ ratings and got the fanbase buzzing. While some critics have complained that the set-up of the series has been too slow, the fact is the audience’s loyalty to the show is also evident through its strong catch-up ratings, which usually add a further three million or so viewers in the week after an episode’s launch.
With particular strength among 18-49s, it would be surprising if Wayward Pines didn’t earn a second season. The real question now is just how good can it become creatively.
Of course, measuring a show’s success has become much more complex in recent years, thanks to the number of different platforms on which people can view. While there’s still a temptation to judge a show on the size of its first-night ratings, executives are having to hold their fire until all of the data has trickled in.
There was a good case in point this week. US cable channel FX has just released figures that show the last season of its anthology series American Horror Story (AHS), entitled Freak Show, was FX’s most-watched programme ever when all viewing platforms are counted. Based on the latest tally of linear and non-linear viewership, ratings research firm Nielsen estimates that roughly 12.64 million viewers on average watched Freak Show. Not only does this surpass the previous season of AHS, it is also higher than the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (11.69 million). Particularly impressive were the show’s VoD viewing figures. At 12% of the total, they were the highest percentage among any FX show to date.
Interestingly, AHS Freak Show finished in January – so it has taken FX half a year to make the above announcement. While the channel no doubt had an unofficial indication of the numbers a few months ago, it’s still a useful warning against snap judgements.
This isn’t to say that overnight ratings no longer have any value. But the real indicator of a show’s appeal is not just the size of its live audience, it is the ability to sustain that level over a number of weeks. As explained earlier in this column, shows that shed audience rapidly from episode one to two are usually in deep trouble. For the record, American Horror Story returns for season five in October and will have pop icon Lady Gaga among its new cast members.
Finally, the second series of HBO’s True Detective franchise debuts this Sunday. This, of course, means it is too early to make snap judgements based on overnights. But it isn’t too early to make a few premature observations based on reviews.
For the most part, reviewers that have watched the show have displayed due respect to the writing talents of Nic Pizzolatto and a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. But they are split over the merits of the show. In the pro camp are Deadline and The Telegraph, with the latter declaring “Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return.”
Less palatable for HBO is The Baltimore Sun’s pithy summary: “This season (Pizzolatto) seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama.”
Now all we need is for the audience to have their say.