After 13 years held captive, Ivy Moxam (played by Jodie Comer) finally escapes – but how does she readjust to her old life as her family struggles with her return and the police lead a desperate attempt to catch her kidnapper?
Creator Marnie Dickens reveals how her first major drama series, Thirteen, became online network BBC3’s first original drama, why she enjoys the collaborative aspect of developing a TV series and, after coming through the BBC Writers Room scheme, what more can be done to develop new writing talent.
Thirteen is produced by BBC In-House Drama Production and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.
Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.
According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.
Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.
The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.
And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.
US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.
There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.
However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.
There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.
Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.
In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.
Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.
Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).
Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.
However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.
In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”
Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.
Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.
Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.
The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.
In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.
Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.
The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.
“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”
The US TV industry’s growing willingness to showcase black talent and address black issues has led to some great drama in the last couple of years, with shows including Empire, Power, Roots, Atlanta and Queen Sugar.
Now HBO is adding to the oeuvre with a miniseries about the death of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was killed in Mississippi in 1955. His tragic death is generally regarded as a key trigger for the emergence of the civil rights movement in America.
The untitled miniseries comes with a very influential production team attached, namely Jay-Z, Will Smith, Casey Affleck and Aaron Kaplan. And as of this week, it also has a writer attached – namely Steven Caple Jr.
Unlike the illustrious production team, Caple Jr is a relative newcomer. His most recent credits include an online youth drama called Class (which he directed) and a feature film called The Land, which he wrote and directed.
It’s the latter that secured Caple Jr his HBO gig. Premiering at Sundance in January 2016, it tells the story of four teenage boys from Cleveland who want to be professional skateboarders. Along the way, they discover a huge stash of drugs, which they start selling. But before too long, they run into trouble with the gangsters who lost the drugs in the first place.
The film received mixed reviews but carries with it a youthfulness and energy that HBO and the producers presumably want to inject into Till’s story.
Caple Jr won’t go into the project unaided. His script will be based on the book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked The World And Propelled The Civil Rights Movement, by Devery Anderson.
In contrast to the issues of race and poverty that Caple Jr has explored so far in his career, Jess Brittain (Skins) has created a series for BBC3 in the UK that looks at the other end of the social spectrum. Called Clique, the drama centres on two best friends – Holly and Georgia – drawn into an elite clique of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university.
Brittain, who is writing the show with Kirstie Swain and Milly Thomas, said Clique is a seductive, intense drama about friendship tested to extremes: “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university. It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller. Clique goes to some pretty dark places but returns, always, to the key female friendships of our characters.”
Filming on Clique has begun in Edinburgh this week. Produced for BBC3 by Balloon Entertainment, the series will be distributed by All3Media International.
BBC Studios executive producer Christopher Aird said: “Clique is drama for a new generation of viewers and starring a new generation of brilliant young actors. Jess Brittain has created truly authentic characters and propelled them into a seductive and by turns shocking story.”
There was a lot of criticism when the BBC took the decision to make youth channel BBC3 an online-only service. The channel’s ratings have certainly been dented – but it is still managing to carve out a decent niche in youth-oriented drama, and as a nursery slope for emerging writers.
Previously in DQ, for example, we’ve talked about Marnie Dickens and her drama Thirteen.
And set to launch next month is the much-anticipated Class (nothing to do with Caple Jr’s web series). The series is spin-off from Doctor Who and has been written by acclaimed youth-fiction novelist Patrick Ness, whose titles include The Knife of Never Letting Go, Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. .
In a short interview just released on YouTube, Ness said the appeal of Class, which is set in a school, was “being able to look at the Doctor Who universe from a different perspective,” adding: “What effect does [a visit from Doctor Who] have on the people left behind? I think Class will be funny, moving, exciting, scary, sexy and true to what teens feel like their lives are.”
Among the week’s other interesting stories, Hulu is turning the Top Cow comic franchise Postal into a TV series, with the production handled by Matt Tolmach Productions and Legendary TV. The show is being written by Seth Hoffman, co-executive producer of The Walking Dead.
Hoffman’s other scripted TV credits include Prison Break, Flash Forward and House. Originally created by Matt Hawkins and Bryan Hill, Postal is set in a town populated and run by fugitive criminals with a secret past.
Progress is also being made on Jimmy McGovern’s new drama Broken (working title), with Anna Friel, Paula Malcolmson, Aisling Loftus and Adrian Dunbar joining Sean Bean in the cast.
Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, a Catholic priest presiding over a northern urban parish. Modern, maverick and reassuringly flawed, Father Michael must be confidante, counsellor and confessor to a congregation struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain.
Friel, who also stars in ITV’s Marcella, said: “The Street [McGovern’s BBC1 drama] gave me one of my most rewarding roles and afterwards I promised myself that I would collaborate with Jimmy McGovern again. When the chance came up to work on Broken, I jumped at it. Sean is a great actor, it’s a brave and truthful script from Jimmy and I’m back up North.”
Irish public broadcaster RTÉ is making its biggest investment in drama for six years.
Explaining why, acting MD of RTÉ Television Dermot Horan said: “We know that Irish people want to see their stories on screen and that’s why this year we [have] three new series in production in the coming months. Our role is to deliver programming that captivates and inspires the broader population and I believe this new line-up delivers on that promise.”
In writing terms, RTÉ’s investment is a boost for James Phelan, creator of Striking Out, a four-part comedy drama that is being touted as Ireland’s answer to Ally McBeal. Produced by Blinder Films, it features Amy Huberman as a solicitor who sets up her own practice after her fiancé and colleague cheats on her.
RTÉ head of television drama Jane Gogan described the show, which was called Cheaters during development, as “a series that reflects a modern world and stories of family and emotional relationships – the flux, the chaos and the ridiculous – and how such stories end up in the legal system. This is a good time to explore this subject but, then, when isn’t?”
After some success in screenwriting schemes, theatre and short films, Phelan’s introduction to the TV business came in 2009 with Galway Races, a well-received comedy drama for Gaelic-language channel TG4.
More recently, he attracted attention for Wrecking the Rising, a three-part comedy drama, also for TG4. The latter, which was produced in a mix of English and Gaelic, is a time-travel show in which three historical re-enactors are propelled back in time to the 1916 Easter Risings. In a year that has seen plenty of serious coverage of that landmark political event, Phelan’s story was an interesting dramatic diversion.
In an interview with Film Ireland earlier this year, Phelan was asked whether he was afraid that viewer fatigue would kill the show’s chances. His response was: “Of course. I’m afraid of everything. Afraid we’ll be lost in the flood; afraid that we won’t get a chance to connect. But we hope people give us a chance because we really are something radically different in relation to 1916. It’s not just marketing rhetoric, we are genuinely the antidote to all the solemn stuff. We rip through history and though we are not ripping the piss, we provide something original, outrageous, extreme but also extremely funny and thought-provoking. There’s been a lot of classical treatments of 1916 knocking around — this is more punk rock.”
Fortunately, the Irish media bought into Phelan’s approach, which augurs well for his new series. The Irish Times said: “Despite having roughly the production budget of a bag of cans, Wrecking the Rising is for the most part delightful, with a sold foundation from James Phelan’s script, which nimbly supplements its more broad and silly moments with some self-aware, snappy insights.”
Incidentally, Phelan wasn’t the only writer to come at the Easter Risings centenary from an unusual angle this year.
Another of Ireland’s rising stars, Mike O’Leary (who wrote an episode of Misfits), penned EIPIC, a six-part Irish language drama series for TG4. In this show, a group of five rural teenagers take over their local abandoned post office to start a musical revolution in 2016.
TG4 called it “a bold story about escape, empowerment and what it means to be a teenage ‘hero’ in contemporary rural Ireland set against the backdrop of the 1916 centenary celebrations.”
Back to RTÉ’s new tranche of drama investment, another beneficiary is Colin Teevan, who wrote RTÉ’s Rebellion – a serious dramatic look at the Easter Risings. There were reports at the start of the year that Teevan was working on a second season, though at the time he said a greenlight depended on Rebellion’s ratings performance. The show, perhaps not surprisingly, caused a heated debate about the accuracy of its history. However, RTÉ has now confirmed there will be a follow-up series entitled Resistance.
Teevan is a literary powerhouse whose entrance into the TV business came after he had established himself as a highly regarded theatre writer. Aside from writing acclaimed plays such as Kingdom, he is a collaborator with the likes of Kathryn Hunter, Sir Peter Hall, Hideki Noda, Walter Meirjohann and Dalia Ibelhauptaite. In addition, he is also professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Birkbeck College, London University.
Teevan clocked up a few TV credits at the start of this decade but it was his three-part miniseries Charlie that really announced his arrival as a leading Irish TV writer. Produced for RTÉ in 2015, it told the story of charismatic Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey – using his extended career at the top as a way of exploring the emergence of the modern Irish state.
Another drama coming to RTÉ’s autumn schedule is My Mother and Other Strangers, which is also due to air on the BBC in the UK. Set in Northern Ireland, the show follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a huge US Air Force airfield, populated by 4,000 service men and women, lands in the middle of their rural parish in 1943. Written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel), it was first reported on back in summer 2015.
Meanwhile, in the UK, there were reports this week that the transformation of BBC3 from a conventional TV channel into an online service had contributed to an 18% fall in 16- to 34-year-olds viewing BBC content. However, one positive outcome of the BBC’s reinvention of BBC3 is that it appears to be doing well on the BBC’s on-demand platform, BBC iPlayer.
Figures released last week show that seven of the top 20 most requested programmes of the year on iPlayer came from BBC3. Most requested of all was the contemporary drama Thirteen, with three million requests.
The show stars the impressive Jodie Comer as a 26-year-old woman trying to put her life back together after escaping from a cellar where she has been imprisoned for 13 years. It was written by newcomer Marnie Dickens, a 30-year-old Oxford graduate whose breakthrough success follows a few years of hard graft as a floor runner and assistant director.
In a recent interview with the scribe, The Oxford Mail reported that “this year is looking even busier than the last for Dickens – her new series Forty Elephants, about a 1920s criminal gang of women, is currently being developed by the BBC, and she is also teaming up with Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones on a new project called Kit and Nim.”
Also in the news this week is Kay Mellor, whose many credits include Band of Gold, Fat Friends and The Syndicate. Now she is writing Love, Lies and Records, a six-part series about a registrar trying to juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths, and the impact they have on her.
Mellor said: “This has been cooking in my brain for quite a while and it feels like the right time to put it on the screen. The idea came to me when I was registering my mother’s death at Leeds Town Hall, closely followed by a friend’s wedding in the very same place. I remembered registering the birth of both of my daughters there too, and I realised that the register office and registrars really are at the very heart of life. It’s a place of laughter, tears and great drama.”
The six-hour series has been commissioned by Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, and Lucy Richer, acting controller of drama. It will be produced by Rollem Productions and filmed in and around Leeds. The executive producers are Kay Mellor for Rollem Productions and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC.
The centrepiece of BBC3’s online launch is psychological drama Thirteen, in which writer Marnie Dickens sought to explore what happens when a person held captive against their will finally recovers their freedom. Michael Pickard reports.
When the BBC first commissioned Thirteen in January 2015, controversial plans to move BBC3 online were still up in the air as campaigners fought to save the youth-skewing free-to-air channel amid the pubcaster’s ambitions to slash millions of pounds from its budget.
But when it debuted little more than a year later, on Sunday February 28, the five-part series became the centrepiece of BBC3’s relaunch after the network became the first in the world to switch from linear to online-only.
“It’s very exciting to be the trailblazer. It’s a brave new world,” admits Thirteen writer Marnie Dickens.
“It didn’t affect the way I wrote at all. When Liz (Kilgarriff, executive producer) called me and said we had been greenlit, it was a brilliant day. I instantly asked if we needed to change the drama to fit BBC3 but she said no. The great thing about BBC3 was there was total freedom to write the scripts the way I wanted. It didn’t feel different from writing for BBC1, or any other channel.”
Described as a psychological mystery drama, Thirteen sees Ivy Moxam return home after being held captive for 13 years. She’s the only one who can help the police catch her kidnapper, but they begin to suspect she’s not telling the whole truth as her family struggle to pick up the pieces of their life together.
From BBC’s in-house drama production department, Thirteen is produced by Hugh Warren and directed by Vanessa Caswill and China Moo-Young. New episodes become available online each week, while the series will also get a linear broadcast when it airs in the US on BBC America.
Dickens says the drama was inspired by her interest in what happens after someone is freed after being imprisoned – though there are few comparisons between Thirteen and Netflix original comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which sees the title character adjusting to life in New York after being freed from an underground bunker where she had lived for 15 years with a doomsday cult.
“A lot of focus is put on periods of imprisonment and I wondered what happens when someone does miraculously escape, and how it can’t possibly be happily ever after,” the first-time writer says. “Once I had that idea, I focused on the character of Ivy.”
Dickens says she felt a “massive burden” to make the series faithful to the experiences of people who have found themselves in similar situations.
“I did my own research and read memoirs. We also had a police advisor and a psychologist attached to the show, to explain how someone might act in that situation, and it was incredibly useful to understand the reality behind it,” she says.
“The thing about this story is that it hasn’t happened, certainly not in the UK. While we need to make truthful experiences, we also need to make good drama. It felt quite liberating that there wasn’t one case study I could follow, but there was enough to get a good sense from the research.”
In terms of casting, the writer notes that Ivy was always going to be a tricky role to fill due to the complexity of the part, but says Jodie Comer (recently seen in BBC drama Doctor Foster) was “the perfect Ivy.”
Dickens adds: “Often in development we thought, ‘Are we asking this actress to do too much, playing so many different levels of truth and memory?’ When Jodie auditioned, I got sent the casting tape and I thought she was fantastic. I think we have been incredibly lucky with the cast. They all fill their roles really well.”
The cast also includes Anuerin Barnard (War & Peace), Richard Rankin (From Darkness), Valene Kane (The Fall) and Natasha Little (Wolf Hall), but it is Comer who takes centre stage as a 26-year-old who has spent half her life in captivity. Now reunited with her family and friends, she must try to fit back into her old life and find a sense of normality when she’s not sure who to trust and, more importantly, whether she can trust herself.
In preparation for the role, the actress says she read a book about real-life abductee Natascha Kampusch, who was held prisoner in an Austrian cellar for eight years until she escaped in 2006.
“Even though we were making a drama, it’s crazy to think things such as this have actually happened to people,” Comer says. “Before we started filming, we made a timeline of all the events during the time that Ivy would have been held in captivity and we bullet-pointed when certain incidents would have happened, including her big birthday milestones, which helped me get into the mindset.”
Having starred in teen drama My Mad Fat Diary and 2015 hit Doctor Foster, Comer admits Thirteen is unlike any series she has previously appeared in, describing the shoot as a tough but rewarding challenge.
“When you get scripts and you really enjoy reading them, you know it’s a good project,” she says. “I was so keen to read more of them after the first script we auditioned with. Playing Ivy, I had to imagine the unimaginable – it pushed me to my limits as an actress and it’s been a real challenge.”
And of Thirteen’s place at the centre of BBC Three’s relaunch? Comer says the decision to move the channel was a “massive step.” But she adds: “I believe in change – we should embrace it.”
This week, the BBC formally approved the closure of its youth-oriented television channel BBC3. Despite plenty of protest, the channel will move online from March 2016 as part of a cost-cutting exercise.
As yet, no one really has a clue what that will mean for the 925,000 viewers who tune in to the channel. The best guess is that many of them will be lost to the corporation for good.
The closure now raises questions over the future of BBC4 as a TV service. Although the BBC has not yet threatened to take the axe to the channel, neither has it guaranteed its future. If the BBC is faced with further cuts (likely under the current Conservative government), BBC4 could suffer the same fate as BBC3.
If that happens, it will be a blow to fans of non-English language drama. Over the past few years, BBC4 has played a pivotal role in introducing such shows to the international market. This week, for example, it has started airing season three of acclaimed Danish/Swedish drama The Bridge, showing the first two episodes as a double-header.
Picking up where season two left off, The Bridge attracted an audience of 1.2 million for episode one and 925,000 for episode two. The first of these two figures is a record for the channel, beating the 1.1 million who tuned into the second to last episode of the previous season.
While The Bridge is an exceptionally strong performer, BBC4 has had repeated success with non-English-language scripted series. Another Scandi show that has been airing in recent weeks is Arne Dahl, which has been picking up audiences of 600,000 to 700,000 consistently on Saturday evenings. Prior to that came Beck, a series of feature-length TV films based on the novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Again, ratings were in the region of 600,000 to 650,000.
And while Danish period drama 1864 didn’t manage to hold its audience as well as some of the contemporary Scandi shows (954,000, 687,000, 530,000, 495,000 over four consecutive episodes), this still rates as a decent performance compared with the channel average.
It also attracted good reviews, with The Telegraph saying 1864 “oozed ambition, quality and an epic, cinematic scope. The latest offering from DR, the powerhouse Danish broadcaster that brought us Borgen and The Killing, has taken a key moment in their nation’s history and made it as compelling as any noir drama.”
Although Scandi shows are BBC4’s hottest property, the channel has also shown that people who are willing to watch foreign drama are not overly fussy about where it comes from. Over spring and summer, Italian detective drama The Young Montalbano regularly attracted between 600,000 and 700,000 despite having to contend with lower audiences in the warmer months (it’s noticeable actually that the show dropped a bit in June/July).
Prior to that, the year opened with a storming performance from French drama Spiral (a winner at this week’s International Emmys). Having kicked off with an audience over just over one million, the show stayed rock steady throughout January and February – bringing in audiences of around 850,000 to 900,000.
So what would happen to this kind of drama if BBC4 did disappear at some point in the next couple of years? Well, it would take away an important high-profile platform for such shows. But the truth is the channel has done its job so well that non-English-language drama would probably still find other homes.
Platforms like Netflix and Channel 4-backed Walter Presents are both buyers of such shows. And it’s even possible that BBC4 sister channel BBC2 might decide Scandi drama is worth investing in. In the meantime, though, expect The Bridge to keep doing well on BBC4.
Still in the UK, this week saw BBC1 launch Capital, a three-part drama from Kudos that stars Toby Jones. Jones, who is one of the stars of the upcoming Dad’s Army movie, helped the show to 3.8 million, which is OK but not spectacular. Scheduling didn’t help, with Capital up against ITV’s entertainment juggernaut I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. So it will be interesting to see if the show picks up significantly in terms of time-shifted viewing.
The issue of how we judge the success or failure of a drama is an ongoing debate these days. At Fox in the US, for example, senior management recently decided they will no longer have anything to do with Live + Same Day ratings.
“We will not acknowledge them for any programming other than live events,” said joint chairmen/CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman. Instead, the emphasis will be on Live+3, Live+7 and multi-platform data – all of which provide a more holistic view of the audience.
Fox’s decision is understandable and follows the lead of many cable channels. In essence, it allows a measured judgement once all of the time-shifted/non-standard viewing data has come in. Still, it would be a mistake to regard Live + Same Day as irrelevant to the ratings discourse. In the same way that the movie industry places so much emphasis on opening-weekend box-office figures, Live + Same Day figures provide a valuable insight into whether a TV network has got its pre-launch publicity right, and whether it has found an editorial formula that excites the audience.
It’s also a guide to whether a show has been scheduled correctly. There is a risk, for example, in putting an expensive drama up against a show that demands live viewing – such as Capital vs I’m a Celebrity.
If viewers don’t come to a drama on its opening night, it might mean they’re saving it up for a special moment. But it might also mean that it is regarded as back-up viewing, a second-best alternative. Or it might mean there is a schism within the family – the men want to watch but the women or children don’t, for example.
You could argue that none of this matters as long as word of mouth supports the show and the audience comes to it eventually. But any good sales executive will tell you to try to clinch the sale straightaway rather than let the punter go away and think about it.
In my house, many dramas get saved for later and then deleted or forgotten about. Any delay in viewing means a window is opened up to non-viewing or viewing via piracy or via SVoD, both of which change the economic return on a show.
On the subject of how we should assess ratings, the opening episode of Sky Atlantic’s six-part heist drama The Last Panthers saw its UK audience rise from 228,000 to 696,000 once non-live figures were added in. But episode two’s live numbers dropped to 112,000.
This is a classic example of the mixed messages broadcasters have to deal with these days, though with an IMDb rating of 7.2 the message seems to be that the show hasn’t quite captured the audience’s imagination as yet. By about episode four, however, we should have a clearer picture of whether the show has gained enough support to merit a renewal.
Elsewhere in the Sky family of channels, US drama Blindspot debuted on Sky Living with an audience of 383,000, a healthy start. In the US, the show is the top-rated new series of the season and has been renewed for a second run by NBC. As such, it should settle in nicely on Sky Living and do a good job for at least a couple of seasons.
AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.
The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.
The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.
Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).
This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.
The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.
In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).
Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.
Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”
Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).
Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.
Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.
After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.
Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.
The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.
Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.
With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.
Mexican media giant Televisa is the largest producer and distributor of Spanish-language content in the world. But now it wants to play in the English-language market.
Having recently announced plans for an English-language version of Spanish drama Gran Hotel (to be produced by its US-based Televisa USA division), it has now revealed plans to “greenlight production of multiple English-language series to fuel its own demands as well as those from the global on-demand and TV markets.”
The first title to be announced is Duality, starring Dougray Scott (Taken 3). Working with Vancouver-based Odyssey Media, Televisa says the show will be one of the first to utilise the 1991 Mexican-Canadian tax treaty for scripted series. Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA; Jorge Aragon; Eduardo Clemesha, Televisa´s general director of new content and formats; Odyssey film and television producer Kirk Shaw (The Hurt Locker); and Scott will executive produce.
According to Televisa, Duality will centre on an elite, top-secret team of State Department, CIA and Mexican intelligence agents within Mexico who wage war against the most dangerous villains operating in Latin America. The series, based on an original story from writer-producer Barry Schkolnick (The Good Wife, Law & Order), “depicts characters on dangerous missions while battling their own personal demons.”
Clemesha added: “Televisa brings to this venture access to award-winning producers and directors; the economies of scale of shooting in Mexico with Televisa’s facilities and crew; as well as the latitude to adapt formats from both Televisa’s massive library and third-party rights holders.”
Elsewhere, UK pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered an Indiana Jones-style drama from Red Planet Pictures. Titled Hooten & The Lady, the 8×60’ series follows an adventurer called Hooten who teams up with the British Museum’s Lady Alexandra to track down lost treasures, including an Amazonian city, the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great. Filming will take place in Rome and Cape Town. Writers include Red Planet founder Tony Jordan, James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. The show will be distributed internationally by Sky Vision.
This week has also seen the emergence of another movie-to-TV project, with Fox ordering a pilot from Warner Brothers based on the 1980s/90s hit movie franchise Lethal Weapon. If Warner Bros decides to stick close to the movie storylines then it will have a lot of content to work with. Aside from the original film, there were three sequels – and a fifth that never got out of development.
In other reboot news this week, reports suggest US network CBS is planning to revive 1980s TV series MacGyver.
In addition to new projects, there have been a couple of interesting drama renewals this week. In Denmark, crime series Dicte is about to go into production on a third season. Produced by Miso Films for TV2 Denmark and written by Dorte W Høgh and Ida Maria Rydén, Dicte is a crime series that centres on journalist Dicte Svendsen, plus her family, friends, colleagues and sources within the police.
This season will have an international dimension, with part of the series taking place in Lebanon and Syria. “We are so happy to be able to present a new season of Dicte,” said Katrine Vogelsang, head of fiction for TV2. “Danish viewers love the character of Dicte and the series has performed fantastically in TV2’s primetime slot on Monday nights. In Denmark, we measure viewers’ evaluations of episodes and Dicte is at the top of all Danish TV series.”
Meanwhile, CBS has greenlit a second season of Zoo for summer 2016. Based on the bestseller by James Patterson, Zoo is a thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans across the planet. “Zoo’s thrilling stories clicked with audiences each week during a very competitive summer,” said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “We’re excited for viewers to see where our writers and cast take them as the adventure continues to unfold during season two in the fight of man versus beast.”
Zoo is an interesting show, because it is part of a deal involving CBS and SVoD service Amazon Prime Instant Video. In a nutshell, Amazon helps fund the series and gets the right to stream the show in the US just a few days after it airs on CBS. The deal works for CBS because audiences are lower in the summer, so it is able to get a decent-quality drama at a relatively low price.
CBS and Amazon first created this model for Under the Dome, which has just ended after three seasons, and also used it for Extant. Now, the two parties have extended the arrangement to cover the next three summer periods. This will give Amazon access to new seasons of Zoo and a new series called BrainDead. “Prime members have loved having access to series like Under the Dome and Extant just four days after broadcast, and we’re excited to continue to offer in-season availability of more great CBS summer series over the next three years,” said Brad Beale, Amazon’s VP of digital video content acquisition.
Another interesting commissioning story this week came from the UK, with the BBC announcing that it has ordered another spin-off from sci-fi drama Doctor Who. Written by Patrick Ness and destined for BBC3, Class (8×45’) will be aimed at young adults and centres on a London school where sinister enemies are “breaking through the walls of time and space.”
It is exec produced by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffatt, Ness and Brian Minchin. Moffat said: “No one has documented the dark, exhilarating world of the teenager like Patrick Ness, and now we’re bringing his brilliant storytelling to Doctor Who.”
With autumn programme market Micom starting today, there has also been a lot of activity in terms of drama acquisition deals. The biggest story of the last week is that US cable channel Esquire has acquired the rights to ITV Studio’s new epic drama Beowulf. This follows a previously announced deal that saw Esquire acquire the Tandem production Spotless.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a 13×60’ series that is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It is set in the mythical Shieldlands, a dangerous place populated by humans and fantasy creatures. The first episode sees Beowulf return to Herot after many years as a mercenary warrior to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane Hrothgar. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt the beast down.
Matt Hanna, EVP of development and production for Esquire, said: “Beowulf exemplifies our commitment to delivering well-produced, vivid and engaging programming. We’re thrilled to bring an impressive assembly of artists and visionaries to our line-up when the series unveils next year.”
Other acquisition deals this week include a raft of sales for German drama Naked Among Wolves, which has sold to Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea others. There’s also been activity around Dori Media’s Ciega a Cita, a romantic comedy format that has been sold to AB Groupe in France.
On the service front, Channel 4’s new foreign drama on-demand service Walter Presents (launching in partnership with GSN) has acquired a number of Nordic dramas from Fremantle Media International, including Dicte and Acquitted. More deals are on the cards from Walter Presents at Mipcom this week. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that it will launch in Spain on October 20, Portugal on October 21 and Italy on October 22.
Finally, there was news of a cancellation this week, with USA Network calling a halt to Graceland after three seasons. The Fox Television Studios-produced series told the story of a rookie agent who had to investigate his mentor. Reports suggest the show was iced because of low ratings.