This summer, TV schedules around the world have been dominated by sports events such as Euro 2016, Test Cricket and Formula1 and now the Rio Olympics. But for some reason, our collective love of sport has rarely translated into a memorable scripted TV series.
Shows that have tried and failed to capture the essence of sport include FX boxing drama Lights Out, which lasted for a single season in 2011, and ESPN’s Playmakers – a series that managed to attract the ire of the NFL during its 11-episode lifespan (2003).
Faring better, USA Networks’ Necessary Roughness lasted three seasons, while NBC’s Friday Night Lights managed five. But neither really scored heavily in terms of TV audience interest. The Game, a comedy drama that launched on The CW and then transferred to BET, is one of the few successes in this space, running for eight seasons before its 2015 cancellation.
The situation hasn’t been that different outside the US, with examples of sports-themed dramas few and far between. In the UK, Footballers’ Wives was a modest success between 2002 and 2006, while Australia produced an entertaining cricket series called Bodyline in 1984. But, overall, sport is massively under-represented in drama when you consider its wider appeal.
In contrast to TV, the film industry has delivered a steady stream of pretty good sports-themed movies. There are, for example, several stories in which the central character succeeds against the odds – a line of attack that has given us both comedies (Cool Runnings, Eddie the Eagle) and dramas (The Blindside, The Natural, Tin Cup).
There are also plenty of films set against interesting periods in the history of sport (Chariots of Fire, Ali, Invictus, Eight Men Out, Rush). When you also factor in Jerry Maguire, The Mean Machine, The Bad News Bears, Foxcatcher and Million Dollar Arm, it’s not a bad track record compared to TV.
So what’s the difference? Well, one factor seems to be that the pacing of movies is more like that of live sport. Executed well, the twists and turns of a 90- or 100-minute film are not that different to a good football, basketball or baseball game. Both have an adrenaline-boosting immediacy that appeals to audiences. Sitting in a movie theatre also resembles sitting in a sports arena much more closely than the typical home-viewing experience.
Another factor is the issue of authenticity. One thing that causes problems for any film or TV series focusing on contemporary sport is that we know the protagonists are not real, because we see the real versions doing amazing things all the time. Even with the benefit of fast-cut editing, actors struggle to replicate the magic of true athletes.
Similarly, the fans that sports stories are aimed at generally have deep-rooted loyalties to real teams. As a fan of Arsenal FC, I have no interest in dramas that attempt to portray fictionalised football teams (though I get that there are legal and branding issues that make the use of real talent and clubs a challenging area).
The same reality gap must also be an issue for fans of other football teams or of NFL, NBA and MLB clubs. This is why, when TV does get interested in sport, it is currently more inclined to aim for behind-the-scenes sports documentaries (though a potential problem here is that the subjects of such stories often have editorial control, leading to sanitised shows).
The movies have tended to avoid the authenticity issue by dealing with historical subject matter (so we have a less acute sense of who the protagonist is) or stories about ‘triers’ as opposed to ‘winners.’ But historically, when they have tried to tackle hardcore sports subjects head on, they have had an advantage over TV – access to A-list talent.
If, for example, you are going to portray Muhammad Ali then it’s not so hard to accept Will Smith in that role because he has a star status that suits the subject. Similarly, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers in 2014’s hit movie Foxcatcher.
Having said all this, there has been a shift in the way we perceive TV recently. While a TV drama might still struggle to replicate the immediacy and adrenaline of the movie experience, it can now attract A-list talent. Perhaps that’s why we are finally seeing a decent sport-themed series in the shape of HBO’s Ballers.
True, Ballers is not securing massive audiences – but it is one of HBO’s top-rating shows and has just been commissioned for a third season. For anyone not familiar with the show, it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – who has all the necessary attributes to front a sports-themed series (sporting background, big-screen image). He plays a former NFL superstar who now acts as an adviser to young talent coming to terms with their new lifestyles.
Subject-wise, the show is smart. It doesn’t focus on the games themselves, which would be an editorial mistake. Instead it tries to explore the lifestyle of those involved in the world of NFL. It does, however, reference teams like the Miami Dolphins – rather than alienating the audience with fictitious alternatives.
Other sports-themed shows that are holding their own on TV including Starz basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse, which benefits in the authenticity stakes from the fact that LeBron James, basketball’s biggest star, is an executive producer. Also doing pretty well is Kingdom, which operates against the backdrop of the mixed martial arts world. Aired by AT&T’s Audience Network, it was recently renewed for a third season. Here again you can see reasons why this show might work. One is that it stars Nick Jonas, a music industry heartthrob who has successfully reinvented himself as a charismatic screen presence. The other is that MMA isn’t NFL or Premier League soccer.
In other words, the authenticity bar isn’t quite so high for the audience, which can enjoy the drama without having to worry too much about the sport itself. Besides, it’s easier to film the tightly cropped world of one-on-one combat than a major team-based sports event (where we are used to 60-plus cameras covering every aspect of the live action).
The TV industry’s shift towards limited series should also, in theory, make it easy to pull off a sports-based story. Not many would justify a returning series model. But there are some great period stories that could be told over six or eight episodes – rather than as a feature film. One series that perhaps shows the way is Rivals Forever, a German drama for ARD about the Dassler Brothers, who founded the rival Puma and Adidas sporting brands.
As the film industry has demonstrated, there is great subject matter in sport that could form the basis of a limited series. Andy Samberg and Murray Miller, for example, are making a sports doping mockumentary for HBO. But this is surely a subject that would make also brilliant TV drama. Imagine an The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story-style approach to the life of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Or a Billions-style drama exploring recent allegations of systematic state-sponsored doping by Russia.
Possibly, with the demand for scripted series showing no sign of letting up, now is the time for drama producers and writers to revisit their relationship with sport-based storytelling.
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.
There’s a growing trend in the US towards female-led series and movies. And one interesting aspect of this is the reboot of ideas that previously had male leads.
Supergirl, currently doing very well for CBS network, is a kind of example of this trend, since it takes DC Comics’ ‘Super’ mythology and sidelines the traditional male lead character. But even more to the point are upcoming series where the central character is being given a gender swap.
ABC, for example, is working with Sony Pictures on a reboot of Fantasy Island in which the central character Mr Roarke will be recast as a woman. CBS, meanwhile, is taking a similar route with its reimagination of HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau and with a planned resurrection of 1980s series MacGyver. All of this is in addition to movie launches such as the all-female Ghostbusters.
This week came news of another gender-swap drama, with US channel Syfy picking up Nomadic Films’ new take on the Dracula story, in which vampire hunter Van Helsing will be a woman. A 13-part series due to launch in autumn 2016, the show will focus on Vanessa Helsing, who must lead mankind against a world controlled by vampires. Neil LaBute is the writer/showrunner.
There was more good news for female onscreen talent this week with the news that BBC1 has commissioned UK hit drama Doctor Foster (starring Suranne Jones) for a second series. The renewal follows a trend in the UK of bringing back successful serials even if they look to have reached a natural conclusion (Broadchurch, The Missing, Safe House and Prey are other examples).
The trick is to leave a loose editorial strand at the end of the first run and then see if the audience is sufficiently interested to justify a follow-up. In the case of Doctor Foster, which is written by Mike Bartlett, an average consolidated audience of 8.2 million across five episodes made renewal a no-brainer, even though the first run seemed to have come to a fairly neat conclusion.
The second season order was announced by Polly Hill, BBC Drama commissioning controller, who said: “Mike has not finished telling the story of Gemma (Dr Foster) and Simon (her husband) and there will be many more surprises in the next chapter of this powerful drama.”
Bartlett added: “I’ve been astounded by the response to Doctor Foster. So I’m thrilled that alongside (production company) Drama Republic and the phenomenal Suranne Jones, we’re going to tell the next chapter in Gemma’s story. Her life in Parminster may look better on the surface, but as she will discover to her cost, every action has its consequences eventually. No one comes through hell unscathed.”
Still in the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV is the latest company to announce a drama revival, with news that it is bringing back Cold Feet. Created and written by Mike Bullen, Cold Feet ran from 1998 to 2003 and was both a ratings and critical success for ITV.
Centred on the lives of three couples, it was credited with addressing social issues in a way not previously seen on British TV. Likened to US shows such as Friends and Thirtysomething, it was also adapted for NBC in the US, although the Stateside version was quickly cancelled.
There aren’t too many details on the new Cold Feet as yet, but media reports seem to suggest it will involve most of the original cast. This means it will be looking at the same characters later in life (presumably with kids), as opposed to using a new cast working with similar but updated scripts to the earlier run.
Interesting stories out of Europe this week include the news that German pubcaster ARD is backing a miniseries about the brothers who founded Adidas and Puma – Adi and Rudi Dassler respectively. Called Rivals Forever: The Sneaker Battle, the four-part production will air in 2016.
The series is being distributed internationally by Global Screen, which has already licensed the show to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. “Rivals Forever tells one of the greatest success stories of German industry,” says Global Screen head of TV sales Alexandra Heidrich. “At the same time, it is a gripping and dramatic saga, full of love, friendship, mistrust and intrigue.”
Elsewhere, the Turkish drama success story continues with the news that Indonesian channel SCTV is to adapt the Green Yapim drama Elif. The original version of Elif has already been a hit on SCTV, having first aired successfully on Kanal 7 in Turkey. International distribution of the show is handled by Eccho Rights.
Back in the US, cable channel ABC Family is poised to rebrand as Freeform from January. The new name is part of the channel’s attempt to become a “core destination” for people in the 14- to 34-year-old age range (which it calls ‘becomers’ as shorthand).
To support the shift, the channel has given series orders to two new shows. The first is Beyond, a drama about a young man who wakes up from a coma after 12 years and discovers he has developed supernatural abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. The second, Guilt, the pilot of which was much discussed because of its similarity to the Amanda Knox story, is about a young American woman in London who becomes the prime suspect in the savage murder of her roommate.
The pilot of Guilt was shot in London and Budapest – and presumably the series will need to follow a similar line. Perhaps it’s too early to call this a meaningful trend, but it seems like a growing number of US cable networks are taking advantage of European production tax breaks. In addition to Guilt, we’ve seen E!’s drama series The Royals come to London, FX’s The Bastard Executioner shot in Wales and Homeland film in Germany. Starz and History have also produced in Europe.
Following another trend, Syfy has decided to do its bit for the undead by renewing its zombie series Z Nation for a third season. Eight episodes into its current 13-part run, the show is proving rock solid with an average audience of around 0.88 million. The show is currently Syfy’s strongest performer among 18-49s.
Finally, this week saw Amazon launch six new drama pilots. Based on their popularity with subscribers these show will either fade away and die or be given a shot at a series.
Built on a new willingness to tackle historical subject matter and increasing viewer acceptance of English-language shows, German drama is making international headway. DQ finds out how it’s all coming together for this growing industry.
In recent years the global dominance of Anglo-American TV drama has been challenged by a wave of innovative scripted shows from Scandinavia, France, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Korea.
But one country that should now be added to this list of emerging drama hubs is Europe’s powerhouse economy Germany. So long regarded as a creatively conservative market, Germany triumphed at 2014’s International Emmys with acclaimed miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, pictured top). Other German-language dramas that suggest this will not be a one-off include Babylon Berlin, Shades Of Guilt and Deutschland 83.
All of this activity around German-language scripted content comes in parallel with the rise of German-backed English-language drama. Companies like Tandem Communications, Red Arrow Entertainment and Tele Munchen Group (TMG) have all become major players on the international drama scene with scripted series such as Pillars Of The Earth, Crossing Lines, Bosch, 100 Code, Moby Dick and Rosamunde Pilcher-penned miniseries. In addition to this, federal and regional incentives for film and TV have made Germany a popular production site (see panel).
To understand the German drama market in its entirety, however, it’s important to start by looking at the free-to-air public broadcasting market – which is where most of the drama audience and investment still resides. And the message here is that TV movies continue to dominate schedules. “Our audience loves TV movies,” says Susanne Mueller, head of feature films at one of Germany’s two public broadcasters, ZDF. “ZDF has been the overall leader in the German market for the past two years, and a lot of that is due to the success of our TV movies, which play in the traditional primetime slot of 20.15. We have two or three primetime slots for TV movies every week and typically get an audience of five million or more, which is very good in Germany.”
According to Mueller, there are three main categories of TV movie on ZDF: “Crime, romance and dramas dealing with contemporary social issues (such as drugs, stalking, adoption and sexuality). Sometimes we will also air comedy in the middle of the week, though that is less regular. We also sometimes acquire miniseries like The Borgias and reformat them to fit our TV movie slots.”
ZDF’s reliance on TV movies in primetime is mirrored over on ARD, Germany’s other public broadcaster. Despite a self-inflicted financial crisis that severely dented budgets at the broadcaster’s drama division, ARD Degeto, in 2012 and 2013, ARD continues to air a large number of TV movie-length dramas in primetime. Some are standalone titles and some are set up as branded franchises. An example of the latter is Tatort (Crime Scene), which has been airing at 20.15 on Sundays since 1970 and invariably rates well. Another long-running police franchise that continues to perform for ARD is Polizeiruf 110 (Emergency Call 110), on air since 1990.
ARD Degeto came out of its financial crisis with a dynamic new chief, Christine Strobl, who has a budget of around €400m (US$455m) a year to spend on drama. While ARD’s basic reliance on TV movies hasn’t changed, Strobl has made it clear that she wants to up the creative stakes at ARD, telling local media that the formula “‘beautiful landscape plus complicated family history equals success’ is no longer enough.” One title that underlines the new agenda at ARD is The Barschel Case. Produced by Cologne-based Time Warp, the show looks at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of German politician Uwe Barschel in 1987, who may have been killed by Israeli secret service the Mossad.
Other ARD greenlights include biopics about Hans Rosenthal and Bernhard Grzimek, high-profile German figures whose career paths were dogged by personal difficulties. Rosenthal was a Jewish radio and TV host who overcame anti-Semitism in his youth to become one of Germany’s best-loved celebrities, while Grzimek was a zoo director and conservationist who was accused of being a Nazi but later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Like the Barschel film, both subjects show a growing appetite from German television to explore the country’s recent tumultuous history through the prism of character-based storytelling.
Germany’s fascination with domestically oriented TV movies has presented challenges from a content distribution perspective for a couple of reasons. First, international buyers tend to favour long-running series, because it is easier and more cost-effective to build a marketing program around them. Second, TV movies don’t lend themselves well to scripted format adaptations.
Nevertheless, leading distributors such as ZDF Enterprises, Global Screen and Beta Film have all had success selling German TV movies to markets like Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Beta Film MD Eric Welbers cites recent examples such as Anatomy of Evil (a five-movie franchise) to back the point. “The Anatomy Of Evil series has sold to RAI2, Antena3 and broadcasters in Scandinavia,” he says.
Welbers is also optimistic about the prospects of Murder by the Lake: The Celtic Mystery, the first part of a TV movie trilogy produced by Rowboat Film in partnership with Graf, ZDF and Austrian pubcaster ORF. Set on the shores of Lake Constance, the trilogy depicts German and Austrian police forced to work together on a murder case. The film attracted 6.6 million viewers on ZDF (20% share) last winter, and Welbers is confident it will do well with international buyers.
Global Screen, meanwhile, has had success with A Faithful Husband (Männertreu), an ARD primetime movie that was sold to Italy (RAI), Slovakia (STV) and Hungary (MTVA). It has also done well with Naked Among Wolves, which was pitched at Mipcom 2014 and the German Screenings last December. Directed by Philip Kadelbach (Generation War) and set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, the show aired in April and has since been sold into France, Poland, Benelux and Lithuania.
With TV movies occupying so much of their primetime schedules, ZDF and ARD tend to place series in afternoon, access primetime or late evening slots. “When we acquire British or Scandinavian drama series they usually go into the Sunday 22.00 slot,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “That’s also where we put our German crime series called The Team (which began airing in February).” An eight-part series, distributed internationally by ZDFE, The Team follows an international police unit on the trail of a cross-border crime network.
As with TV movies, German-language series have historically tended to appeal most to neighbouring markets. Betafilm’s Welbers cites Homicide Hills, a Tuesday night series on ARD that is also a strong performer on RAI in Italy, as an example. Also popular in Italy and Eastern Europe is another classic series, For Heaven’s Sake. One show that has travelled widely, says Welbers, is Kommissar Rex, a long-running police procedural centred on a police dog called Rex. Originally produced in German for Austrian pubcaster ORF, Rex has sold around the world and been remade in Italy and Poland. According to Welbers, there are also plans for a Canadian version.
ZDF Enterprises drama VP Tasja Abel says crime has historically been the strongest seller in her company’s catalogue. In particular, she points to classic series Derrick, a ZDF production that sold to markets including Australia, India, South Africa, France and Scandinavia. Global Screen has also done well with cop show Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been airing on RTL since 1996. A perennial seller, Cobra was most recently farmed out to Thailand.
Away from crime, another German-language show that has been exported widely is Storm of Love, an afternoon soap based in a five-star hotel at the foot of the Alps. Launched in 2005, the show is produced by Bavaria Film for ARD. To date, it has racked up more than 2000 50-minute episodes and been sold by Global Screen to 24 territories, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy. With format rights also sold to Turkey, the show was named by Madigan Cluff and Digital TV Research as “one of the 10 most valuable drama series in Europe” in 2012.
Undoubtedly the most interesting export of all, however, has been 2013’s Generation War, a high-end production that tells the story of five young German friends (one of them Jewish) living through the trauma of the Second World War. Described as Germany’s answer to Band of Brothers, the miniseries has sold to around 150 countries and, unusually, managed to secure slots on mainstream English-language networks like BBC2 in the UK.
At home, Generation War was adapted into a TV movie format and played in ZDF primetime, an unusual move for such an edgy production. For Nico Hofmann, producer of the show and head of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Films, Generation War is indicative of a new style and energy in German drama: “We have a very strong business in traditional TV movies and crime dramas, thanks to titles like Soko (ZDF) and Donna Leon (ARD), but there is a growing appetite in the market for high-end drama storytelling.”
In part, this is because broadcasters need special events to showcase their schedules, says Hofmann. But it is also a response to the fact that young German audiences are increasingly attracted to the slick narrative style of US cable drama. “The good news is that we have a wave of young talent coming over from cinema that can make great drama,” he explains. “But the unknown question is whether this kind of drama can get the kind of ratings to appeal to a mainstream primetime audience.”
This isn’t just a question for the public broadcasters, says Hofmann. Commercial broadcaster RTL (which owns RTL, RTL2 SuperRTL and Vox) has tended to rely more on factual and entertainment in primetime, “but it is expanding its interest in drama. We are making Deutschland 83 for them, a series about a young East German spy who is sent to West Berlin during the Cold War. If that can get around four to five million viewers in primetime then it might encourage broadcasters to commission more primetime series.”
Like ZDF and ARD, RTL’s upcoming drama plans focus heavily on historical subject matter. Aside from Deutschland 83, the broadcaster is also working with UFA on an epic eight-part series that looks at Adolf Hitler’s life as a soldier during World War I (a project that is likely to stir up as much debate as Generation War).
More typical for RTL is the TV movie Iron Fist, which was introduced to the international market by Global Screen at Mipcom 2014. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of Götz von Berlichinge, a charismatic knight who fought for the Holy Roman Empire. According to Global Screen, the film has attracted interested from markets such as France, Benelux, Eastern Europe and Asia.
While RTL doesn’t commission as much drama as ZDF or ARD in primetime, it has done extremely well in daytime with reality dramas from Filmpool, a subsidiary of All3Media. Filmpool’s Felix Wesseler says the company first hit on the idea of reality drama a decade ago and now produces around 1500 hours a year, primarily for non-primetime slots on RTL and its main rival in the free-to-air commercial TV market, Sat1. “The idea is to take real-life situations and amateur actors and then place them in a scripted drama scenario. The result is a very compelling drama at an efficient production cost, with format potential,” he explains.
Wesseler cites examples like Cases of Doubt, a family-based whodunnit in which an unsuspecting husband or wife is confronted with the possibility that a family member might have committed a crime. Now up to 600 episodes, Cases of Doubt doubled RTL’s share in its daytime slot and has been sold on to Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other examples of this approach include Families at the Crossroads and Berlin Day & Night, a youth-based series that airs in post-primetime on RTL2.
A big hit on TV, Day & Night also has a strong online following and has spawned a spin-off series, Cologne 50667. Both series are hitting audience shares of 16-17% of 14-49s against a channel average that is generally sub-10%. “I think this is one of German drama’s mega-trends,” says Wesseler. “We’ve just been commissioned to make a new series for primetime (details regarding subject matter and broadcaster still under wraps) which will allow us to see if this format can extend to those commercially important slots.”
Like RTL, Germany’s other major commercial broadcaster Pro7Sat1 (owner of Sat1, Pro7 and Kabel 1) doesn’t air as much primetime drama as the pubcasters. However, Jochen Ketschau, its senior VP of German fiction and coproduction, stresses that “German drama has always been and still is a crucial element in the portfolio for Sat1. Key slots on Sat1 are Monday night (20.15 and 21.15) for serial drama. And Tuesday is Movie Night. For more than 20 years, Sat1 has been showing German fictional movies in this same timeslot.”
Sat1 is well known for historical movies as well as romantic comedy, comedy and drama, says Ketschau. Successes include Die Hebamme, the story of a young woman in 1799 whose ambition to train as a midwife sees her embroiled in a murder-mystery in university town Marburg.
Among other titles that have worked well for Sat1, Ketschau picks out Der Letzte Bulle and Danni Lowinski, “both of which are very successful and unique shows that have won several prizes over the past five years and have also been licensed for international markets.” In ratings terms, Ketschau says: “A good share is more or less 10% in our main target group of women aged 30-49.”
Recent times have seen Sat1 inject a new kind of energy into its primetime schedule with politics-based dramas, says Ketschau. One is Der Rucktritt, a docu-drama that follows the events leading to the resignation of former German president Christian Wulff (2010-2012). Another is Der Minister, a satire on the rise and fall of a young political star. The TV movie, produced by UFA-owned teamWorx, is loosely based on the plagiarism scandal that engulfed former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
As with RTL (owner of FremantleMedia), it’s important to keep in mind that Pro7Sat1 has positioned itself as an international TV business. In terms of drama, this manifests itself in two ways. First, the company sometimes joins projects as a coproduction partner. For example, it has teamed up with Munich-based Tandem Communications on a number of projects, including Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, Labyrinth and Crossing Lines.
Second, it is directly plugged into the English-language drama market through its international production/distribution division Red Arrow, whose projects include Bosch, 100 Code and Esio Trot.
Strategically, this approach allows Red Arrow to build up a slate of titles that are more attractive to buyers than the majority of German drama. It also means there is a significant level of German input on any English-language drama that is sold back into the German market.
This latter point reflects the pragmatism of the German TV market. While German drama is still the most popular form of scripted content, years of exposure to Hollywood movies and series have created a familiarity with and acceptance of dubbed English-language content. A good example of this is TMG’s run of TV movies/miniseries based on the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (recent examples being The Other Wife, Unknown Heart and Valentine’s Kiss). These are aired on ZDF but shot in English so that TMG can sell them internationally. It’s a strategy that works. ZDF gets good ratings, while TMG sells the shows to more than 20 countries, including the likes of Spain, Scandinavia and Australia.
With more and more successful international coproductions, there’s increased willingness among German broadcasters to see this as a primary route to sourcing content. “A growing number of German producers want to see their drama succeed internationally but are restricted by the language,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “So we are seeing more projects that feature German actors and locations but are shot in English.”
Like its commercially owned counterparts, ZDF Enterprises is also investing more time and money in the international drama arena. In June 2014, it joined forces with executive producer Uwe Kersken to form G5 fiction, a joint venture designed to create original drama (miniseries, long-running series and event productions – predominantly history) with German and international market potential. Among G5’s first projects for the international market are the series Alexander the Great, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Vikings) as showrunner, and a miniseries called Ellis Island.
One interesting feature of the German market over the past two decades has been the strength of its free-to-air market compared with those of the US, UK and France. From a drama perspective, this has meant German pay TV has not really been a major contributor to drama investment when compared with US cable, Sky UK and Canal+.
Beta Film’s Welbers believes this might be about to change, and points to Babylon Berlin as evidence: “Babylon Berlin is a coproduction between X-Filme, ARD, Sky Germany and Beta Film that is an example of the creative risk-taking we are starting to see.”
Based on novels by Volker Kutscher, the show is set in 1920s Berlin and centres on police inspector Gereon Rath. The TV version will be headed by showrunner Tom Tykwer, whose directing credits include Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
All the partners involved see Babylon Berlin as a groundbreaking project. It is, for example, the first time ARD has gone down this kind of coproduction route with Sky Deutschland. “In order to realise this costly and intricate project, we wanted to try out a new form of co-operation with Sky,” explains ARD Chairman Lutz Marmor. “It could also be a viable model for the future.”
As for Sky Deutschland, Gary Davey, executive VP of programming at Sky, says of the show: “The story is perfectly suited to our mission statement to offer our customers high-quality productions. It describes a very special place at a very special point in history. Babylon Berlin will be the perfect addition to our successful US series.”
According to Welbers, a further illustration of the growing ambition of German pay TV channels is Weinberg, a six-hour psycho thriller series that will air on TNT Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. Produced by Bantry Bay and Twenty Four 9 Films with Gerda Müller, Jan Kromschörder and Philipp Steffens, international distribution is again being managed by Beta Film.
The strength of Germany’s indigenous drama market, combined with its attraction to US and Scandinavian content, means it has never been a big buyer of scripted formats. But there are a couple of important examples produced by UFA for RTL. One is the long-running soap Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, adapted from the Australian series Good Times, Bad Times. Another, more recent example is a local adaptation of female prison drama Wentworth. Produced originally by FremantleMedia Australia, UFA went into production with a German version in March last year.
As evident throughout the above story, a large part of the current drama drive is built around historical subjects. If there are two notable trends here, they are the following: a willingness to tackle subjects previously thought of as taboo (like Hitler and the Nazis); and a greater exploration of periods outside WW2.
One of the richest sources of ideas is the period before the East-West reunification. Aside from Deutschland 83, for example, there has been Annette Hess’s critically acclaimed Weissensee, a family drama set in communist East Germany during the 1980s. The show first aired in 2010 and, having achieved a strong audience of around six million, will return for a third series this year. The show has also proved popular internationally, selling to Benelux, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
Also of note is Bornholm Street, an ARD TV movie that took a light-hearted look at the final few hours of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of an East German border guard. The film attracted 7.5 million viewers and was named TV event of the year at the prestigious BAMBI Awards. Like Deutschland 83, it shows a new side to German drama, by tackling tough historical subjects through an ironic storytelling style more typical of the US and UK.
UFA’s Hofmann cites additional examples to underline the point about the historical flavour of German drama. One is Die Ärzte (The Doctors), which is set at the end of the 19th century in the world-famous Charité hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Another is Berlin Kurfürstendamm, the story of three young women in 1950s Berlin. “A lot of people talk about the fact that modern Germany was created by a generation of strong women, because so many men died in the war,” he says. “So this is a look at the era of sexual and social liberation they lived through.”
One other interesting dynamic worth mentioning in Germany is the existence of a strong bond between theatrical and TV, a situation that makes sense when you take account of ZDF and ARD’s dependence on TV movies. At last count, more than half of all feature films made in Germany had TV money in the budget (though there was a dip during ARD Degeto’s crisis).
A good recent example of this relationship at its best is Der Medicus (The Physician), a €10m UFA Cinema production which was a box-office success before going on to air as a two-part miniseries in ARD primetime. Hofmann says this kind of collaboration is acting as a blueprint with a raft of new projects being lined up for theatrical then television release. Worth noting here is that Der Medicus was shot in English and featured high-profile international stars Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Kingsley.
Echoing developments in other territories, increased quality in the TV market is encouraging some movie producers to place greater emphasis on TV production. A good case in point is Constantin Film, which has announced plans for TV series spin-offs of its Mortal Instruments and Resident Evil movies.
In addition, Constantin subsidiary Moovie, run by producer Oliver Berben, has been making its mark with some strong drama series. Following the success of period piece Hotel Adlon, Constantin/Moovie made Shades of Guilt, a 6×60’ legal/crime series based on true cases and featuring Moritz Bleibtreu. Distributed by Beta Film, the well-received show “is not a crime-solving series but a series that explores the motives of the people who commit crimes,” explains Beta Films’ Welbers.
The growing significance of TV is also having an impact on the European Film Market, which took place this year from February 5-13 in Berlin. This year, an expanded emphasis on TV saw the launch of a Drama Series Day and enhanced opportunities for screening, buying, selling and coproduction dialogue.
Explaining the move, Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the EFM, said: “Unusual, often complex and sophisticated, stories combined with high production values and a first-class acting ensemble are now the trademarks of successful drama series, and they have moved the format closer to film. It was therefore natural for us to offer series producers and creators a platform at the EFM for the first time.”
Finally, it’s impossible to write a drama story these days without some reference to SVoD platform Netflix. Netflix Germany opened for business in September last year with its standard offering of series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and The Killing. There is no news yet on German-language originals, but the strength of the local SVoD competition (Watchever, Maxdome, Amazon) combined with the use of local-language originals during the recent launch in France suggests that may be the next step.