Tag Archives: Billions

Counting Billions

It took something special for movie star Paul Giamatti to sign up for his first leading role in a TV drama. As Billions heads into its fifth season, he tells DQ about making the show and working with the “geniuses” behind it.

As one of America’s most versatile actors, Paul Giamatti has enjoyed a diverse and varied film career. He was nominated for an Oscar for sports biopic Cinderella Man and won Golden Globe for comedy drama Barney’s Version, among a list of credits that include Sideways, American Splendor and 12 Years a Slave.

Giamatti went on to earn awards and plaudits for playing John Adams, the second president of the US, in a 2008 HBO miniseries chronicling his political life and role in founding the United States. He’s also enjoyed bit-part roles in several TV series, such as Downton Abbey, 30 Rock, Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue, in which he played a character credited as ‘Man in Sleeping Bag.’

But it’s Billions, the Showtime drama that started in 2016 and plunged viewers into a game of power politics set within the world of New York high finance, that has provided the actor with his most settled and stable period on screen.

For four seasons, he has played Chuck Rhoades, initially the US attorney for the southern district of New York but later the attorney general for the state. Ruthless and with a dislike of wealthy individuals who buy their way out of trouble, he continually clashes with hedge fund boss Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) when he is asked to investigate Bobby’s firm Axe Capital – where his psychiatrist wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) also works.

In Billions’ fourth season, Giamatti’s Chuck forms an alliance with ex-enemy Bobby (Damian Lewis)

However, season four, which launched in March this year, saw the former enemies join forces in an uneasy alliance designed to take out their rivals, including Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown). Created by showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien together with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions has been renewed for a fifth season to air in 2020.

“I’ve never really done a TV show. It’s curious,” he tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “It’s like, ‘Wow, it just keeps going.’ It’s really interesting. But these guys [Koppelman and Levien] are able to vary the thing in a really interesting way. It keeps changing, so I don’t ever feel stuck in a rut. With a lot of people, you’re really just doing the same thing over and over again.”

Giamatti says that, prior to Billions, he had always been interested in doing a TV show. But the scripts he received – mostly comedies and sitcoms – never quite piqued his interest. Then Billions landed on his desk and, after reading the first few scripts, “I thought it was kind of cool,” he says. “It was a weird, psychological crime show. It was like a chess game crime show. There was no chasing each other with guns; it was all guys in offices on phones and in restaurants making deals. But I thought it was an interesting approach to a crime show and I thought it was interesting dealing with this kind of world.”

Now, after 48 episodes, that initial cat-and-mouse chase between Chuck and Bobby has subsided for an altogether more complex, tangled relationship where characters are neither good nor bad, each residing somewhere in the large grey expanse in between. Giamatti believes this is key to the show’s success, with the writers continually pushing the story forward and not having it fall back to the dynamics laid down in episode one.

“This season was interesting and it’ll be different again next season,” he continues. “It’s a different scenario next season, but you’d have no idea where it’s actually heading. We could end up being buddies again or something. I don’t know. You never know.”

Billions has already been confirmed for a fifth season on Showtime

After so many seasons playing Chuck, has Giamatti found elements of himself starting to emerge in the character? “That’s what’s interesting; you do start to worry that there’s something about you in this character,” the actor jokes. He has enjoyed playing out the relationships between Chuck and his powerful, wealthy father, and between Chuck and Wendy, with their adventurous sex life seeing him become her ‘slave.’

“He operates in a lot of different places. The sexual stuff was interesting, actually, and I liked that he is so smart and that he’s generally more effectual than characters I usually get to play. He actually manages to get stuff done. He manages to shape his world in a way that guys I usually get to play don’t. I get to play guys who fail to do that. This guy actually does, and that’s sort of nice. He tells somebody to do something and they do it. That’s really kind of cool. I like power; I like coming in and being able to order people around, it’s sort of fun.”

If Giamatti’s roles are notable for varying in genre, period and style, that’s entirely on purpose. He says he never knows what his next move will be or what he will find appealing, adding that story is always the deciding factor.

“It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but it is true that the story has to interest me more than anything,” the actor explains. “I don’t want to be in a boring story because all that really is going to matter is the movie. And if the movie’s no good, it doesn’t matter what kind of character you played or even how good you were in it. The movie itself has got to be good, so the story has got to be interesting. That’s the main thing.”

Behind the scenes on Billions, Giamatti leaves the heavy lifting to Koppelman and Levien, who have a singular vision for the series that he doesn’t want to disrupt. “The writing is very specific. You can’t really mess around with it. That’s great, because it gives you so much that you don’t want to mess around with it. They have things plotted so carefully on this show, they don’t want to mess around either. They know what they’re doing.”

Giamatti has appeared in films such as 12 Years a Slave

Giamatti is more involved in Lodge 49, an AMC series currently in its second season, on which he is an executive producer through his company Touchy Feely Films. The show is set in Long Beach, California, where ex-surfer Sean ‘Dud’ Dudley (Wyatt Russell) joins a fraternal lodge – the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx – with the promise of beer and camaraderie that may or may not help him rediscover the idyllic life he lost following the death of his father.

It’s clear Giamatti is immensely proud of the series, and he laments the fact it has not been more widely seen despite drawing critical acclaim. “It’s an awesome show. But it’s very different from Billions. It’s not dark – I mean, it gets emotionally dark, but it’s a very optimistic show and it’s terrific. It is odd, but I think it has a really wide appeal. It’s about people in a secret society like a Masonic organisation, who don’t seem like the sort of people who would be in a Masonic organisation, but it’s really fun. It’s a lovely show.

“I do enjoy the producing side of it. My partner Dan [Carey] deals with all the less pleasant parts of it, but I got to deal with looking at the scripts, looking at the dailies, doing the casting and stuff. I got to do the fun stuff. I love to do it. He and I are very interested in genre stuff and the show is a weird genre show. I don’t know what genre it is, but it’s definitely a genre show! I enjoy science-fiction stuff and I enjoy spy stuff, so we try to get stuff like that made. We’ve got some really weird crime things and some weird science-fiction movies, so that’s what we’re interested in.”

Giamatti also executive produced WGN’s Outsiders, alongside numerous film projects, and agrees there isn’t a better time to be in the TV business, with no end of potential broadcasters or platforms eager for new content that will help them stand out from the crowd.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say TV is easier now, or whatever TV is anymore. We used to make independent films and that was nearly impossible. It was very hard to distribute the things. This is easier to do. They’re way more open to stuff.”

Heading back into production on Billions, Giamatti is looking forward to seeing where the writers will take Chuck next. And that, he says, is the show’s greatest strength.

“They are geniuses at plotting,” he adds. “They have kept the plot alive. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV but I hear they have not suffered an off-season. It’s like they haven’t had that, ‘Oh, second season didn’t go well, fourth season didn’t go well.’ I know I feel like the show just keeps getting better, so they’ve been genius for rearranging a plot.”

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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X-Files hits the spot for Fox

The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes
The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes

Fox’s reboot of The X-Files has, as expected, delivered superb ratings. The first episode of the show, which aired after an important NFL game last Sunday, attracted a massive 16.2 million viewers. Episode two, on Monday, fell to 9.2 million. But this is still a strong result that put CBS rival Supergirl in the shade.

In addition to its own high ratings, The X-Files also provided a great launchpad for Lucifer, a brand new Fox show that aired straight afterwards on Monday. Based on the somewhat bizarre notion that the Devil comes up from hell to help LA cops solve crimes, Lucifer attracted a healthy 7.15 million viewers and also achieved a pretty impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb.

With critics reporting that the next few episodes of The X-Files are strong, the show is likely to hold its ratings pretty well. However, the big issue with the show is that there are only six episodes.

Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox
Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox

Reports suggest that, having seen the early ratings, Fox would like to renew the show. Whether that happens will depend on the schedules of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, it’s hard to believe they won’t squeeze in six more if Fox opens its chequebook wide enough.

Aside from its importance on home turf, the show is also a key asset for the Fox family internationally. It was aired day-and-date across 60 territories on Fox platforms and was also picked up by Channel 5 in the UK and Network Ten in Australia – all of which is another good reason for Fox to pull out all the stops to secure a second season.

Still in the US, episode two of Showtime’s Billions dropped about 30% compared with its debut episode, down from 1.44 million to 950,000 (overnights). That still compares pretty favourably with other Showtime titles and was enough to convince the network to renew the show. It’s part of a portfolio of scripted series that also includes Homeland, The Affair and Ray Donovan.

As we’ve mentioned in previous columns, lack of ratings data means it’s pretty hard to know whether a Netflix show is a hit or a miss until it’s cancelled or renewed. However, the fact that Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards has just been renewed for a fifth season, before the fourth has even begun, means it’s obviously working pretty well for the SVoD platform.

House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix
House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix

That said, it is moving into more challenging territory. There was a feeling among critics that season three suffered from story fatigue. With Spacey’s character Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (played by the excellent Robin Wright) having achieved their goals, this line of argument concluded that the concept had gone about as far as it could go.

This may explain why the renewal announcement was accompanied by the news that House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon will not return for season five.

There’s no questioning the superb job Willimon has done so far, but in terms of keeping up the show’s (and his own) creative energy, it’s probably a smart move. Willimon appeared to acknowledge this when he said: “After five years, it’s time for me to move on to new endeavours, but I’m supremely proud of what we’ve built together, wish the show much continued success and leave it in the hands of a very capable team.”

Of course, the question now is who will pick up the showrunner mantle – and whether they will be able to sustain the high standards Willimon has established during his tenure. Season four of House of Cards debuts on March 4.

The Magicians opened well on Syfy
The Magicians opened well on Syfy

There is so much noise around the closing stages of the NFL season at the start of the year in the US that it is easy to overlook some of the new show debuts on cable. But a bit of digging around shows that Syfy channel has had a pretty good start with its fantasy series The Magicians, based on the book by Lev Grossman.

The first episode aired just before Christmas and achieved a decent 920,000-strong audience. Then the second episode, aired this Monday, posted a healthy 21% rise to 1.11 million. The critical response has been muted, but those figures mean The Magicians is the channel’s highest-rating show, and – barring some kind of calamity – a pretty strong contender for renewal.

MTV’s fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is hitting similar numbers. Although it had one under-performing episode in mid-January, it’s generally pulling in just over one million viewers per episode. This isn’t as good as long-running stalwart Teen Wolf but it is better than the recent revival of Scream, which has already been renewed. Again, this points towards renewal.

Finally, there’s a lot of talk in the market at the moment about the lack of drama procedurals. But one that has been doing great business for most of this decade is CBS police series Blue Bloods. For the first five seasons (2010-2014), the show regularly pulled in 12.5-13 million viewers.

Police procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS
Procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS

It’s a bit down this year but it’s still doing a good job anchoring CBS’s schedule. It’s also a decent performer internationally. In January, it returned to Sky Atlantic in the UK, where it is rock solid at around the 375,000 mark. By contrast, Scandi-based drama 100 Code debuted on the same channel to 315,000 viewers, but dropped to 184,000 for episode two.

More worrying for CBS is slippage on its new show Limitless, based on the film of the same name. After the series started with around 9.8 million viewers, episode 13 hit a season low of 6.3 million, with the all-important 18-49 demo also in decline. There are nine more episodes in season one, so CBS will want to see a bit of a pickup in performance before it is tempted to renew the show.

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Billions attracts millions, Midwife delivers

Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening
Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening

Pan-European pay TV broadcaster Sky has just announced that its Sky Atlantic channel will now be the exclusive home to programming from CBS’s premium US cable network Showtime in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Previously, Sky licensed select Showtime content on a case-by-case basis – one example being the excellent scripted series The Affair.

The deal is an important one for Sky, which is facing increased competition for content rights (and not just for drama) from the likes of BT, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (owner of Channel 5). It’s also significant for Showtime, which is keen to see its brand better known around the world. This deal gives it access to 21 million European pay TV households at a single stroke.

One of the titles included in the new deal is Billions, an ambitious drama set in the world of New York high finance. The show, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, has just debuted to strong audiences in the US.

David Nevins
David Nevins

According to Showtime, Billions is its best-ever launch, attracting 2.99 million viewers to its premiere. This is marginally more than Showtime’s previous best, which was Ray Donovan in 2013 with 2.91 million viewers.

Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “It’s a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter, the power of its stars and the brilliance of the show creators that Billions has had such a big start.”

The way Showtime derives its 2.99 million figure is an interesting snapshot of how viewing in the digital era is measured. Around 1.6 million of the viewing total was generated by a preview of the show that was offered to Showtime subscribers in advance. The other 1.4 million was the cumulative total for multiple broadcasts of the show on its premiere night (last Sunday). The first of these contributed around 900,000 to the evening’s 1.4 million total.

Notwithstanding this fragmented viewing pattern, the 2.99 million total is a very impressive launch for Billions. The show also got an 8.4 rating on IMDb, which suggests it is in good shape on the audience appreciation front. If it continues in the same vein across its first season of 12 episodes, it will fit in well among other strong Showtime series such as Shameless, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair and Penny Dreadful.

That would also be good news for Sky, which generally does well with Showtime titles – in fact, the two are coproducers on Penny Dreadful.

Call the Midwife's new season pulled in eight million viewers
Call the Midwife’s new season pulled in eight million viewers, two million more than its slot’s average

In recent weeks, we’ve flagged up a number of BBC UK dramas that have done well in the post-Christmas period. Today we can add another one following the successful return of Call the Midwife on Sunday evenings at 20.00.

Now in its fifth season, the show attracted an impressive eight million viewers. Although this is down a bit on the last couple of seasons, it is still well ahead of the slot average of six million. The show also does extremely well internationally, with BBC Worldwide having sold it to around 100 territories including the US, France and Australia.

The show is a classic example of how hyper-local subjects (midwives London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s) can appeal to global audiences if they contain strong stories and universal characters. It’s interesting to note as an aside that both Penny Dreadful and Call the Midwife are made by the same production company, Neal Street (now part of All3Media, which itself is owned by Discovery and Liberty Global).

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Still with the BBC, we took the view last week that anything above 4.5 million viewers for episode three of War & Peace would be a solid result. So the 5.1 million that tuned in represents a strong endorsement for the show.

The Andrew Davies adaptation also won numerous plaudits from the British press, with the Daily Telegraph giving it five stars and calling it “utterly captivating.” There’s no question that Davies’ writing is also benefiting from some terrific performances by the likes of Paul Dano, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton and everyone’s favourite fairytale princess Lily James. Being able to call on the likes of Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Ade Edmondson as supporting cast reinforces the credentials of the show yet further.

ITV, by contrast, has been having a more mixed time with its drama recently. After Jekyll & Hyde’s cancellation, the broadcaster’s latest fantasy epic, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, is also struggling to find its footing. The latest episode attracted two million viewers, which isn’t really enough for a mid-evening slot. The performance of the two shows raises questions about whether there is really room for fantasy drama in the heartland of free-to-air commercial primetime. Maybe fantasy works better when it is tucked away slightly out of sight on pay TV (the way it is in most mainstream bookshops).

Beowulf has started disappointingly
Beowulf has started disappointingly

ITV is, however, on much firmer ground with Victoria, its upcoming eight-part period drama written by novelist and erstwhile TV executive Daisy Goodwin. This week, PBS in the US announced it has acquired the show, which it will schedule in the slot formerly occupied by fellow ITV acquisition Downton Abbey.

The eight-part series, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Colema, follows Victoria from when she first becomes Queen in 1837 at the age of 18 through to her marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece strand, said: “Downton Abbey has proved that millions of viewers will turn up year after year for a beautifully crafted period drama. Victoria has it all: a riveting script, brilliant cast and spectacular locations. And it’s a true story. This is exactly the programming Masterpiece fans will love.”

Finally, an interesting story in the US regarding Netflix and Amazon ratings. The SVoD platforms are notorious for not releasing data on the performance of their shows. But Alan Wurtzel, head of research at rival NBCUniversal, provided some insight at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.

Krysten Ritter as the titular character in Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter plays the titular character in Netflix hit Jessica Jones

Using data from a company called Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel said that Netflix series Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million 18-49 viewers per episode in the 35 days after its November launch. By a similar count, Narcos attracted 3.2 million and Master of None attracted three million. Amazon’s critically acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle drew 2.1 million 18-49 viewers.

If these numbers are accurate, then all of the above shows would compare favourably with most US cable shows. No real surprise, then, that Jessica Jones has been given a second season.

That said, NBCU’s analysis must be handled carefully. In response to Wurtzel’s findings, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he hoped NBC didn’t “spend any money” on the Symphony research since it was “really remarkably inaccurate data.” However, people will keep speculating until Netflix finally decides to reveals some numbers itself.

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Drama wades into class war

Childhood's End was adapted from Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the same name
Childhood’s End was adapted from Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the same name

There’s a hint of a new editorial trend in scripted TV. It involves stories about crony capitalism’s worst excesses and the people trying to do something about it, whether through orthodox legal channels or some form of anarchic or vigilante subversion.

Earlier this year, for example, we saw the launch of Danmarks Radio (DR)’s Follow the Money, a story about “speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.” Then there was Mr Robot, USA Network’s exploration of the battle between anarchist hackers and corporate America.

At Mipcom, Showtime debuted Billions, its take on the face-off between Wall Street’s big money-makers and government regulators.

And now we have Watchdog, a drama from Jason Winer and Jon Caren about a team of vigilante activists who expose abuses of power while evading the FBI (The A-Team with a social conscience, maybe). A script has been picked up by US broadcast network Fox, with the resultant series intended to be a procedural.

It is the second major collaboration between Winer and Care, who also developed The System, a show about the criminal justice system, for Fox.

Other new dramas this week included Roadies, a one-hour comedy from Cameron Crowe (We Bought a Zoo, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire). Destined to air as a pilot in 2016 (with a view to becoming a series), the show is about a rock band’s team of roadies. Crowe will write and direct, while JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot is producing.

Billions is coming to Showtime
Billions is coming to Showtime

Winnie Holzman, who is executive producing alongside Crowe, said: “I’ve long wanted to work with JJ and Winnie, and coming together to tell these stories has been beyond a blast. Showtime has a great track record with music-based projects, and they’ve been wonderful partners.”

Meanwhile, ITV CEO Adam Crozier used a keynote speech at Mipcom earlier this month to explain how his company has invested heavily in increasing its drama output in both the European and US market – and this week the company’s US production division, ITV Studios America, underlined its ambition by optioning crime novel Bull Mountain.

Brian Panowich’s book centres on a small-town sheriff trying to distance himself from his family’s criminal empire. Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds, Crossing Lines) has been brought in as showrunner and will write the script for the pilot.

Sticking with the US, cable channel Syfy is in the midst of a huge creative revamp. Having axed Haven and Helix earlier in the year, it has now brought an end to Dominion and Defiance. Syfy said the latter was a “truly groundbreaking series, delivering an immersive, cross-platform experience that transcended the television screen in a way that viewers had never seen before.”

Unfortunately, not enough people were watching it, which is the same reason Dominion has been dropped.

In addition to this cancellation bloodbath, Continuum and Lost Girl are also coming to an end on the channel, all of which begs the question – what’s left?

Well, there have been renewals for 12 Monkeys, Killjoys, Dark Matter and Bitten – and there has also been a slew of new commissions. Among these is Childhood’s End, an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s iconic novel about the peaceful invasion of Earth by the alien Overlords, “who promise to eliminate poverty, war and sickness – ushering in a golden age of peace, health and security for all of humankind.” There is, of course, a catch, revealed over six hours across three nights.

The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as 'Harry Potter for adults'
The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as ‘Harry Potter for adults’

Childhood’s End is part of the recent trend towards promotable event miniseries aimed at building buzz around the channel. But it isn’t a long-term answer to Syfy’s wave of cancellations.

Instead, the new titles on which Syfy seems to be pinning its hopes are space opera/police thriller The Expanse, sci-fi/espionage hybrid Hunters and The Magicians, a 12-part series based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling fantasy trilogy. The books have described as Harry Potter for adults.

The latter, due in early 2016, joins the current trend towards fantasy adventure series (probably inspired by HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones). Other titles in the swords and/or sorcery subgenre include Sonar Entertainment’s The Shannara Chronicles (for MTV), ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, FX’s The Bastard Executioner, BBC2/BBC America’s The Last Kingdom, AMC’s Into The Badlands and Starz/FremantleMedia’s American Gods.

Elsewhere, there are reports that US showrunner Ryan Murphy (Glee, Scream Queens, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) is planning a new anthology series called One Hit Wonders that may star Gwyneth Paltrow.

The show would be a musical drama/comedy about a group of women who each had hit songs in the 1990s coming together to form a supergroup. One Hit Wonders has been knocking around for a while as a movie concept but now looks set to come to the small screen.

Murphy’s Scream Queens is not rating very well at the moment, with cancellation rumours in the air after just five episodes on Fox. But another first-time Fox show that is in pretty good shape is Rosewood. There’s no question the series has benefited from being scheduled after breakout hit Empire, but Fox has clearly seen enough already to be impressed. This week, it ordered an additional nine episodes, taking the total run for the first series to 22.

Sweden's Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US
Sweden’s Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US

“Rosewood has proven to be a real self-starter for us, which is a tremendous feat on this highly competitive night,” explained Fox entertainment president David Madden.

US network ABC is also remaking a Swedish comedy-drama Small Town Love, which was a big hit for TV4, following a deal with distributor Nordic World.

The series, set in the small town of Molkom in Värmland, begins when Anette, a dinner lady, is replaced by a coffee machine and plunged into unemployment. She decides to start a nail salon and hires her daughter as financial manager. Pretty soon, it turns out that both Anette and her daughter are pregnant and that their two deadbeat boyfriends are intending to move into Annette’s tiny townhouse. The show has been commissioned for a second season that will air sometime in 2016.

Finally, in the world of international distribution, an upcoming BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager is proving popular among buyers. Tele München Gruppe has acquired rights to the miniseries for German-speaking Europe, while Bonnier-owned TV4 and C More will air it in the continent’s Nordic territories. Elsewhere, DR in Denmark, Sky Italia, TV3 in New Zealand and BBC First and SBS in Australia will all air the miniseries. Starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, it follows a former British soldier as he uncovers a secret arms trade.

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