Tag Archives: Blindspot

End of season report card

How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers
How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers

At ABC, the story of 2015/16 is that established titles continued to thrive but new ones didn’t really catch on. The highest rating shows (in this order, based on 18-49 viewing) were Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Goldbergs, The Middle and How To Get Away With Murder. Of these, the newest is HTGAWM, which has just ended its second season. Grey’s Anatomy, by contrast, has just completed its 12th season.

This year’s figures show the importance of producer Shonda Rhimes to the network, since three of these titles come from her stable. But they also suggest that ABC cannot be complacent on this front.

HTGAWM has seen its audience fall from around 14 million when it launched two years ago to five million at the end of the current run. That suggests it will need to start turning things around to survive beyond season three. Similarly, Rhimes’ latest show The Catch has failed to deliver for ABC, ranking 17th among all scripted titles at time of writing, but ABC saw enough promise to renew it for a second season nonetheless.

Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline
Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline

Of the new shows that came into the ABC schedule last autumn, the one that made the most noise was Quantico. The show started well and secured a renewal but has seen its audience slide across the season. Most worryingly for ABC there was no last-episode uplift – a common trait with dramas as audiences tune in to see how things resolve. This doesn’t augur well for the second season, which will kick off without much momentum. The biggest flops of the year were Wicked City and Of Kings & Prophets (which should make networks shy of biblical stories for a while).

Over at NBC, the top six (18-49s) were Blindspot, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago PD and Superstore. Four of these are from Dick Wolf, NBC’s equivalent of ABC’s Rhimes.

Wolf’s success aside, Blindspot is undoubtedly NBC’s big success story this year. While it didn’t achieve the highest absolute ratings on the channel, it did come out number one among 18-49s. True, ratings for the back half of the series are some way down on the show’s strong debut — but they have stayed pretty consistent.

The Blacklist looks set to put in a strong fourth season
The Blacklist looks set for a strong fourth season

The Blacklist didn’t make the top six but it would have been if we were looking at total viewers. The show, starring James Spader, is now a scheduling stalwart having finished three seasons and can be relied on to have a solid fourth season too. Grimm only ranked as the 14th best show but still secured a sixth-season renewal.

Of the network’s other new shows, Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shades of Blue had a decent first year, with its audience stabilising and starting to rise in the second half of the season. Disappointments included Game of Silence, The Player and Truth Be Told.

The ratings on CBS are significantly higher than those on ABC and NBC, when viewed in totality. The top six in the 2015/16 season were The Big Bang Theory, NCIS (both juggernauts), Life in Pieces, Criminal Minds, Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans, although it’s worth noting that numbers seven to 10 (Mom, Supergirl, 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly) would have fared well on the other networks.

Stability has been key to CBS’s success, with The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Criminal Minds all extremely long-running series. The latter two have also spawned successful spin-offs in the shape of NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.

Criminal Minds remains one of CBS's leading shows
Criminal Minds remains one of CBS’s leading shows

In terms of new shows, the big success of the year has been the new comedy Life in Pieces. It benefited from being scheduled after The Big Bang Theory — but even so its performance has been excellent. So it’s no surprising that, at time of writing, it has just been renewed for a second season by CBS.

Another show that tends to go under the radar internationally but is doing a great job for CBS is Scorpion, which just completed season two. The show, which is about a group of computer experts who tackle high-tech threats to the US, hasn’t received especially good reviews. But its ratings are as good as most dramas on the US networks, which explains why it has also been renewed.

CBS’s new dramas have been more problematic. Limitless started off well but has drifted badly in the second half of its first season. Within the next few days it could find itself axed, a situation that would have been unthinkable back in the autumn. Also struggling is another movie spin-off, Rush Hour, which is right at the bottom end of the CBS ratings this season.

Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum on CBS
Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum

Supergirl also ran out of steam in the second half of its debut run, but has been renewed for a second season as part of a deal that sees the show move to The CW, where it will probably fit in nicely alongside top-rating shows like The Flash and Arrow.

And then there is Fox, whose top six scripted shows in terms of 18-49s are Empire, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Lucifer and Gotham. The success of Empire has been well documented while the revival of The X-Files proved to be a good idea. Lucifer is one one of the top performing new series although, like many of its contemporaries, it saw a significant decline in its later episodes. However, it still managed to secure itself a renewal from Fox.

Also worth mentioning is Rosewood. Although the show doesn’t make the top six in terms of 18-49 ratings, its headline audience of 4.88 million means it is actually the third highest show in terms of total viewers. Echoing Life in Pieces, the show was boosted by airing after Empire but it has held up pretty well. After a mid-season slump it is bouncing back and has secured a renewal.

Empire has remained an established hit for Fox
Empire has remained an established hit for Fox

So now we move into Upfronts season, the time of the year when the networks announce new programmes.

The volume of renewals means there aren’t many berths available for new shows. But the networks should keep one thing in mind: with series like Empire, Rosewood, Lucifer, Blindspot, The Goldbergs, Life in Pieces and Scorpion doing well, maybe they should focus more on original ideas than movie-to-TV extensions, which aren’t doing especially well.

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Netflix and Amazon blast into 2016

mindhunter
Mind Hunter is being adapted for TV

Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.

Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.

House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.

Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.

The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).

Good Girls Revolt
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, written by Made in Jersey’s Dana Calvo

The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.

All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.

Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.

“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.

Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse
Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse

Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.

In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.

While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.

BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies
BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies

In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.

A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.

One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.

The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.

Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson
Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon

In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.

Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.

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BBC4 beats language barrier

The Bridge stars Sofia Helin as Saga Norén
The Bridge performs strongly on BBC4

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.

asdasd
Arne Dahl is also doing well on BBC4

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.

1864 has pulled in fewer viewers but is a hit among critics
1864 has pulled in fewer viewers but is a hit among critics

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.

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

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.

NBC has ordered a second season of Blindspot
NBC has ordered a second season of Blindspot

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.

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Leading the blind

Martin Gero gives DQ the inside track on his series Blindspot, and reveals how his comedy experience has influenced his approach to drama.

A woman is found naked in the middle of New York’s Times Square with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Her body is covered in dozens of cryptic tattoos, and one is impossible to miss — the name of FBI agent Kurt Weller. Together, they realise that each image etched on her skin is linked to a crime, but who is she and who did this to her?

So begins perhaps the most intriguing new series to launch this fall on US network television. Blindspot, which launched on NBC in September, stars Jaimie Alexander (main image) as the focal Jane Doe, who partners with Sullivan Stapleton’s Agent Weller to try to solve the mystery of her identity.

Blindspot showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero
Blindspot showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero

The cast also includes Audrey Esparza, Rob Brown, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Ukweli Roach and Ashley Johnson.

And since its first episode, the show has been one of the biggest new shows of the season, earning itself a second-season renewal after establishing itself as the number-one new series in the 18-49 demographic. According to Nielsen ratings, it has averaged 12.7 million viewers per episode through the first six weeks.

It is also one of the most time-shifted shows on television, rising to 15.1 million viewers after live+7 viewing is accounted for.

“I’m a big fan of treasure maps and treasure hunts, riddles and puzzles, so I’ve been trying to figure out how you do a big mysterious puzzle show on television every week,” says showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero.

“I’ve also been playing around with the idea of a private eye who loses her memory and has to investigate her life. Those were both in the back of my mind, and I was in New York when they cleared out Times Square because of a bomb threat. It was such a striking visual image. I woke up one morning and it just all cemented into one. It came to me – this image of a woman in a blast suit going towards a big duffel bag thinking it was a bomb and having this tattooed woman emerge from it. It was a great teaser so I had to figure out if there was a show there, and thankfully there was.”

To bring his story to life, Gero partnered with producer extraordinaire Greg Berlanti, who had been a fan of Gero’s previous series The LA Complex. The pair pitched Blindspot to Warner Bros Television and then took it out to the networks. NBC picked it up and ordered it to series in May, with Warner Bros International Television Distribution handling sales.

Gero says NBC was “very excited” about the project, perhaps in part because of its similarities to another of the network’s recent hit dramas, The Blacklist. “It feels original and new,” says Gero of Blindspot, “but it goes well with what’s done great at NBC. It’s not unlike The Blacklist, so this type of action character drama with great mythology week-to-week fits a mould without feeling too familiar.

“I love The Blacklist. The pilot is one of the best I’ve ever seen. That and The Good Wife, which doesn’t get enough attention for being a spectacularly great character drama, just because it’s on network television. The fact they can do 22 episodes that are all pretty amazing got me excited about doing something in that space and not worrying about the mild procedural element. This is a procedural for people who hate procedurals and a character drama for people who maybe wouldn’t watch a character drama.

Geo describes the debut episode of The Blacklist, starring James Spader, as 'one of the best pilots I've ever seen'
Geo describes the pilot episode of The Blacklist, starring James Spader, as ‘one of the best I’ve ever seen’

“The close-ended case of the week is important but it’s not the main thrust of the episode because the central arc is who Jane Doe is, where she comes from, and why Kurt Weller’s name is on her body. Those things are deeply personal to the characters so even the cases they investigate have high personal stakes.”

Finding the balance between character and plot is “the difference between a show people can’t get enough of and one everyone’s sick of,” Gero says. “Blindspot begins and ends with character. People come to pilots for the huge production values and the shock and awe and high concept. But if you’re not with those characters at the end of the show, it doesn’t work. It’s character over everything, and then we make sure every case moves the story along.

“The good news is that the backstory we’ve come up with is extraordinarily complex, which is good for a TV show because it means we can turn a lot of cards quickly and not run out of steam. Every new episode could contain some major reveals without telling the whole story by the end of season one.”

Gero does, however, promise a satisfying conclusion by the time viewers reach the end of the first season, suggesting that questions surrounding the identity of Jane Doe and why Weller’s name is tattooed on her back will be “mostly” answered.

“For the TV shows I love, every season feels like a book in a series,” he says. “The season has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but that doesn’t mean the world is wrapped up. Questions will mostly be answered by the end of season one, but that’s just the beginning of the master plan of the group that’s done this to our Jane Doe.”

Gero landed his big break in television when he became a writer on Stargate SG-1 and later Stargate: Atlantis. From the age of 23, he had been earning a living writing travel shows and movies “that were never going to be made” before he landed on the science-fiction franchise.

Gero (centre) on set while filming his previous series The LA Complex
Gero (centre) on set while filming his previous series The LA Complex

“You’re lucky if you’re on a show nowadays and you get to write a script your first year on staff,” he says. “I wrote six episodes immediately and started producing from episode two, just because we were massively understaffed. Seven writers were responsible for 40 hours of Stargate a year.

“It was a great thing to cut your teeth on, as the shows are so complicated to produce. Everything is built, and there’s an enormous amount of stunts and visual effects. It was like doing a doctorate in television on Stargate. By the time I was 30, I’d written just under 40 episodes of TV and produced 150 hours. That’s an amazing thing to walk away into the world with.”

Half-hour HBO comedy Bored to Death followed, before Gero created Canadian drama The LA Complex for CTV and The CW. The show, about an aspiring actress who moves to LA, ran for two seasons and Gero says it provided a great platform to learn how to be a showrunner.

“Running your own show is always a nightmare in the first year; there’s a huge learning curve,” he explains. “The LA Complex was a much smaller show (than Blindspot), with less than half the budget. Being able to work as a showrunner on a show that did not have the scrutiny that this show will have was kind of a blessing. Blindspot is set up and expected to succeed, whereas the last thing I did was a little show from Canada. It’s like going from coaching college football to the NFL. I know what the job is, it’s just on a much bigger scale.”

That job is to be a curator, not a dictator, says Gero, adding that the key is to hire people “who are smarter than you and potentially have a contrary vision to what your show is.” His writing staff came together in May and, after Gero outlined his vision for the series, they broke up the story and matched each character’s story arc with the procedural elements in each episode. Then a writer would outline an individual episode before penning the script.

“I learnt from comedy that I like to rewrite on the big board,” he says. “We put the script on a giant television and go through it line by line, which is very common in comedy but people don’t really do it in drama. It’s time-consuming but I haven’t found a better way to orientate the room so that we’re all moving the same direction. It’s one thing to give notes on something, but another for all of us to rewrite the script together and learn what the show is. That’s relatively new for most drama writers.”

Blindspot stars Jamie Alexander, who emerges sans memory from a bag in Times Square in the pilot
Blindspot stars Jamie Alexander, who emerges sans memory from a bag in Times Square in the pilot

In common with showrunners on all other freshman US dramas launching this fall, Gero says his biggest challenge is putting together 22 episodes all at once from scratch. Blindspot had something of a head start, however, kicking off production with seven scripts already written and allowing Gero to focus on filming and then post-production. But once episodes start to air, that cushion is eroded away week by week and Gero admits it can become too much to manage the equivalent of three full-time jobs running the writers room, production and post-production.

“At some point you have to surround yourself with people you can trust and start to delegate away the show, which is really hard in the first season when there’s no shorthand with anyone. You can’t say, ‘Do it like we did in episode four,’” the showrunner explains. “I spend every day motivating, trying to communicate. It’s a fascinating thing trying to move stuff from your imagination into the real world for 350 people. It’s hard aligning everyone – it’s never going to happen. You have to slowly get everyone pointing in the right direction by sheer force of will.”

The pressure of running a network drama is considerably greater compared with a cable drama, particularly when it comes to time management and the smaller episode orders associated with pay TV. “I heard terror stories of what it’s like to work on a network show,” admits Gero, “but so far that’s not been the case. The luckiest thing that’s ever happened to this show is the people who are paying for it agree with the show we want to make. A friend of mine got to episode two on another show before being told by the network that it wasn’t the show it wanted, and by then it’s very difficult to get everyone back on the same page. You have to thread the needle very carefully.

“The fact we were able to get seven scripts approved before we started shooting illustrates not only how on top of it we are but also how great NBC and Warner Bros have been to work with. I don’t feel like we’re being over-noted. The stuff they’re worried about is typically right and has brought a fresh perspective.”

As for the industry at large, Gero says it’s a “staggering” time to be in television, considering the sheer number of hours of original drama being produced.

“I got into television only really to justify how much television I watch, and even I am at a point where there are shows that I love, like Orphan Black, but I haven’t watched their latest season. Not because I don’t want to but because there’s so much to watch.”

But despite being unable to find time to watch his favourite shows – not surprising, considering his day job – Gero doesn’t think the content bubble is likely to burst in the near future. “Television is more profitable now than ever,” he says. “With the burgeoning of so many international platforms and the widening of what they are willing to put on air, these shows can go into profit much quicker than ever.

“It’s definitely a bubble but I don’t know it’s going to collapse like the housing market. Certainly it’s a golden age of television as far as the volume of extraordinary shows being produced is concerned. And because of the internet, there’s a record amount of critical thinking being done about television as a legitimate art form that is equal to cinema and literature.

“With that comes a whole crop of young writers who have not only been brought up on the same shitty television we secretly all love, but who are also learning how to tell stories in a way that feels more legitimate than when I was getting into television and The Sopranos had only just happened. I don’t think we’re near the end of this great television boom.”

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No Halt for AMC’s PC period drama

Halt and Catch Fire has averaged around 520,000 viewers per episode
Halt and Catch Fire has averaged around 520,000 viewers per episode

AMC has just greenlit a third season of scripted series Halt and Catch Fire. Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the show is a recent period drama that looks at the origins of the personal computer revolution in the early 1980s.

On the face of it, the recommission is a surprise, given the show’s low ratings. Season two’s same-day ratings averaged around 520,000 across a run of 10 episodes. Even when three days’ worth of time-shifted viewing is added in (Live + 3), the show still only managed to attract around 900,000 – making it the lowest-rating original drama on the network.

To put this in perspective, The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) bring audiences in excess of 10 million to AMC. Low Winter Sun, cancelled last year, was running at around 1.2 million – and had a much better response from the 18-49 demographic than Halt.

So why would a savvy network like AMC renew a show that doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods in ratings terms? Well, there are a number of possible explanations. The first is that critics started warming to the show in season two, regarding it as a step up from the first run. So it’s possible AMC views the show as a sleeper – the kind of drama that might suddenly break through into the public consciousness in season three, encouraging new viewers to go back and watch from the start.

Into the Badlands will debut on AMC next month
Into the Badlands will debut on AMC next month

The second is that AMC might have taken a positive view on the profile of the audience. It’s possible Halt and Catch Fire particularly appeals to AMC influencers and evangelists – the kind of hardcore fans who will recommend the channel to friends. As such, the drama may have a value over and above its raw numbers.

Another factor worth noting is that AMC is a subscription-based channel, not an ad-only channel like the big four US broadcast networks. While AMC does make money from ads (and it’s possible advertisers might like Halt), it doesn’t need to make snap decisions about shows – especially at a time when The Walking Dead, FTWD and Better Call Saul are all doing so well for the channel. Somewhere, deep in AMC’s research department, someone may have taken the view that the profile of Halt and Catch Fire is having an additive effect on the overall schedule.

Linked to this point is the positive impact the show could be having on the AMC brand. As the channel showed with Mad Men, which wasn’t a huge ratings success, there is a brand benefit in being seen as a channel that supports quality shows – especially if that support translates into awards. It gives channels the kind of ‘home of quality’ feel that public broadcasters like the BBC and DR in Denmark possess, and that can be a business benefit.

Channels also need to take a view on the overall shape of their slate at any given time. With Mad Men and Hell on Wheels both coming to a close, AMC is probably reluctant to go on a cancellation spree. Turn and Humans were also renewed after delivering modest ratings, so the channel may be waiting to see which of the three manages to raise its game in ratings terms. Alternatively, it may be waiting to see how new shows like Into the Badlands and Preacher perform. If those series do well, then the pressure to axe at least one show will probably grow.

Tyrant has been given a third season on FX
Tyrant has been given a third season on FX

It’s also important to think about the global economics of the AMC business these days. Halt and Catch Fire is a wholly owned show, which means AMC has a vested interest in it doing well. It can use the show on its international network AMC Global and it can sell it to international third parties or to Netflix. In other words, there are several other ways to extract value from the show that have nothing to do with the average audience for season two.

And finally, there is a point to be made about building relationships with talent. While the showrunner on Halt’s first two series, Jonathan Lisco, has left to work on another project, this has opened the door for Cantwell and Rogers to take control of the show they created and co-write. They are clearly delighted to be making a new series for AMC – so it’s just possible their next show may be the one that does the business for the channel. Or maybe other writing talent will look at the recommission and decide AMC is the kind of network they want to take their show to.

In summary, there are reasons why networks sometimes choose to keep ploughing ahead with low-rating shows. Ratings are still the best way to analyse and assess a show’s performance, but in this increasingly complex media market we shouldn’t be too surprised if networks back shows that look destined for the chop. And it makes the job of guessing that much more interesting.

Elsewhere, US cable channel FX has renewed Tyrant for a third season of 10 episodes. This show, created by Gideon Raff and executive produced by Howard Gordon (the team that brought us Homeland), is a political drama loosely based on the life of Syria president Bashar al-Assad. Series two averaged around 1.2 million viewers, but seemed to be getting stronger towards the back end of the run. This view is confirmed by IMDb ratings. While the overall IMDb rating is 7.9, episodes 10, 11 and 12 of season two were all scored by fans at 9 or 9.1 – suggesting a groundswell of support.

George RR Martin's Skin Trade has previously been adapted as a comic
George RR Martin’s Skin Trade novella is being adapted for Cinemax

Another interesting story this week is that HBO sister channel Cinemax has optioned the TV rights to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin’s The Skin Trade, described as an the offbeat werewolf noir novella. Commenting on his blog, Martin said: “The deal is closed, and Cinemax has ordered the pilot script. This being Hollywood, you never know where things will end… but if they like the script, we’ll shoot a pilot, and if they like that, hey, who knows, maybe we’ll get a series on the air. Which would be very cool. Those of you who know the story of Doorways, my ill-fated ABC pilot from the early 90s, may recall that it was Skin Trade that I was actually trying to sell back in 1991, when I flew out to LA for a round of pitch meetings. So we’re a few decades late…”

Some Game of Thrones fans will no doubt be anxious that Skin Trade will distract Martin from finishing writing his masterwork. But he used his blog to assure fans that wouldn’t be the case: “While I would have loved to write the script and run the show myself, that was never really on the cards. I have this book to finish. You know the one…”

The Skin Trade pilot will be written by Kalinda Vazquez, whose credits include Prison Break and Once Upon a Time. Martin will be an executive producer.

Halle Berry in Extant
Halle Berry in Extant

Skin Trade comes under a two-year development deal Martin has with HBO. He has previously said that he is developing a Captain Cosmos series at HBO, with Michael Cassutt writing. Cassutt’s TV credits include The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.

Finally, NBC’s new procedural series Blindspot has been rewarded for its good start with an additional nine-episode order. This means it is the first of this year’s new US shows to secure a full-season order. By contrast, Fox has reduced its initial order of 13 episodes on Minority Report to 10. While this doesn’t count as a cancellation, it means the show is the first of this year’s new US titles to know that it won’t be coming back. CBS, meanwhile, has cancelled summer series Extant, starring Halle Berry, after two seasons. Both Minority Report and Extant are Amblin TV shows.

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Drama in demand at Mipcom

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83

A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.

One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).

A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.

Occupied
Occupied

Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).

Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.

FALSE-FLAG_KI_V12_1075X850_RGB_300DPIThere has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.

One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.

The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.

Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).

The Frankenstein Chronicles
The Frankenstein Chronicles

There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).

SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.

Rebellion
Rebellion

One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.

More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.

Versailles
Versailles

Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.

The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.

In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.

The Catch
The Catch

Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.

Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.

While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.

The Art of More
The Art of More

On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.

Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.

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Hot or not?

It’s a truism in the TV business that audiences prefer domestically produced dramas over acquired series. But for many territories, the next best thing after homegrown shows is US scripted content. That’s why, on the eve of programme market Mipcom, international TV channel buyers will be watching US schedules closely.

Right now is an important juncture in the year because US broadcast and cable networks have just launched their latest batch of new shows. While some international networks have already acquired these series (basing their decisions on scripts or pilots), many prefer to wait and see how well shows rate before committing their cash.

From this perspective, Mipcom comes at the perfect time, providing a great opportunity for buyers and sellers to discuss a show’s performance face to face in Cannes.

In this week’s column, we take a look at some of the new drama series that have just hit the US market, providing a few pointers as to how they are shaping up during their debut seasons. The shows are listed according to how well they have started out.

blindspotBlindspot
NBC’s Blindspot is one of the top performers among this year’s new US dramas. Last week, we reported that its first episode attracted 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Since then, delayed viewing has pushed the show’s total viewership up to 15.9 million (Live+3 ratings). The show, which centres on a tattooed woman found in a duffel bag in Times Square, has been given the go-ahead by NBC to deliver nine more scripts — an encouraging sign. Buyers that pick up this series can be confident it will come back for a second season. The show is distributed by Warner Brothers International Distribution, which has already licensed it to TVNZ New Zealand, CTV Canada and Sky Living in the UK.

quantico-abcQuantico
We took a close look at ABC’s Quantico in this week’s Writers Room. The story of a group of FBI trainees attempting to foil a terrorist plot attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49 in its Sunday 22.00 slot. This is a good opening, and the reviews have also been generally positive. Distributed by Disney, the show has already been sold to CTV Canada and UKTV in the UK. Quantico doesn’t look as much like a dead cert as Blindspot to return, but it is better positioned than most shows to get a renewal.

Brian-Finch-in-Limitless-seriesLimitless
A spin-off from the Bradley Cooper-starring movie of the same name, Limitless is about a man who takes a super drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain’s potential. He then uses his newfound ability to work with the FBI. Airing on CBS, Limitless was one of the strongest performers among the new shows, attracting 9.8 million viewers for its first episode. The show then attracted 9.6 million for its second episode, which is a pretty good audience retention level. Also positive is that the show stayed strong among the 18-49 demo (1.9 rating). Limitless stands a pretty good chance of renewal, though it is too early to call. It is distributed internationally by CBS Studios International, which has already licensed the show to the likes of Fox TV in Sweden and RTL CBS Entertainment – a pan-regional pay TV channel in Asia.

MrRobotMr Robot
USA Network was so pleased with the first episode of this hacking drama that it immediately ordered a second season. With the first run now over, Mr Robot seems to have found a cult audience and a decent level of critical acclaim (an IMDb rating of 9.0 makes it one of the best-received of this year’s new shows). One buyer impressed by the series is Amazon, which swooped in and secured streaming rights to the first season. However, Amazon is not yet in many territories, so there is still plenty of scope for international networks to buy Mr Robot. It would probably suit a pay TV or subscription VoD platform – though an edgy terrestrial channel might also find a post-22.00 slot for it.

UnREALUnREAL
UnREAL aired on Lifetime this summer. Set against the backdrop of a fictional dating show, it focuses on flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by her executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). UnREAL didn’t debut very strongly but Lifetime’s decision to stream a number of episodes online gave the show a boost. The series finished its run as Lifetime’s most successful ever among younger viewers (part of the channel’s plan) and has already secured a second season. The show is distributed by A+E Studios International, which is bringing Appleby and Zimmer to Mipcom. It airs on Lifetime in the UK and has been licensed to streaming services such as Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). Some networks will be put off by the fact it parodies the TV entertainment business, but others will embrace its slick humour.

heroesrebornHeroes Reborn
This revival of the Heroes franchise did moderately well on its return. Having scored a 2.0 rating among 18-49s on its opening night, time-shifted viewing took it up to a 3.1 rating (Live+3). Nielsen’s figures have Heroes Reborn ranking as the fourth best launch out of 11 on the big four US networks last week. A 7.9 rating on IMDb is not spectacular, but it’s okay to start with. The show was simulcast in Canada on Global and started airing on Seven Network Australia on September 30. The original series is currently on Netflix.

fearwalkingdeadFear The Walking Dead
You can understand the editorial and commercial reasons behind AMC’s decision to extend the world of The Walking Dead, but Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) is not quite living up to the hype.  After a massive 10.1 million audience for episode one, it has since slumped significantly. The audience for episodes four and five was around the 6.5 million mark, which is good compared with other shows but not compared with its parent show. Season five of The Walking Dead averaged around 14.8 million. An IMDb rating of 7.8 suggests that the audience hasn’t really bought into FTWD – though there is time for that to change because AMC has already committed to a second season. Internationally, the show is airing on AMC Global where that channel is available (including territories in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In Australia it is on FX. Hulu has picked up US streaming rights while Amazon streams FTWD in Germany and Austria. One interesting development is that AMC has also created a 16-part web series, Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, for its website (amc.com). One of the characters in the web series will be introduced in FTWD’s second season, which is a pretty cool piece of transmedia storytelling.

scream-queensScream Queens
There was a lot of prelaunch hype around Fox’s Scream Queens, an anthology comedy-horror series from Ryan Murphy (Glee) that makes heavy use of guest appearances by big stars (such as singer Ariana Grande). But the show hasn’t got off to a particularly strong start. Episodes one and two were shown as a two-hour special and attracted a modest 4.04 million viewers (1.7 rating among 18-49s). There was some improvement once time-shifted viewing for episode one was included, but the second episode’s audience of 3.76 million suggests Scream Queens hasn’t really managed to grip America’s imagination. Review site Rotten Tomatoes sums up the show: “Too tasteless for mainstream viewers and too silly for horror enthusiasts, Scream Queens fails to satisfy.” The series is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has so far sold it to E4 in the UK, which is probably the right kind of home for it. Murphy’s involvement makes renewal a possibility, but Fox will want to see an upturn in the ratings to justify a new run.

MuppetsThe Muppets
A week ago, we would have been lauding the performance of the latest Muppets revamp. But a disastrous ratings decline for episode two changes the picture somewhat. For episode one on ABC, The Muppets attracted nine million viewers. But for episode two the show was down 35% to 5.8 million. There was also a drop-off in 18-49 viewers. The decline is so significant that we’re going to need a few weeks to see where the show settles down. Nevertheless, The Muppets has a sufficiently strong following globally that international sales are bound to follow for Disney. Early buyers of the show include Sky1 in the UK.

ThePlayerThe Player
The Player, another new drama from NBC, got off to a slow start. The main problem seems to be an over-complicated premise, which involves a secret amoral organisation that bets on crimes before they are committed. The first episode attracted a modest 1.2 rating among 18-49s on its first night and a total viewership of 4.68 million (rising to seven million after three days). Nevertheless, Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which distributes The Player internationally, has been very quick to secure some deals for the show. Broadcasters that have signed up include TF1 France, RTL Germany, AXN Spain, Seven Australia, D-Smart Turkey and OSN in the Middle East. All told, SPT has sold the show to broadcasters operating in 105 territories (some deals are pan-regional). Sales have probably been helped by the fact that the The Player features Wesley Snipes, but the chances of a renewal already look slim.

1443172256_minority-report-tv-show-meagan-good-stark-sandsMinority Report
A spin-off from the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, Minority Report hasn’t started very well. Episode one attracted an underwhelming 3.1 million viewers (1.1 rating among 18-49s). Fox fought a rearguard action by pointing to episode one’s increase as a result of time-shifted viewing. But episode two’s audience of 2.56 million (0.9 rating among 18-49s) shows a downward trend that is not encouraging. With IMDb giving the show a low 6.1 rating, it will be a major surprise if Minority Report makes it to season two. That will clearly impact on the distribution strategy for the series.

Finally, a brief mention for the BBC in the UK, which has been running a superb series of feature-length dramas based on classic British literary works. While the dramas in questions didn’t always rate highly, they were excellently produced and provided a great showcase for why public service broadcasting matters.

The top-rating production was An Inspector Calls (5.8 million), which has a particularly high profile in the UK. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover (4.9 million), then Cider with Rosie (3.9 million) and finally The Go-Between (2.6 million). The latter, based on a novel by LP Hartley, is the least well known of the four works, so its lower ratings aren’t too much of a surprise. But it was a well-made drama. Overall, these four films were a job well done by the BBC.

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Bringing the ratings picture into focus

Empire's season two debut brought in 16.2 million viewers
Empire’s season two debut brought in an unassailable 16.2 million viewers

Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.

As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.

The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.

Fox's pathology drama Rosewood
Fox’s pathology drama Rosewood

 

Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).

There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.

US network TNT is cancelling Proof
US network TNT is cancelling Proof

Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.

From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.

The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.

Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience
Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience

So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.

CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.

Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper's presence
Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper’s presence

The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.

After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).

Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.

Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever
Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever

Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots

As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.

Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.

The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”

Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.

Doctor Who's season debut rated well in the US
Doctor Who’s season debut rated well in the US

 

The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”

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Sundance struggles with language barrier

Deutschland 83 has attracted between 70,000 and 100,000 viewers
Deutschland 83 has attracted between 70,000 and 100,000 viewers on SundanceTV

In recent years there has been a small but significant trend for non-English-language drama to be aired in its original form in English-speaking markets. This began with the export of Nordic scripted content, such as Borgen, but has since expanded to encompass French, German and Italian shows – including Les Revenants, Generation War and Inspector Montalbano respectively.

For the most part, this trend has involved the sales of shows to British broadcasters and subscription VoD platforms. But there was a major breakthrough earlier this year when US cable channel SundanceTV picked up the original version of Deutschland 83, an eight-part drama from UFA Fiction set in during the latter years of the Cold War.

Nico Hofmann, producer and chairman of UFA Fiction, said of the deal: “Never has a German-language series received so much attention before broadcast. Sundance TV’s reputation for exceptional series is yet further confirmation of Deutschland 83’s high quality. This is a milestone for German TV production.”

The arrival of Deutschland 83 in the US brought a lot of mainstream PR and a positive critical response. For example, Variety called it a “taut spy thriller” that “mixes coming-of-age material for the protagonist and intrigue from the tense political climate that Germans on both side of the (Berlin) Wall faced in the 1980s.”

It also scored well on IMDb, securing an 8.6 rating out 10. To put this in perspective, it is higher than Orange is the New Black (8.4) and Sense8 (8.5) – albeit based on a much smaller voting sample.

Deutschland 83’s positive reviews, however, haven’t transformed into very high ratings for Sundance. With the last episode airing on August 8, the website ShowBuzzDaily has the show’s ratings coming in at around 70,000-100,000.

Clearly, caveats need to be made regarding time-shifted viewing, repeat airing and the ferocious competitiveness of the US market, but this figure suggests the US cable audience isn’t quite ready for non-English language drama.

To compare with the UK, an equally competitive but much smaller market, this kind of content would probably secure an audience somewhere in the region of 500,000.

Pretty Little Liars is a social media phenomenon
Pretty Little Liars is a social media phenomenon

Deutschland 83’s ratings may have been impacted by the fact it is at the forefront of a new wave, and Sundance is to be applauded in this respect. So it may be that the AMC Networks-owned channel will need to persist with foreign-language drama in order to build up a loyal audience base. In the meantime, the best bet for foreign-language producers will continue to be the formats route.

All of this shouldn’t, however, have a negative impact on Deutschland 83’s sales performance elsewhere in the world, where language is not such a barrier.

Distributor FremantleMedia International has, for example, sold the series to Canal+ France and numerous mainstream broadcasters across Scandinavia.

Still with the AMC family, this Sunday will see AMC air the last episode of Humans. A bona fide hit for Channel 4 in the UK, which recently renewed the show, Humans has proved a steady but not spectacular performer for AMC. After debuting with 1.7 million viewers, it has been running at about 1.1-1.2 million ever since. AMC is already on board the second season.

Meanwhile, this was a big week for ABC Family’s long-running hit series Pretty Little Liars, with Tuesday’s Game Over Charles episode involving a big reveal. For six seasons, the show’s central characters have been hounded by a mysterious enemy, whose identity was finally revealed this week.

The result was a two-year ratings high for the show among its target 18-34 and 18-49 demographics. With 3.1 million total viewers and 1.8 million viewers among 18-49s, the show was also the top performer across all US cable viewing.

The ABC group has established a good reputation for its ability to build social media buzz around its shows, and Pretty Little Liars is a prime example. With 1.6 million tweets, the latest episode became the third most tweeted-about scripted show in cable TV history, accounting for 50% of all TV tweet activity for the day.

The Last Ship, starring Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra
The Last Ship, starring Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra, has been given a third run on TNT

Significantly, the only shows ahead of it in this list are also episodes of Pretty Little Liars. All told, the show has three million Twitter followers and 3.4 million Instagram followers.

Commenting on the programme’s social media performance, Jenn Deering Davis, editor-in-chief of social analytics firm Union Metrics, said: “Pretty Little Liars’ finale was a true Twitter triumph. ABC Family continues to innovate in how it encourages fan participation across social media, never content to let its social strategy stagnate. Before the finale even started yesterday, Pretty Little Liars fans had already posted more than two million tweets about the show, breaking previous all-day records. Pretty Little Liars still has one of the most active and engaged Twitter fandoms in existence.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, ABC Family has already commissioned two further seasons.

There was also good news this week for The Last Ship, commissioned for a third season of 13 episodes by US cable channel TNT. According to the channel, the Sunday-night show is “basic cable’s top scripted series this summer with adults 25-54.”

The programme is currently nine episodes through its second season and is a steady performer with ratings of around 2.9 million. TNT has also set things up so that authenticated users can watch all previous episodes of the show on an on-demand basis.

This summer the series is “reaching an average of nine million viewers across TNT’s linear, VoD, digital and mobile platforms,” according to the channel.

Based on William Brinkley’s novel, The Last Ship chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly destroys the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy, forcing captain and crew to confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they are among the few remaining survivors.

Jamie Alexander in NBC's Blindspot
Jaimie Alexander in NBC’s Blindspot

We’re only a few weeks away from the all-important autumn season and a lot of buzz is building around NBC’s new scripted series Blindspot. The show focuses on a mysterious tattooed woman who has lost her memory and does not know her own identity. On her back is the name of an FBI agent, who soon learns that the other tattoos on her body contain clues to upcoming crimes.

The two-minute trailer shows the lead character, played by Jaimie Alexander (Thor), being found naked in a holdall in the middle of New York’s Times Square. So perhaps not surprisingly it has racked up millions of views on YouTube. The big question now is whether Blindspot can sustain the narrative beyond an intriguing opening premise.

The show was created by Martin Gero and Greg Berlanti, who recently discussed it at the Television Critics Association’s summer press event. Gero’s enigmatic assessment was that Blindspot is “a procedural for people who don’t like procedurals, and a character drama for people who don’t like character dramas.”

He added: “There is an overarching mythology to this show week to week. You’re going to get some great resolution by the end of the year – you’re going to get some great resolution by the end of episode two. As we come through this mythology, there are a lot of twists and turns.”

  • A spokesman for FremantleMedia International, which distributes Deutschland 83, has provided further viewing figures for the show on Sundance. She said: “Over its eight episodes Deutschland 83 significantly outperformed the Sundance slot average share across several key demographics and more than doubled the average in the channel target audience adults 25-54 (Live+3D). Deutschland 83 exceeded the Sundance slot average share by 83% for total individuals 2+, 109% among 25-54s, 73% among 18-49s and 59% among women 18+ (Series 1, Live+3 Days).”

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Gearing up for the upfronts

E! is following up its first drama, The Royals (pictured), with a new project called The Arrangement
E! is following up its first drama, The Royals (pictured), with a new project called The Arrangement
Over the coming months, this column will provide updates on new scripted productions from around the world. But this week the focus is firmly on the US, which is moving into one of the most important periods of the year from a commissioning perspective.

Known as the ‘upfronts’ season, this is when US TV networks reveal their upcoming programming plans to major advertisers. As part of the process, they announce which drama pilots they will be taking forward to series. Although this is predominantly an American affair, the significance of upfronts to the international market is that successful US shows often also go on to be ratings successes in other territories.

Arguably, this year’s upfronts have an added significance, because international buyers are crying out for new long-running procedural dramas that can do a similar job in their schedules to the likes of CSI or Grey’s Anatomy.

One of the first networks to have unveiled any series commissions this year is NBC, which has ordered three shows for the 2015-16 season. These are conspiracy thriller Blindspot, medical drama Heartbreaker and Chicago Med, the second spin-off from Chicago Fire following the 2014 launch of Chicago PD. Between them, the three Chicago series now cover procedural stories based around firefighters, paramedics and a police department. There is scope to create crossover stories between the three, with high-profile cast moving from show to show on occasion.

The Chicago series may not get the kind of critical attention that is generated by shows like Breaking Bad, House Of Cards and Mad Men, but they are of interest to international channel buyers, which see them as solid schedule performers. It’s also worth noting that they are all from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of NBC’s hugely successful Law & Order SVU franchise (and spin-offs).

NBC has commissioned Chicago Med, a second spin-off from Chicago Fire (pictured)
NBC has commissioned Chicago Med, a second spin-off from Chicago Fire (pictured)

The other three of the big four US networks, Fox, CBS and ABC, have not – at the time of writing – officially confirmed which pilots they will take to series. But there are usually rumours that point in the direction of one series over another. These rumours are often the result of strong screen tests, but they can also come from the producers of pilots being given the go-ahead to start staffing up.

One show that seems certain to get the greenlight is Fox’s Minority Report. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, it is set in the same world as the Tom Cruise movie of the same name (which itself is based on a story by Philip K Dick). Another Fox show being tipped for a series order is Frankenstein, about a corrupt ex-cop who is brought back from the dead and has the chance to live his new life in a more morally upstanding way.

Minority Report isn’t the only pilot with a movie background. Two of CBS’s pilots that stand a good chance of going to series are Limitless and Rush Hour, both of which are spin-offs from movies. Among ABC pilots that still stand a good chance of going to series is Runner, based on the format of a Turkish series called The End.

As outlined above, the big four networks generally make pilots and use these as the basis to select series. By contrast, cable networks don’t usually bother with pilots, preferring to go straight to series with ideas they like. However, as cable networks have invested more in scripted content, their upfront announcements have also taken on extra significance for the drama community.

Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, is being adapted for TV
Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, is being adapted for TV

This year, for example, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc has revealed that History Channel is developing a Vietnam War drama called Boys of ’67 (an A+E Studios production in association with Head First Productions and Muse Entertainment).

A+E Networks has also taken the interesting decision to simulcast BBC series War & Peace and a revamp of Roots across its three main channels, A+E, History and Lifetime. This is a significant development for the drama business because, if it works, it may signal one of two things –a reduction in the amount of shows needed by the big cable channel owners, or the ability to pool budgets to make even more epic drama series. Either way, it’s a model that centralises power with the channels.

Also revealed this week is that cable channel E! is following up its first drama, The Royals, with a new project called The Arrangement. Written by Jonathan Abrahams, The Arrangement tells the story of a beautiful young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead. Kevin Plunkett, senior VP of scripted programming at E!, said the script “juxtaposes a very public Hollywood romance with darker, more nefarious elements.”

The pilot-to-series approach outlined earlier in this column is still typical of the way the big four US networks build dramas. But it’s no longer the only business model on the table. NBCUniversal International Television Production, part of the same company as NBC, recently announced a deal with TF1 in France and RTL in Germany (two leading free-to-air broadcasters) to develop, finance and produce procedurals directly for the international market.

Minority Report is one of several films being reimagined for the small screen
Minority Report is one of several films being reimagined for the small screen

The significance of this model is that TF1 and RTL, which are big buyers of US procedural dramas, will no longer need to wait for a show to get the US seal of approval before it goes to series. The model is a potential risk for NBCUITV, which will have a significant budget deficit to cover. But it will be banking on its ability to sell any resultant series back into the US or around the world (possibly to its own thematic channels). It is an approach that is similar to what Sony Pictures Television did with Hannibal and The Firm.

The aim of the alliance is to produce three series over the next two years. One key difference from the traditional model is that these projects will go straight to series, instead of passing through a pilot phase. Again, this will help take some uncertainty out of the process for TF1 and RTL (though it does mean greater final exposure to a drama that might not ultimately work). Another advantage of this model for TF1 and RTL is that they will have control of all rights in their own territories. This avoids situations where they are forced to share transmission windows with increasingly influential SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

Away from the upfronts frenzy for a moment, one of the week’s most interesting projects from outside the US is Cleverman. A six-part drama for ABC TV in Australia, the show has just entered production in Sydney. It sees a group of non-humans battling for survival in a near future where humans feel inferior to them and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Game of Thrones' Iain Glen is set to star in Cleverman
Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen is set to star in Cleverman

Cleverman, which stars Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), is an official Australian/New Zealand co-production between Goalpost Pictures Australia and Pukeko Pictures. At time of writing, Red Arrow International has just come on board as global distributor.

“Cleverman is a bold and ambitious project, and must be one of the most original drama series to be currently in production anywhere in the world,” said Amelie Kienlin, executive producer and VP of scripted acquisitions at Red Arrow.

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