Tag Archives: BBC America

Happy endings

Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?

The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.

But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.

Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.

This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.

“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”

Did the early announcement that Mad Men’s seventh season would be its last help Jon Hamm (second from right) finally win an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper?

Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”

A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.

Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”

Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”

This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”

Networks would undoubtedly be keen to extend the The Night Manager, but the people behind the show decided against continuing the series

This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.

Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”

One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.

The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.

Creator John Logan was behind the decision to end Penny Dreadful after three seasons

So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”

There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.

Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.

Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.

It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.

Bates Motel is among shows to have been granted a ‘soft landing’ as opposed to immediate cancellation

Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”

A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.

Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”

None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.

While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.

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Gently does it

Step aside, Sherlock. Dirk Gently, the star of BBC America’s latest original drama, is turning the detective genre on its head.

When Sarah Barnett became president of BBC America (BBCA) in November 2014, she quickly identified the need for an original drama that could stand alongside the network’s established big hitters – namely Doctor Who and Orphan Black.

Just under two years later, she is overseeing the launch of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series based on Douglas Adams’ novels about eccentric ‘holistic’ detective Dirk Gently and his reluctant assistant Todd.

Created by Max Landis, the first season opens as Todd discovers the scene of a gruesome murder – kickstarting a chain of events that sees him team up with the fast-talking Gently to investigate the case and meet a collection of wild and dangerous characters.

“Dirk Gently was a no-brainer for us,” Barnett says of the comedy thriller. “It’s so fresh and different – all the things we’re looking for at BBCA. Douglas Adams is like royalty and it’s fantastic source material. I was really bowled over by Max’s interpretation of it.

Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set
Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set

“You cannot slavishly adapt it but to take the heart of Adams’ bonkers, brilliant version and interpret it in a way that’s unique and fresh is brilliantly cool. For us, that added up to a belief that shows on this network should be smart, have depth of character and be immersive. But they also shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Doctor Who, Orphan Black and now Dirk Gently all have that wit and character that’s fun and super entertaining.”

From its title and the budding relationship between Dirk and Todd, viewers might expect a new take on the dynamic that has served Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) so well in Sherlock, the recent revival of the legendary detective story, which also airs on BBCA in the US.

However, audiences will soon discover that Dirk Gently is about to turn traditional detective stories upside down. “The thing about Dirk is that, unlike Sherlock or Miss Marple or any other detective, he is singularly bad at being a detective,” explains executive producer Arvind Ethan David. “He’s not a genius, he’s not physically brave, he’s not good at clues. He is funny, absurd and overly dramatic, but what makes him truly unique is he has an innate, almost paranormal sense of the connectedness of all things.

“This means you’re not constrained by the limits of the possible. In season one, you think you’re in an ordinary murder investigation after the death of Patrick Spring, but what’s unusual is that Dirk was hired by Patrick six weeks before his death to investigate his murder.”

For David, the launch of Dirk Gently last Saturday (and later this year on Netflix around the world) brings his relationship with Adams’ novels full circle, having adapted the story for the stage both at school and later during his time at Oxford University. The latter version starred Rory Kinnear, now known for roles in Penny Dreadful and the James Bond films, and cemented David’s friendship with Adams.

“We did it as a school play and I knew it was something special, so we did it again when I was at Oxford, bigger and better,” he recalls. “That was the one [Adams] really liked and was when our friendship started. It also starred Rory, who has just finished on Penny Dreadful with Samuel Barnett, who plays our new Dirk.”

The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and
The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and Samuel Barnett

Thirteen years after Adams’ death in 2001, the author’s estate asked David if he would consider rebooting the series, following an earlier adaptation for BBC4 in the UK.

“Each season is one case but there’s a bigger mystery around Dirk, who he is and where he comes from that will be explored across multiple seasons,” David explains. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for in terms of my career. I wasn’t going to return to Douglas’s work until I felt there was a way to do him justice and I think American cable television is the place to do that.

“You get to tell a detailed story with tonnes of digressions and tonnes of interesting characters. We have something like 20 lead cast members in this season. It’s not quite Game of Thrones scale, but it’s pretty close!”

The series is produced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion, with Landis and David executive producing alongside showrunner Robert Cooper, Zainir Aminullah, Ted Adams, David Ozer, David Alpert and Rick Jacobs. It is distributed by IMG.

Cooper, whose credits include Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, came on board to help steer the production and develop Landis’s take on Adams’ characters.

“Dirk Gently was just so incredibly different,” says the showrunner, who was looking for a new project to join when Landis’s script came across his desk. “It was so unique and defied definition in so many ways. It’s indescribable – it’s a thriller, it’s a character drama and it’s funny.

“I loved Max’s voice – it was energetic – and there’s a real pull to doing a short run of episodes. It feels like a long movie – one with a heavily surrealist angle.”

But despite the absurd elements of the source material that carry over into Landis’s scripts, Cooper says it was important to introduce these slowly – at least at the beginning – to give viewers time to warm to the characters.

“While this show definitely has some strange things to it, it’s still grounded,” he explains. “Both Max and I wanted people to fall in love with the characters and feel the world was very real, so as it becomes more unusual, we have these characters to hang on to.”

The expansive cast includes Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete, Michael Eklund, Osric Chau, Viv Leacock, Zak Santiago, Richard Schiff, Neil Brown Jr, Aaron Douglas, Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan, Mpho Koaho and Fiona Dourif.

Dirk
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is based on the books by Douglas Adams

But in particular, it’s lead duo Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings), who plays Todd, to whom the creative team hope viewers will warm as much as they have.

“I cannot imagine other people in those roles,” says BBCA’s Barnett. “Sam and Elijah had this fantastic chemistry. They play so well together. It wasn’t super easy to find our Dirk. We looked for a while but when Sam read, Max said he was the Dirk he had imagined in his head.”

Cooper continues: “From the moment Sam and Elijah were in the room together, we felt there was magic. I have never worked with two people who are so easy, professional and never miss a beat. With so many other challenges, it’s such a pleasure to know the one thing we don’t have to worry about is the leads nailing the dialogue.”

Though the show is packed full of stunts and effects, the other challenges to which Cooper alludes refer largely to the complicated filming schedule in Vancouver, which doubles for the show’s Seattle setting.

“You can bring a certain amount of experience to the table but there are always challenges,” he reflects. “In this case, the show was based in several locations and they were locations that didn’t always recur – and we were doing this in Vancouver, which is incredibly busy [with other film and television productions].

“There’s a tremendous amount of production going on and it’s stretching the capacity and talent in terms of what was doable. There was a point towards the end where Panavision was just out of cameras. You’re literally desperate for crew and it means you pay considerably more.”

David reveals that the creative team wanted to produce a series that celebrated the filmmaking traditions of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) and the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) – an aspiration that led to executive producer Dean Parisot, who helmed the hit sci-fi comedy movie Galaxy Quest, directing the first two episodes. Michael Patrick Jann is also on directing duties.

“Dean famously directed Galaxy Quest and one of the reasons I wanted him to do it was that blend of science-fiction and comedy, of serious and absurd, which is really hard to pull off – but Dean has shown repeatedly that he can do it,” David says. “We’re definitely bringing talent to the game. Max is certainly the lead creator but it was important to him and us that we hired the most talented people we could and that everyone’s vision was integrated.”

The absurdist nature of Adams’ writing leads Cooper to admit adaptations of his work – such as the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – haven’t always been successful, owing to his ideas being “inflammable.” But David, a self-confessed “fanboy” of the author, believes Dirk Gently will have enough to attract those less familiar with Adams’ work.

“We know there’s a specific audience that will turn up for the first few episodes,” he says. “As a fanboy myself, I know we’re making something those people will like. What we’re hoping, though, is that we’ve also made something that has enough intrinsic heart and is funny enough that we won’t be limited to just that community. I’m sure people will say they don’t watch science-fiction but I hope they give us a chance and see we’re much more than that.”

As for BBCA, the network is confident Dirk Gently can break through the vast number of TV shows competing for viewers. “In the intense mountain of content, there’s something smart, moving and really refreshingly different about Dirk Gently and I hope that continues to rub off on how viewers see BBC America,” Barnett notes. “It’s a blend of audacity and pleasure that makes for a unique and entertaining cocktail.”

Cooper adds: “On the surface it looks like a detective show – Sherlock and Watson on a peculiar day – but when people watch, they will see very quickly that it’s something fresh and different, and they’ll have no idea where it’s going.”

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Watch all the best teasers and trailers from Comic-Con 2016

As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.

From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.

Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:

Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017

BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist

Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)

But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two

If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast

Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock

Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17

ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time

But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last

Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.

Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder

Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow

The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer

Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season

It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.

The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe

Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30

Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage

The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser

But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are

Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.

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Spirited display from pay TV

Outcast
Outcast was given a cross-platform launch

The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.

The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.

Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.

The Enfield Haunting
The Enfield Haunting could come back to Sky in the form of a franchise

Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.

On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.

Feed the Beast
Feed the Beast stars David Schwimmer (left) and Jim Sturgess

The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.

Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.

Orphan Black
Orphan Black has been given a fifth and final season

“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”

Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”

Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.

Day and Night Berlin
Day and Night Berlin

The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).

Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”

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Hornby’s Love lost on BBC1

Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1
Nick Hornby’s Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1

There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).

It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.

Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”

In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”

As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”

Toby Jones in BBC1's Capital
Toby Jones in BBC1’s Capital

It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”

Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.

As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.

The Secret stars James Nesbitt
ITV’s The Secret stars James Nesbitt

Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.

Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.

The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.

Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle
Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle

Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.

Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”

Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.

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Getting engaged: Sarah Barnett of BBC America

BBC America’s Sarah Barnett is looking for returnable hits that appeal to a generation of social media-driven viewers and keep them coming back to the cable channel.

Tatiana Maslany received her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress after three seasons playing multiple roles in the science fiction series Orphan Black (pictured above).

And although she ultimately lost out to Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) at the 2015 awards, her nomination proved a winner for US cable channel BBC America (BBCA), which airs the Canada-produced series.

It transpired that Orphan Black was the second most Tweeted-about show during the ceremony – behind only Game of Thrones, which dominated the list of award winners – and BBCA president and general manager Sarah Barnett says this is exactly the type of engagement she is looking for when deciding what new shows to bring to the network.

“There is this crazy social engagement our audience has with our shows,” she says. “Doctor Who is the sixth most social show in America, but it’s not the sixth most watched show at all. It’s becoming really hard to gauge success with overnights, and even with live+3s and +7s. It’s difficult to aggregate viewing because it happens in so many different ways but social engagement and passion is crucial. For programmers, it’s uniquely satisfying to see that kind of love and identification. Those stories are very emotional journeys and they’re about outsiders, and the millennial crowd engages with that.”

Sarah Barnett
Sarah Barnett

Barnett is a year into her role at BBCA, having previously run its AMC Networks-owned sister channel SundanceTV, where the business model didn’t require huge audience numbers and executives focused on finding “remarkable” television. Things are slightly different at BBCA, where viewing figures are more important, but Barnett says discovering the level of engagement fans have with the channel’s shows has been a welcome surprise.

“One of the amazing things we have is a level of passion and engagement from this millennial crowd that comes to the Doctor Whos and Orphan Blacks, and it’s actually kind of extraordinary,” she says. “When I first arrived, it blew me away.”

Although it carries a lot of content from its UK namesake, BBCA is not limited to acquiring series from the public broadcaster. It also buys in other British shows such as Broadchurch and Prey, which both aired on ITV in the UK, while also pushing into original series of its own. Three have aired so far – Copper, Orphan Black and Intruders – with the promise of more to come.

“It’s never been just a home for BBC content in the US,” Barnett says of the channel. “I don’t want it to be something that’s respected and well thought of but slightly away from anything super relevant. I want it to feel very confident about its Britishness and to feel very energetic, vital and relevant to an American pop-culture audience.

“Since I’ve been doing this job, there seems to have been an increase in the conversation about returning series and shows that have some of the complexity of storytelling in terms of plotting and depth of the best US cable in terms of character and grounding.”

Barnett outlines the differences between the US and the UK markets by comparing the audiences for different channels. In particular, she says US viewers will largely exclusively watch either broadcast (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) content or shows airing on cable, which are generally niche, often edgier stories.

“Most of the storytelling in cable, certainly since AMC pioneered premium storytelling (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), is much edgier, much more bold and has pushed the boundaries in terms of subject matter,” she explains, citing other examples including Amazon’s Transparent, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Homeland on Showtime. “But when you look at BBC1 and BBC2 and even Channel 4, the same audiences watch everything – broad shows and edgier shows (From Darkness, London Spy).

“In the US it’s somewhat different – essentially you either watch the broadcast shows that are less deep in their storytelling or you identify with cable. It’s all much more mixed up in the UK.”

In the past year, Barnett says she has simplified the BBCA’s schedule, stripping non-scripted shows such as Man vs Wild and Top Gear and playing drama in primetime.

And when it comes to original commissions, Barnett says her priority is returning dramas that have more than eight or more episodes per season.

Doctor Who, ‘the sixth most social show in America’
Doctor Who, ‘the sixth most social show in America’

An example of this is Dirk Gently, which BBCA greenlit in January. An adaptation of Douglas Adams’ comic novels Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the eight-hour series is written by Max Landis (Chronicle) and coproduced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion.

The show follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Gently and his reluctant assistant as they become embroiled in a season-long mystery.

“Because of the intensely competitive, cacophonous moment of content in the US, we will have fewer big, buzzy originals and will look primarily for shows that have eight or more episodes per season and that are returning,” Barnett says. “That doesn’t mean we’re not in the business for some fresh, dynamic, closed-ended things. We are, and we’re coproducing a number of things with the BBC right now (including political thriller Undercover and mystery series Thirteen).

“But a lot of our focus is on stuff that is returning and has more episodes. A network like AMC might have 70-100 hours of original content a year. At Sundance we probably had 40-50 hours of originals a year. Next year we have 150-200 hours. We’re primarily scripted – we’re not doing a ton of unscripted.”

Because of its ties with the BBC, most of BBCA’s first-run series hail from across the pond, particularly through coproduction, though Barnett argues that the network’s Britishness is what helps it stand out in the crowded US marketplace.

It is that international outlook that has also inspired a show currently in development at BBCA and set in contemporary Berlin.

“The main story follows an American family that left during the middle of last century. They’re a Jewish family moving back to Berlin, so it’s very much about young contemporary Berlin,” Barnett says of the unnamed project, adding that there may or may not be British characters involved. “From my point of view, I’m not a big fan of inserting them just for the sake of it. I don’t think people watch like that. Our audience sees us as a passport to the world.”

The Last Kingdom
Saxon drama The Last Kingdom

Barnett has also found the much longed-for companion piece to Doctor Who in Class, a BBC coproduction that is written by Patrick Ness and set in London’s Coal Hill School – which viewers will know as the school where Doctor Who’s former companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was a teacher.

“With original commissions, I’m looking to find shows that are going to be up there with Doctor Who and Orphan Black,” Barnett says. “That’s one BBC show and one original. We’re agnostic as to where it comes from. We’d love it to come from the UK but I want those shows that are really going to define the brand, speak to that audience and create a reason for people to continue to come to what is a medium-sized cable network. They’re not going to come unless there’s a real fresh pipeline.”

With more than 400 shows airing in the US alone in 2015, on more platforms than ever, Barnett is candid about the performance of new shows – and returning hits that don’t quite reach the same heights second time around. But BBCA is positioning itself as a trailblazer for new ways to reach audiences, whether through liner broadcasts or making content available on-demand.

“It’s an interesting time in the US with these new platforms stealing share,” she says. “Of all of the returning shows last season, only 15 shows grew when they came back. Everything else declined and there’s 400 scripted shows out there. Broadchurch grew on air, Doctor Who’s season premiere came back with the largest 18-49 audience it has ever had. We’re doing something right and it’s the shows and the way we launch them.

“We launched The Last Kingdom a little ahead of the BBC. With the second episode, we put it online right after the first episode aired. The thinking was to get people hooked. We eroded the second week numbers but then it built to a bigger number in week three. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to cut through.

Fargo’s numbers were down for its second season on FX despite universal critical acclaim
Fargo’s numbers were down for its second season on FX despite universal critical acclaim

“Many would argue there’s an irrationality to this moment of ‘peak TV’ in the US but I think there is space for really good shows to still connect with an audience – Transparent, Mr Robot, Orange is the New Black, Doctor Who, Orphan Black. There’s this weird paradox that there’s so much yet there’s not enough that you really want to actually watch.”

As the for biggest challenge she faces, Barnett is clear that growing shows and keeping an audience is causing the greatest anxiety among US cable and broadcast network presidents.

“A show like Fargo on FX, season one was amazing,” she admits. “Fantastic reviews, good viewing numbers. Then season two came along, heralded with the most extraordinary critical response, and yet the numbers dipped quite significantly. That’s a show that should have grown but didn’t.

“That’s the challenge – how to stay relevant. For us it’s about telling stories that connect with this audience that is so obsessively passionate about the shows they fall in love with that they will come back. That’s the thing that keeps me awake – how to find the shows that fuel the passion of that audience.”

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Walking Dead tramples cable competition

The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape
The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape with huge ratings on AMC

AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.

This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.

AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.

In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.

Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson

The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.

TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.

The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.

The Americans' chances of a fifth season look slim
The Americans’ chances of a fifth season look slim

The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.

Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.

For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.

Vikings
Vikings returned to History Channel yesterday with a double-length season

Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).

Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.

As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.

Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO
Martin Scorsese’s music industry drama Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO

HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.

Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.

Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.

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Studios suit up for Comic-Con

Teen Wolf is among numerous shows MTV is highlighting at Comic-Con
Teen Wolf is among numerous shows MTV is highlighting at Comic-Con

The streets of San Diego will soon be filled with superheroes and comic book characters as the 45th Comic-Con International descends on the city. Once regarded as a niche event for comic geeks and sci-fi nerds, the event, which takes place from July 9-12, now attracts a staggering 130,000 visitors.

Aimed primarily at fans of graphic novels, superhero and sci-fi franchises, video games and animation series, Comic-Con is viewed as an important opportunity to engage with the kind of key influencers that drive more mainstream audience tastes. For this reason, it’s an event content owners dare not miss.

This year, every TV studio worth its salt will be in San Diego with projects that they believe match the Comic-Con profile. MTV, for example, is in town with long-running drama Teen Wolf and two upcoming series – Scream and The Shannara Chronicles. Like Teen Wolf, Scream is a movie spin-off, while Shannara is a fantasy series based on the best-selling books by Terry Brooks.

Underlining the seriousness with which broadcasters now take the event, MTV’s presence at Comic-Con will consist of a branded booth, sessions and visits by show-related talent including Tyler Posey, Dylan O’Brien, Bella Thorne, John Rhys Davies and Austin Butler. In the case of Shannara, for example, Brooks will join the cast and production team in a Q&A session where a first-look trailer will be shown.

Separately, MTV will also host the second annual MTV Fandom Awards, which honour diehard fans whose excitement has pushed movies, TV shows, books and comics from subculture to mainstream worldwide success in the past year.

Syfy's presence at the event includes movie spin-off 12 Monkeys
Syfy’s presence at the event includes movie spin-off 12 Monkeys

Jostling with MTV for attention will be TNT, which is showcasing The Last Ship and Falling Skies. In addition to sessions with cast and production teams, TNT’s offering will include an Oculus Rift virtual-reality experience that will transport fans into The Last Ship’s fictional universe, where they must board a cargo ship taken over by ‘Immunes’ (immune survivors of a deadly plague that has nearly destroyed the entire population of the planet).

Not surprisingly, fellow cable channel Syfy will also have a high-profile presence at the event, with shows such as The Expanse, Childhood’s End, 12 Monkeys, Dominion and Z Nation, and movie Sharknado 3, in attendance. A good indicator of the emphasis placed on Comic-Con is that Syfy will use it to air a screening of the first two episodes of Dominion season two, with episode two airing one week before it premieres on Syfy.

In the case of Childhood’s End, based on the Arthur C Clarke novel, the cast will join screenwriter Matthew Graham (Doctor Who) as he discusses the transition to screen.

Also seeking the spotlight alongside MTV, TNT and Syfy will be FX, which is bringing a broad slate including Archer, American Horror Story: Hotel, Scream Queens, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, The Strain, and Kurt Sutter’s new project The Bastard Executioner. In a session entitled the FX TV Block, the channel will present a sneak preview of Sutter’s new series, due to debut this autumn.

BBC America’s contribution to the event is a Doctor Who session featuring lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat and the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, who is making his first Comic-Con appearance. Capaldi said: “Tales of San Diego Comic-Con are told in awe on every set around the known fantasy/sci-fi production world. It’s become a fabled kingdom. (Appearing there) is a further twist to the cosplay and comic madness I may never recover from.”

ABC hit Once Upon a Time
ABC hit Once Upon a Time

While the above channels inhabit the basic cable market, all of the key competitive sets are in attendance. Premium cable channel Showtime is in San Diego with Penny Dreadful (recently recommissioned for a third season), while its putative rival Starz is bringing Outlander and its hotly anticipated Evil Dead reboot Ash vs Evil Dead. The latter is currently in production in New Zealand and will premiere in the autumn as a 10-part series. It is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, who were all involved in the original franchise and will be at Comic-Con along with series co-star Lucy Lawless.

As for Showtime and Starz’ key rival HBO, the cablenet will bring a swathe of Games of Thrones stars to Comic-Con. There will also be an outing for Outcasts, a new series debuting on HBO sister service Cinemax. A Comic-Con panel focused on the show – which is based on the Skybound/Image comic and produced by Fox International Studios – will include executive producers Robert Kirkman and Chris Black, as well as various cast members.

Among the big four US networks, CBS is bringing its biggest panel line-up ever – featuring talent behind the likes of Limitless, Zoo, Extant, Scorpion, and Under the Dome. Illustrating the emphasis placed on in-event marketing, CBS has organised a Limitless café where attendees can get complimentary coffee, ‘Limitless’ refills, phone-charging services and free wifi. There will also be a screening of the first episode of the new show, which is based on the Bradley Cooper-starring movie.

ABC, meanwhile, is bringing hit series Once Upon a Time and newcomer The Muppets, while sister division Marvel will have its own dedicated conference activities to discuss Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, Marvel’s Agent Carter and other upcoming projects.

NBC’s line-up includes Heroes Reborn, Blindspot, The Player, Hannibal, and Grimm. In the case of the Heroes reboot, there will be a panel featuring creator Tim Kring plus various production and cast members. Alongside a trailer, NBC is promising a Heroes Reborn “4D interactive experience where fans will have the opportunity to access their own pyro-kinetic ability. Through a multi-sensory experience of interactive visuals and kinetic effects, fans will enter the world of Heroes Reborn and use their power with fire to escape a dangerous scenario.” Ooh err.

Melissa Benoist plays the lead in Warner Bros' Supergirl
Melissa Benoist plays the lead in Warner Bros’ Supergirl

20th Century Fox’s focus will be on Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse, while Warner Bros will headline with Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, Gotham and animation series Teen Titans Go!

Reiterating the effort put into in-event marketing, Warner Bros is featuring these characters on 40,000 limited-edition hotel keycards at top hotels in the San Diego area. In terms of the event itself, a big focal point is Warner Bros Television Presents a Night of DC Entertainment, a three-hour session that will feature a pilot screening of new action series Supergirl, followed by a Q&A with stars and producers.

So what does it all amount to? Well, the truth is that there is no concrete evidence that a strong showing at Comic-Con influences the performance of a show once it hits the screen. But ignoring the impact of pre-launch social media commentary from fanboys and journalists is just too big a risk to take. So the best advice is – pull on your Supergirl cape and go enjoy the party.

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