Tag Archives: CBS

Talking Bull

After 13 years investigating crimes in US juggernaut NCIS, Michael Weatherly swapped the navy police for the courtroom with Bull. As the legal drama begins its second season, the actor discusses both CBS series, auditioning for Steven Spielberg and why procedurals still have the ability to satisfy viewers.

For 13 years and more than 300 episodes, US actor Michael Weatherly was best known for playing special investigator Anthony DiNozzo in CBS’s long-running action-crime drama NCIS.

Now, however, he is preparing to return to the screen for the second season of Bull, a legal drama from the same network inspired by the early career of TV personality and psychologist Dr Phil McGraw.

Weatherly plays Dr Jason Bull, a brilliant, brash and charming legal expert who runs a jury consulting firm, using his skills and those of his investigating team to select the right jurors for his clients and then help his clients’ lawyers to win them over.

Bull’s US debut in September 2016 drew more than 15 million viewers, and a full season order quickly followed. The show was then among 18 CBS series to earn an early renewal in March, two months before CBS unveiled its full 2017/18 schedule. Season two debuts in the US tonight.

Counting Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, Bull is produced by CBS Television Studios and distributed by CBS Studios International. Season one aired in more than 200 countries.

Weatherly was a special guest at the New Europe Market television event in Dubrovnik in June this year, where the actor spoke about leaving NCIS, his first meeting with Spielberg and revealed his thoughts on the battle between episodic and serialised television drama.

Michael Weatherly (left) alongside Mark Harmon in NCIS

After 13 years on NCIS, Weatherly still embraced his character but knew when it was time to move on…
I was very happy to be typecast and known as another character’s name – what a privilege. I never got tired of it. It reached a point with DiNozzo when I thought I’d aged out. He’s supposed to be this overgrown, adolescent, fun, ebullient, hyperactive guy, and I have an aspect of myself that is like that. But I did get to the point where [I thought] if I’m too old to play this guy, I better leave before they ask me to leave.
I talked to CBS for two years about how I was leaving and I wanted to give them enough room to make that possible. Then they came to me with Bull. I’d prepared two other projects I was ready to go on. One was a remake of The Persuaders, the other was a book I optioned, Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming. Both of those were international properties and were things I thought would be a lot of fun to make.

Bull was brought to the screen by an eclectic group of producers…
When we were getting ready to make the show, I sat down with Dr Phil at Steven Spielberg’s compound on the Universal lot at [Spielberg’s production company] Amblin Entertainment. Bull is a very strange show because you have the guy who wrote Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show, House and Homicide: Life on the Street [Paul Attanasio] and the guy who directed In Treatment for HBO [Rodrigo Garcia]. Then there’s Dr Phil, Steven Spielberg and the guy from NCIS [Weatherly himself] – that’s a weird soup.

Weatherly had forgotten he auditioned for Spielberg for a role in hit sci-fi movie Minority Report…
The first thing he said was, ‘I liked your audition for Minority Report.’ I thought, ‘I never auditioned for Minority Report.’ Then I thought, ‘He thinks he hired someone else. How to do I play this, because I’ve got the job [on Bull]? I don’t want him to unhire me.’ We tend to remember things that are good that happen to us, or things that are so putrid, horrible and bad that we never want to do that again. But things that are minor disappointments in life we just throw that away because it irritates you if it’s there all the time. So I have discovered I totally screen-tested for Minority Report and I forgot about it because I didn’t get the job.

Weatherly’s character in Bull is loosely based on a young Dr Phil McGraw

Like most TV dramas, Bull simplifies timelines and practices to tell the most compelling story…
On NCIS we were all doing the pilot episode and we had our technical advisor, who is a former federal agent, a former marine NCIS agent for 20 years, and we’re doing a scene where we’ve all got our guns out, bulletproof vests on, and we’re going to go through a door and get terrorists. [NCIS lead] Mark Harman turns and says to the tech advisor, ‘When you’re doing this in the field, and you’re storming a room, what’s the proper procedure? Who goes in first? What do you say?’ The tech advisor took a very long beat and said, ‘I’ve never drawn my weapon.’ So it’s television.
When you think about a TV show like 24, what happened for 24 hours that you had to stay awake and save the world every season? That’s a lot of coffee. That is really what it’s like with Bull. We have compressed timelines and we have a lot of fudged and simplified truths. But we try to stay away from too much simplification, and some of the things I have learned from doing Bull have blown my mind. They’re not tricks. It’s psychology and understanding why we make the choices we do. So understanding where people are, how people think… that’s why it’s a great show for me. I get tired, but I don’t get tired of making the show. It’s fascinating to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Being a producer on Bull has also informed Weatherly how expensive television drama is…
We shoot in New York City because we’re incentivised by a tax rebate. That starts to be a very important thing. NCIS: New Orleans doesn’t take place in New Orleans by accident. New Orleans is actually a very productive town for a lot of movies and television shows because they incentivise productions to come there. Producing television isn’t just smoking a cigar and saying, ‘Show me what you’ve got, kid.’ It’s really about taking off your blinders and seeing the totality of everything.

Bull also features Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku (right)

In the age of serialised storytelling, he believes procedural dramas are still extremely satisfying for viewers…
One of the terms I heard [describing] the closed-ended single-episode format was ‘evergreen.’ That’s so interesting, not just for purposes of syndication and rebroadcast but for the purposes of storytelling. The one-hour closed-ended story can be extremely satisfying from a viewer experience. When you watch Stranger Things or Game of Thrones, that arc can carry you on and on, and one hour leads to the next hour and the next hour. But sometimes you just want to watch an episode of Magnum PI and at the end of that, you’re like, ‘That just makes me so happy.’ That’s what CBS does really well as a studio and as a force in television, and I think that’s what I’m able to contribute to them. I don’t freak out that it’s not some hugely sophisticated, complicated story arc. I always find them slightly unsatisfying when I get to the end of Lost or something. So I like a series that’s closed and has layers that add on season after season. Mad Men was a show where if you just watched one episode of season four, you don’t know what the hell’s going on. That’s not a satisfying experience to me – and I loved Mad Men.

It’s taken a while for US broadcast networks to warm to the miniseries format…
Eleven years ago, a friend and I were trying to pitch a six-episode thing. We went to talk to some very important people in Hollywood but nobody understood what it was. I was like, ‘It’s like Prime Suspect from the UK. It’s just a shorter version. Bigger than a miniseries but smaller than a regular series.’ Everyone said there’s no way to monetise it, and that was the big thing back then. America has always just said, ‘We make 22 of them, here’s what it is.’ So it’s taken a while for all of this to fracture and get everyone thinking competitively. Look at what’s happened to music – the last 17 years has just been revolutionary. If I want to listen to something, there’s a hundred different ways to find it.

But Weatherly still enjoys the grind of making a 22-episode season…
Because I grew up with it and it’s comfortable for me, I love the thing I do. I wouldn’t make Bull if I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a crushing schedule, to be picked up at 04.45 to make television all day until 20.00. I’ve been making one-hour television non-stop; this is my 18th year. That’s a long time. Ask [Bones and SEAL Team star] David Boreanaz! There’s not a lot of us that have just been crunching it out. I have a great deal of understanding now of what it takes. A lot of people burn out and a lot of people have different expectations. But I love making 22.

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Crowd control

How far would you go to solve your daughter’s murder? That’s the question facing Jeffrey Tanner (played by Jeremy Piven), a tech entrepreneur who creates a crowdsourcing platform to help people around the world find the killer in Wisdom of the Crowd.

However, he finds the effects of the programme are far-reaching as it begins to be used to solve other crimes as well.

In this video, creator and executive producer Ted Humphrey explains how the series was developed for US broadcast network CBS, having originally been pitched as a serialised cable series.

In fact, Humphrey describes it as a “hybrid procedural,” similar to fellow CBS series The Good Wife, in which weekly episodes contained single stories while character arcs were built across whole seasons.

Wisdom of the Crowd won’t just focus on the good, Humphrey promises, but will also tackle the dark effects of crowdsourcing and the internet, where innocent people are tarnished by false allegations.

The show, which debuts on CBS on October 1, is produced by CBS Television Studios, Keshet Studios, Algorithm Entertainment and Universal Television and is distributed by CBS Studios International.

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Law and order

Inspired by the television series and feature film of the same name, CBS action drama S.W.A.T. tells the story of a specialised police tactical unit operating in LA. In particular, it centres on Daniel ‘Hondo’ Harrelson (Shemar Moore), who is torn between the police and looking after his own community.

Executive producers Shawn Ryan and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, who wrote the pilot, tell DQ about the origins of the series and how it was shaped by current events in the US as they sought to investigate how the police interact with communities.

They also reveal why they opted to design the series as an episode-of-the-week procedural for US network CBS and share their thoughts on the current trend for military-inspired drama series.

S.W.A.T. is produced by Sony Pictures Television in association with CBS Television and distributed by Sony.

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In the Navy

CBS military drama SEAL Team, which stars David Boreanaz (Bones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), follows the lives of the elite Navy SEALs as they train, plan and execute dangerous, high-stakes missions for the US.

Executive producers Sarah Timberman and Ben Cavell, who wrote the pilot, tell DQ why authenticity is key for the series, which they chose to focus on the people who carry out these missions, rather than the missions themselves.

Fellow executive producer Ed Relich also explains why the creative team didn’t want SEAL Team to simply be a ‘mission of the week’ drama, but one that tells stories through the show’s characters and their relationships with each other.

SEAL Team is produced by CBS Television Studios and Timberman-Beverly Productions for CBS and is distributed by CBS Studios International.

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Sci-fi high

Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.

When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.

The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.

The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.

Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.

The BBC’s Doctor Who currently stars Peter Capaldi

Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”

He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”

Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.

“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”

For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”

Channel 4 and AMC coproduction Humans centres on humanoid androids called ‘synths’

The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.

“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”

Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”

Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.

But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”

Travelers sees a group of time-travellers from the future attempting to save mankind in the present

Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.

The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.

Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.

One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.

“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”

Concept art for in-development Danish drama Unpunished

Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”

But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.

Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.

“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”

Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.

“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”

Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”

Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.

Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.

“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”


Clockwise from top: The first image from the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery pictured alongside The Next Generation and Voyager

Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek

In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.

All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.

Sam Vincent

At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.

Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.

Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.

I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.

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Measuring success

As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?

When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.

Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.

Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.

Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.

Wynona Earp gained ‘momentum’ via social media

Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”

The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.

Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”

Christophe Riandee

In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?

Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.

In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?

“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”

CBS’s Doubt was was cancelled after just two episodes

Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.

Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.

The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.

That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.

David Ozer

“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”

These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.

“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.

“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”

At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”

That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.

Netflix’s Pablo Escobar series Narcos is a social media sensation

For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.

“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”

Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”

MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”

Swedish Dicks broke viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay

Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.

Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”

He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.

“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”

Avingerne – an example of a DR drama with ‘a complex story told through relatable characters’

Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”

Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.

“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.

“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”

In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.

“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”

For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”

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Back in the room

DQ visits Big Light Productions to see a writers room in practice as executive producer Frank Spotnitz works on a second season of Ransom.

Imagine a writers room and you may well picture several people sitting around a big table, pens in hand and plenty of coffee within arm’s reach.

And on a visit to the offices of London-based Big Light Productions, DQ finds that isn’t far from the truth. In a fifth-floor room with a view across the city, three large desks have been pushed together and are covered with notepads and sheets of paper, laptops, pens, bottles of water and bowls filled with grapes, nuts and other treats.

Around the desks sit eight people – six writers and two script editors – who are in early development mapping out episodes for a potential second season of hostage drama Ransom. Created by David Vainola and Big Light CEO Frank Spotnitz, the series follows crisis and hostage negotiator Eric Beaumont (played by Luke Roberts), whose team is brought in to save lives when no one else can.

Frank Spotnitz

Season one debuted on CBS in the US and Canada’s Global TV on January 1 and will also air on Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France. All four networks coproduced the series, which is produced by Big Light, distributor Entertainment One, Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions.

Inside the writers room where work has been underway on season two since the beginning of the year, four cork boards are covered with notecards, each marked out with a different plot point or scene. Around the walls, there is memorabilia relating to previous Big Light series as well as shows Spotnitz has worked on himself. Posters from The X-Files, Hunted and The Man in the High Castle can be seen alongside a clapperboard from the set of Medici: Masters of Florence. Pictures of the Ransom cast are stuck to another wall.

As DQ pulls up a chair to sit in on the ongoing discussion, executive producer Spotnitz takes his place at the head of the table to listen to the latest episode outline. Whether leaning back with his arms folded or sitting forward to emphasise a point, the former X-Files showrunner wastes no time in offering notes as the episode is dissected, or leading discussions on character motivations and movements.

On several occasions he refers to movies to illustrate a point he is trying to make, and continually takes the writing team back to the beginning of the episode to iron out any wrinkles in the plotting.

Spotnitz has long championed writers rooms outside the US and describes the room at Big Light as a hybrid of UK and US production systems, using script editors to help guide the writing process in a way a showrunner might across the Atlantic. “I do think writers rooms are getting more traction outside the US,” he tells DQ later. “It won’t work for all shows. Really, you need eight or 10 episodes to even make it worthwhile. But with a certain number of shows, if they’re needed in a certain period of time, it’s just faster and I do think it’s better. The quality’s higher when you have all these people interrogating every beat of the story. They argue but it’s good because if you can survive that process, you have your whole story worked out and you go to the script process feeling really confident.”

Spotnitz jumps in and out of the room as his schedule permits – he’s also overseeing production of Canadian series The Indian Detective in South Africa and season two of aforementioned Italian historical drama Medici – leaving the other writers to get on with the task at hand in his absence.

Big Light’s hostage drama Ransom airs on CBS in the US and Global TV in Canada

“They’ve worked out a lot of it and then they tell me the story, and in a perfect world I’d say, ‘Great, go write it’ – but that rarely happens,” he admits. “Usually I go, ‘What about this and what about that?’ We talk about it, I’ll have read the story outlines that have been sent to broadcasters. There’s a lot of formal steps you have to go through because we have to please our studio and the broadcasters.

“But after season one, we know our show better and what worked well; we know our actors better and their strengths and chemistry. That’s one of the joys of doing television – you keep doing it, you don’t just do a movie and it’s over. We can learn and refine and do things we didn’t do before.”

In the room, it’s also clear that Spotnitz isn’t just thinking about the story. He might be imagining the budget total rocketing up when different settings are discussed for a particular scene, before suggesting the action be kept in a previous location.

“When I first started doing this, I remember thinking, ‘this sucks’ because we had to go back to an old location. But we’ve only got 10 days to shoot an episode and we can’t have 15 locations,” he says. “We’ve got to be practical. It forces you to simplify your storytelling and that’s actually really good. It’s hard to be simple but it’s better to be simple. So I’ve come to not resent it at all and to actually like it. The few times I’ve done episodes when I didn’t simplify things and I insisted we did all this production stuff, it hasn’t been better. There’s an economy to it that the audience responds to.”

The Ransom writers room is also notable for two of the scribes taking part – Bo Poraj and Susie Farrell – who were invited to join the team as the winners of a shadow writing scheme launched by Big Light and Creative Skillset, which works with the UK’s screen-based creative media industries to develop new talent.

Actor-turned-writer Poraj has worked on British soaps including EastEnders and Doctors, and the writers room experience offered a big step towards high-end drama that isn’t often available. “Getting your own stuff on screen is such a lottery,” he says. “Unless you get that break, it’s very hard. So hopefully a scheme like this is win-win because it gives us that development opportunity and also gives Big Light a potential talent pool to draw from in the future.”

Ransom stars Luke Roberts as negotiator Eric Beaumont

Poraj admits the process isn’t perfect, with hours of discussion often leading to dead ends that serve no use to the final script. “There have been days where it felt like we didn’t make any progress at all,” he says, “but sometimes you feel like that and then at the end of the day, you touch on something that fixes the whole problem and you realise it was worth spending five hours meandering around the subject.”

And despite the downsides to using a writers room, including the increased cost of keeping several writers in place across many weeks, Poraj suggests its something the UK drama industry should do more often.

“I know it’s more expensive but when you think of production budgets, as a percentage of that budget, without a decent script, you’ve got nothing,” he says. “Even the best director and the best actors aren’t going to make it compelling viewing. It seems to be a fairly expedient policy to not invest more time in script development. I hope we will move more towards that model in the UK. Collaborating can be much more fun as well. You get an idea for a script and you get to run it past seven smart people – it can only make it better, can’t it?”

Over the last seven years, Big Light has brought around 60 writers through its doors, having established writers rooms on every show it produces. Spotnitz believes it’s a natural opportunity to train new writers.

“In the UK it’s very challenging. Broadcasters tend to buy drama from established writers – and if you’re not one of those established writers, it’s very hard to get your show commissioned,” he explains. “But drama is growing because of things like Netflix, Amazon and international coproductions. We need people who are trained to work collaboratively, who are comfortable sitting in that room batting around ideas and talking with other writers. Younger writers are really eager. They have watched American television and they’re not intimidated by it. They don’t feel like a writer must sit by themselves in a shed and write, they’re open to coming in and it’s fun. You laugh and make friends and go for drinks. It’s more fun than sitting by yourself with your computer.”

Kaye Elliott, programme lead for Creative Skillset’s High End TV (HETV) Council, adds: “The scheme provides a fantastic and unique opportunity for writers to learn about the process of working in a writing team for HETV. Creative Skillset is proud to support such an excellent initiative and encourages the development of more UK writers rooms to give writers more opportunities to further progress their skills and build their networks.”

Spotnitz concludes that ultimately, whatever the writing process used, there is no perfect story. “You get to the point where people say, ‘I enjoyed that,’ and that’s success,” he says. “There’s no true success, and perfection is not achievable. You’ll never get there. But that’s why this is an interesting job. You’ll never master this, you’ll never get bored because it’s impossible to say, ‘I’ve got this.’ Every story is so unique and different with different variables, it’s like a new puzzle to put together.”

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Peter Lenkov

As US drama MacGyver prepares for its UK debut, airing on Sky1 on February 8, the showrunner and executive producer of the CBS drama – who also takes charge of network sibling Hawaii Five-0 – finds room for a pair of Hawaii-set series and an ‘honest, raw portrayal of teenage life’ in his list.

Magnum PI
This was my jam growing up. It had everything a teenage boy could want – a strong hero, action, laughs, girls in bikinis and a super-cool car. It was fluff, popcorn entertainment, but it’s also the reason I wanted to be a TV writer. Well, it was one episode in particular – an early episode in season three entitled: Did You See the Sun Rise?. It was a mythology episode, chock full of backstory on my beloved characters – Thomas, Rick and TC.
The episode made sense of their bond, their dedication to one another and the reason these three mainlanders all ended up in Hawaii together. At the end of that particular episode, Magnum did something completely unexpected, something I had never seen a hero do before – he shot his nemesis in cold blood. Justified or not, the moment blew my mind. And I knew then and there I wanted to do just that – tell stories that would surprise people, and maybe even blow their minds.

The Wire
I’m certain this gem is on everyone’s shortlist – and I came to it a little later than most. In fact, it was the main topic of conversation in the CSI: NY writers’ room at the time (nearly a decade ago already – wow) and I felt left out (for good reason).
A friend, on her third viewing by then, lent me season one and I ended up watching it all in one weekend. By the following weekend, I had seen every episode. Sixty hours! And I still managed to find time to go to work. Not sure how I did it, but I did. I had to, I was addicted. In less than seven days I was a Wire junkie, hungry for more, looking for anything related to the series, any behind-the-scenes insights, anything that would somehow extend the rush.
It was craftsmanship at its best. It didn’t play by conventional TV rules. Every season was a new story. New characters. A new theme. I hadn’t seen this done before and I believe it’s influenced cable for the better. The Wire was also my introduction to binge-watching, and quite honestly everything else has paled in comparison since.

James at 16 (originally James at 15)
Sure, it only lasted one season. But at the time it aired, I was a few years younger than its lead (Lance Kerwin) and I was very eager to grow up as fast as I could. And this show was a very honest, very raw portrayal of teenage life.
James was my ‘older brother.’ He gave me a glimpse of what the upcoming years would be like. My parents had no interest in this show, which made it all the more compelling. It was like I had this secret, this friend who I’d meet once a week to instill life lessons. From navigating issues with his parents to his first sexual experience, I was along for the ride, the silent wingman soaking it all up. Despite being nominated for a bunch of awards, by the time James turned 17 the show was gone.

The Beachcombers
Over the years TV has moved me in many ways, from influencing my storytelling to helping shepherd me through tough times. It’s been the great escape many a night. The Beachcombers has been one of those welcome distractions. This north-of-the-border production featuring Canada’s multicultural heritage is one of the longest-running shows in CBC history.
Was it good? Honestly, I don’t remember. Almost 400 episodes and I can’t for the life of me recite a plot point. But what I do remember is how I felt watching it. It made me giddy. Re-runs helped put me to bed at night with a great big smile on my face. And no matter how tough the day was, Relic (Robert Clothier)’s crazy antics would wash it all away.

M*A*S*H
The only show I have to watch if I happen to catch a re-run on TV. It’s comedy-drama at its best. Its poignant storytelling and social commentary made war fun, and God knows there’s nothing to laugh at there.

Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980)
Another show set in Hawaii. The OG series. The one that introduced Hawaii to the world. This Five-0 was my father’s favourite show. I have fond memories of sitting by his knee while he ate his dessert, usually a bowl of fruit, and got lost in the crime of the week.
But it was way more than a well-crafted police procedural with a cast of strong characters led by Jack Lord – this was my father’s weekly escape from our brutal Montreal winters. This was a destination on his bucket list. And this experience is a constant reminder of the power of a location; how a setting can be just as important as anything else.

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Medical examiner

Fact trumps fiction in US medical drama Pure Genius, which offers a glimpse into treatments of the future. Michael Pickard discusses the show with writer David Renaud.

David Renaud
David Renaud

From storylines featuring mind-reading technology to using spider silk screws to repair a broken leg, US series Pure Genius might appear more medical fantasy than medical drama.

But as staff writer David Renaud reveals, there’s nothing in the show that’s completely fictitious.

“Everything is real, everything is based on reality,” he says of the CBS drama, which began its first 13-episode season in October. “There’s this weird perception that it isn’t but it doesn’t take much Google searching to find out most of this stuff is happening. When [showrunner] Jason Katims convened the writers’ room, he did not want to make a science fiction show. He wanted to make an aspirational medical show and that’s been the directive we’ve tried to follow as we explore the technology and medicine behind a lot of the cases in the show.”

Set at futuristic hospital Bunker Hill, the story centres on young Silicon Valley tech billionaire James Bell (played by Augustus Prew) who builds the ultimate cutting-edge hospital that treats only the rarest medical mysteries. Lending credibility to this new venture is Dr Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney), a maverick surgeon who’s the first to discover that his boss’s mission is to take the bureaucracy out of medicine, use the most forward thinking technology practitioners and just save lives – including his own.

The cast also features Odette Annable, Reshma Shetty, Aaron Jennings, Ward Horton and Brenda Song.

Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) executive produces with David Semel and Michelle Lee for Universal Television Studios and CBS Television Studios. Distribution is handled by NBCUniversal International Distribution, with Universal Channel picking up the show in the UK.

pure-genius
Pure Genius has its roots in real and developing medical techniques

Renaud is a family-doctor-turned-TV-writer who left medicine to complete the Disney-ABC Writing Program in 2015/16. His first show was ABC’s Blood & Oil, before he joined the writers’ room of Pure Genius earlier this year.

And it was while reading the pilot script for the show, formerly known as Bunker Hill, that the medical drama stood out to him, particularly due to the similarities he shared with the lead character.

“I had a spinal cord injury when I was in high school and after that injury, I woke up in a hospital room with the doctor telling me I was never going to walk again. So I decided I was going to try to find a cure for paralysis,” Renaud reveals. “The fact I went to med school to find a cure for myself really spoke to me about James Bell. I definitely connected to James’ motivation [to use the hospital to find a cure for his own illness].

“I’m also a huge fan of Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and all of Jason’s work, so any opportunity to work with him, no matter what the show was, I would have snapped up. So it was just lucky he was getting into the medical drama game.”

This isn’t your usual medical drama, however. From the opening scenes of the pilot, it’s clear Bunker Hill is a very special hospital where all manner of technology and techniques are used to save patients’ lives by any means possible. But under Katims’ leadership, characters always come first when it comes to creating storylines for each episode.

“Jason is really a character person and cares about why patients are there and how an illness can impact their life in a positive and negative way,” Renaud says. “We’ll usually start with character stories and bring in a really cool technology, like the liver regeneration. Jason wanted to tell a story about whether two people can come together over a broken relationship and then we needed to find some medical way to tell that story. I found this interesting article about regenerating the livers of alcoholics – so what if the only person that could give someone a liver was an alcoholic? That research is actually being done in Edinburgh; everything on the show is really happening.”

Pure Genius 2
Maverick surgeon Dr Walter Wallace is played by Dermot Mulroney

So while everything shown on Pure Genius has its roots in reality, Renaud admits there have been occasions where some stories look further into the future than others.

“In the beginning, Jason would always ask if something was real because he didn’t want anything fake,” he continues. “Then we got to the point where he trusted us! Jason was very particular about everything being rooted in reality. The brain reading in episode one is definitely pushing that technology more than five minutes into the future. They’re doing brain-to-brain communication – that is definitely happening, at a very basic level. It’s a bit of a leap but it’s definitely happening.”

Bringing new medical procedures and techniques to the small screen isn’t just a job for the writers, however, as both production designer Steven Jordan and property master Jeff Johnson are tasked with creating whatever is in the script, with just days to complete the job before each episode starts filming.

“We have a lot of sets built that Steven’s designed but every episode has a new location,” Renaud notes. “There’s also a lot of props and medical technologies we give them and they have a week-and-a-half to turn around, so they read the script and have got to have spider silk screws or a liver to pull out of someone to put into someone else.

“For the props, we’ll usually give them examples of things in reality they can be based on and Jeff will go and put his interpretation on it for the Bunker Hill version. Sometimes there are things we’ve read about in a research paper and there’s no way to tell what something looks like. But then Jason and the director can weigh in on what something looks like. To me, as a young writer, it gets turned around incredibly efficiently and very fast.”

PG
Pure Genius is set in the fictitious Bunker Hill hospital

With Pure Genius joining a list of US medical dramas that boasts long-running series such as Grey’s Anatomy and daytime soap General Hospital as well as Code Black, Chicago Med and Mercy Street, among others, the genre continues to find compelling stories to tell against the backdrop of life-and-death situations.

And it’s for that very reason that Renaud believes hospital-set scripted series remain so popular among viewers.

“Not everyone’s been to space like in Battlestar Galactica but everybody has been touched by a health crisis, whether themselves or a family member,” he observes. “So I feel like these stories are relatable, the stakes are high, medical dramas tend to do well when lives get saved and there’s something about the hope that somebody will do everything they can to save your life. There’s a bit of wish fulfilment tucked in there.

“They’re not going anywhere. There will always be medical dramas because these are human stories, and they’re great stories to tell.”

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Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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Networks bank on spin-off series

The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper
The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper’s younger years

In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.

According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.

Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.

The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on
The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on Bryan Callen’s character Mr Meller

The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.

And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.

US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.

There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil
Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil

However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.

There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.

Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.

Pulling
Pulling is set to be remade in the US

In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.

Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.

Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).

Darren Criss in Glee
Darren Criss in Glee

Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.

However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.

In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”

Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.

Fauda
Fauda’s second season has been picked up by Netflix

Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.

Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.

The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.

In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.

Valkyrien
Valkyrien will air on Walter Presents

Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.

The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.

“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”

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Grisham gets the TV treatment

The 1997 Rainmaker movie
The 1997 Rainmaker movie

For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.

For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.

Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.

Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film
Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film, which is being adapted by ABC

The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”

Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.

Barracuda
Barracuda has been picked up by BBC3

Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.

NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.

Guilt
Guilt will not return to Freeform

Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.

And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.

The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.

It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer.  Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”

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NBC has strong start with This Is Us

This Is Us
Season one of This Is Us will now comprise 18 episodes

After a promising debut for This Is Us, NBC has given the new drama an additional five episodes, taking the total number of instalments for the first season to 18. The decision was made on the eve of the show’s second episode.

Citing Live+5-day data, NBC said the show’s premiere attracted 14.3 million viewers. It also set records on NBC’s digital platform.

Commenting on the decision to extend the show from its initial 13-episode order, NBC’s Jennifer Salke said: “It’s a rare moment in this business when a show so instantly delivers both critical acclaim and hit ratings, but This Is Us is just such an achievement. Creator Dan Fogelman, along with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the producers, cast and crew, has delivered the kind of heart and depth that resonates with every segment of the audience and we’re proud to extend it.”

This Is Us is also making waves in the international market, with Channel 4 in the UK picking up the show last week. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, said: “This Is Us is unmissably life affirming with a warmth that has drawn critical acclaim and bumper ratings. It’s a great addition to our slate of acquired shows – from Deutschland 83 to Fargo.”

Fogelman’s other new series, Pitch, hasn’t had such a bright start, however. The story of the first-ever female Major League Baseball pitcher, the show was one of Fox’s weaker performers last week, bringing in 4.2 million viewers.

It has had a decent amount of critical approval, which means it will almost certainly complete its initial 13-episode run, but it will need to win over audiences quickly to secure an extended run or second season.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

Among the other new US series to have hit the air, CBS reboot MacGyver has had a strong start, securing an audience of around 10.9 million for its first episode. This is the best performance by a Friday-night scripted series on the network since Hawaii Five-0 in 2014.

With the show’s debut clearly benefiting from in-built name awareness, it will be interesting to see if it manages to hold on to that number through episodes two and three. If it does, it means the revival is an inspired move. If it drops away quickly, it will resemble ABC’s experience with The Muppets last year – namely a strong start followed by rapid loss of audience interest.

The fate of MacGyver may have some influence on whether the big four US networks continue to look at reviving classic series. Others currently in the works are The Rockford Files and LA Law, and success for MacGyver will certainly mean more.

By contrast to MacGyver, ABC’s Notorious has started very badly and looks like a prime candidate for early cancellation. Fox’s reboot of The Exorcist, with 2.9 million viewers, has also started slowly but may find its niche in international distribution because of its name recognition and supernatural subject matter.

Still in the US, FX has revealed that season four of its vampire virus series The Strain will be the last. The Strain’s writer and showrunner  is Carlton Cuse, who is also coming to the end of A&E’s Bates Motel.

The Strain will conclude with its fourth outing
The Strain will conclude with its fourth outing

There had been talk of The Strain operating to a five-season story arc, but four seasons is probably enough to play the concept out. Strong in season one, the pace and direction of the narrative started to falter in season two – something that has been reflected in the ratings.

The downward path of the ratings tells the story. While season one averaged 2.2 million, season two came in at 1.34 million (this season also suffered from an awkward piece of recasting). Now in season three, the show is averaging 1.1 million but the latest episode attracted just 880,000 – the sign of a franchise coming to the end of its life.

Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for Australian drama. On the domestic front, Nine Network has commissioned a second season of Doctor Doctor, a local comedy drama about a formerly high-flying surgeon who is forced to work as a GP in the small country town where he grew up. The series, which sounds similar to DRG’s hit format Doc Martin, was only two episodes into the first season when Nine announced the recommission.

The show’s synopsis says: “When he is knocked off his pedestal and on to the Impaired Registrants Programme, prodigal Sydney surgeon and party boy Hugh Knight must return to his home in rural Whyhope where he might learn to swallow his pride and mend his ways – or not.”

Deep Water has been picked up by Acorn
Deep Water has been picked up by Acorn

Meanwhile, US-based SVoD platform Acorn has acquired two Australian series from distributor DCD Rights. The first is Deep Water, a four-part series inspired by a crime wave targeting gay people in Sydney’s coastal communities in the 1980s and 90s. The show is a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales.

Acorn TV has also picked up the second season of political thriller The Code, which is produced by Playmaker Media for Australian public broadcaster ABC. Both series have also been acquired by BBC4 in the UK, a channel that is often used as a barometer of whether a show has international sales potential.

Finally, some desperately sad news this week with the untimely death of Gary Glasberg, executive producer/showrunner of NCIS and creator/executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans. Glasberg, just 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep on September 28.

A well-liked figure, Glasberg joined NCIS in 2009 and helped confirm its status as one of the biggest drama hits in the world – a huge ratings success in the US and widely distributed internationally.

Gary Glasberg
Gary Glasberg

His previous credits included The Mentalist, Crossing Jordan and Bones.

“Today is an overwhelmingly sad day for NCIS, CBS and anyone who was blessed to spend time with Gary Glasberg,” said CBS president of entertainment Glenn Geller. “We have lost a cherished friend, gifted creative voice, respected leader and, most memorably, someone whose warmth and kindness was felt by all around him. Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife, Mimi, his two sons and all his family and friends.”

CBS TV Studios president David Stapf added: “He brought kindness, integrity and class to everything he did. His remarkable talent as a writer and producer was only matched by his ability to connect with people.”

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Drama royalty: The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King

Michelle and Robert King reflect on seven years as showrunners of hit US drama The Good Wife and reveal how they overcame early setbacks to create one of the biggest shows on television.

When the curtain came down on the 2015/16 US TV season at the end of the summer, married showrunning duo Michelle and Robert King had overseen 35 hours of programming in a single year.

The creators of The Good Wife concluded the award-winning CBS legal drama with its seventh and final season this May, before launching their new 13-part political satire BrainDead on the same network the following month.

“It’s more than we’ll ever attempt again,” says Robert of the pair’s hectic year, before Michelle adds: “But it just felt like absolutely the right time to do BrainDead. You couldn’t ask for better timing than an election year, so we dove in.”

The series stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel, a young, fresh-faced Capitol Hill staffer who discovers that the government has shut down – and bugs are eating the brains of congress members and Hill workers.

“It was harder to write, due to its serialised nature, but much more fun to edit than The Good Wife,” Robert says of the new show. “I think that’s because the jokes are more obviously placed. They’re not as subtle. We know when something hits in the BrainDead editing room, whereas in the editing room for The Good Wife, we were always feeling our way towards it.”

A spin-off from The Good Wife (pictured) is coming to CBS All Access in February 2017
A spin-off from The Good Wife (pictured) is coming to CBS All Access in February 2017

Michelle admits to being slightly ambivalent about the end of The Good Wife, something CBS confirmed after the Kings had already revealed their intention to step down as co-showrunners.

“I very much miss the characters and I miss the people we were able to work with on a daily basis,” she explains, “but I feel very grateful we were able to bring the story to a close the way we wanted to.”

Robert continues: “On the human side, we stayed friends with everyone and I have a feeling that if this had dwindled on for another year or two, we’d have ended up hating each other.

“We knew from the second season that if we ever got picked up for more seasons, we’d only go seven seasons ourselves.”

The Good Wife follows Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), who returns to her career as a defence attorney after a very public sex and political corruption scandal lands her husband in jail.

The Kings say the fact they had an ending point in mind made the drama better, as it meant they could tell a complete story instead of having to constantly drive characters forward towards a conclusion that never gets any closer.

“The only way you can stay sane is this idea that you’re telling a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end,” says Robert. “I think most people would say the fifth season was one of our best. One of the reasons it rose up so well is we could turn over a lot of plot cards, but also we knew we were in sight of the end game for (main character) Alicia. That allowed us to take more chances and tell more interesting stories. It’s not just taking jabs at life and trying to show something that may go on for 20 years.”

Coming from a career in features, the Kings didn’t find instant success in television. Legal drama In Justice, starring Kyle MacLachlan, ran on ABC in 2006 but was cancelled after its initial 13-episode run. The following year, the same network then rejected their pilot called Judy’s Got a Gun, which starred Louise Lombard as a woman balancing her life as a single mother and a detective who solves bizarre suburban crimes. The Good Wife then debuted in 2009.

Braindead
BrainDead centres on politicians being taken over by brain-eating bugs and stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“A lot of it is luck,” Michelle says of the TV drama business. “I liked In Justice. Those actors were terrific but, for whatever reason, it didn’t click at that time on that network. You just have to try as hard as you can every time you get a chance.”

Robert adds: “The lessons from those experiences kicked us in the ass so we knew that if we ever had the chance to do another show, we would grab it by the horns right from the beginning and never let up. The only thing we learned was not to let the show drift, to really grab hold of it and make it different right from the word go. That’s a good lesson to take into life and you probably need failures to get you there to do it.”

Robert attributes much of the credit for finally striking television gold with The Good Wife – which won five Emmys and one Golden Globe, among other awards – to the cast, which was headed by Margulies alongside Josh Charles, Christine Baranski, Archie Panjabi and Chris Noth.

“It was Julianna in tandem with a premise that people found interesting,” he says. “The premise brought true sympathy right from the off and engaged with a certain audience that wanted to see empowerment. On top of that, we just had a really good cast. The writing possibly helped it get into another year or two later on, but what started it off and made it commercial was that cast and that premise.”

The Good Wife employed a team of seven writers who scoured the news in the hope of finding stories that would make them stand out from other shows such as Law & Order. They also employed three staff lawyers to ensure the drama stayed on the right side of reality.

“So when we saw them getting red-faced and screaming at each other, we knew we had a fairly good story,” Robert reveals, “because if it created that much argument, you knew you were hitting a very interesting grey area of the law, which is what we really love.”

But will legal series continue to be one of the staples of television drama? The husband-and-wife team beg to differ. “I believe legal stories will continue to be popular,” Michelle insists. “They’re evergreen because there are high stakes and you can tell interesting human stories with a procedural element to it.”

The Good Wife's Christine Baranski will reprise her role in the forthcoming spin-off
The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski will reprise her role in the forthcoming spin-off

But Robert is unconvinced: “Can I disagree with Michelle? I’m not sure if they will continue. It’s a hard form to make interesting and I worry it will fall back to who gives the best speech in court. I don’t think I’ll ever watch those shows again. Courtrooms can also be tedious.”

The Kings will be back in court, however, following the announcement of a Good Wife spin-off that will launch on SVoD platform CBS All Access in February 2017. Returning as co-showrunners, they will oversee the as-yet-untitled series, which sees Baranski reprising her role as Diane Lockhart alongside Cush Jumbo as Lucca Quinn and Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold.

The series will open one year after the final episode of The Good Wife and will revolve around an enormous financial scandal that has destroyed a young lawyer’s reputation, while simultaneously wiping out her mentor Lockhart’s savings.

Forced out of their firm, Lockhart & Lee, they join Quinn at one of Chicago’s pre-eminent law firms, where Gold begins as Diane’s secretary and soon discovers a passion for investigating.

It is produced by CBS Television Studios, Scott Free Productions and the Kings’ own prodco King Size Productions, and distributed by CBS Studios International – all of which formed the team behind both The Good Wife and BrainDead.

“There were two things that got us intrigued by it,” Robert says of the new show’s origins. “One is that Christine and Cush wanted to do it. Christine obviously has been there all seven seasons (of The Good Wife) and we’ve become close to her, while Cush, who we only met a year-and-a-half ago, we just fell in love with. Their involvement made us more intrigued about how this would turn out.

“The other thing was that we had created a very close family of crew, craftsmen, production designers, ADs, directors of photography – all these people created this really great unit and we had almost no one leave over seven years. In fact, some of the crew members met their loved ones at some of our cast parties and business parties, so it felt like a good idea to keep it going.”

Enjoying married life for 30 years, the couple reveal they have no fixed boundaries in how they split their showrunning duties, while Michelle admits their work and personal lives do have a habit of overlapping.

“It’s all hands on deck most of the time,” Robert reveals. “It’s just that when I might be in the editing room, Michelle will go to the casting sessions and so on. Michelle’s involvement is much more in wardrobe, the look of the show, in production design, those elements – and I bring the food!”

For their next project, the Kings are developing a pilot for Amazon called Vatican City. It tells the story of a new Pope who, knowing he cannot appoint any women as priests, decides to buck tradition by hiring a female American newsreader to become his spokesperson.

But with new dramas coming in 2016/17 including adaptations of films such as The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon and a reboot of detective classic MacGyver, are broadcasters still willing to take risks on original stories?

“There’s a worry that TV might start following what the feature business has done, pursuing only pre-existing ideas,” says Robert. “TV is changing almost year to year and it’s amazing to see – just over the course of The Good Wife – how ratings don’t seem to matter as much as they did, the advancement of streaming and Netflix being a massive producer of new content. And now writers are so in demand that it’s sometimes even hard to put a writing staff together. So I’m a little worried there might be an emphasis on pre-existing content – and the better those shows do, the more worrisome that becomes, because success is the best teacher of what to do next.”

He adds: “But that’s not what we’re doing. We have a production company and the next show we’re doing is Vatican City. So we’re trying to pursue original content. And most of the showrunners we admire – the likes of Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) – are still pursuing original content as well.”

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US network shows prepare for lift-off

The autumn season has just started in the US – which means TV executives around the world will be watching with interest to see which new dramas live up to their pre-launch hype. This week, we look at some of the network shows that are buzzing.

lethal-weapon-foxLethal Weapon: Movie reboots didn’t fare very well last year, with Rush Hour and Minority Report adaptations among those canned. But the buzz around Lethal Weapon has been pretty positive since the LA Screenings in May. Based on the iconic Mel Gibson/Danny Glover action franchise, the show centres on two cops with very different problems. The elder is returning to the job after a heart attack, while his new partner is reckless and borderline suicidal after the deaths of his wife and their unborn child. Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the lead roles appear to have developed a good on-screen chemistry. The show premieres on Fox on Wednesday, September 21.

designated-survivor-abcDesignated Survivor: What’s not to like about a show that stars Kiefer Sutherland (24) as man who unexpectedly becomes president after an attack wipes out the US administration? Distributed globally by eOne International, this ABC show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds). Sutherland will be at Mipcom in Cannes next month to give a keynote speech, which should increase the show’s buzz on the international market. It premieres on Wednesday September 21.

this-is-us-nbc-pickup-nbcThis Is Us: A different kind of show to the above pair, This Is Us follows the stories of a group of people who share the same birthday. Critics have responded warmly to the opening episode and are comparing it to Parenthood, which ran for six seasons on NBC. Variety had some reservations about the show’s sustainability but still said: “This Is Us manages to both craft an intimate series of portraits and stitch them together. The result is an episode that allows the viewer to marvel at the beauty and mystery of life – at the surprising little grace notes of fate and commonality that bind us together – while getting to know the major characters and their difficulties.” The show was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. He also created the 2015 series Galavant. This Is Us is an NBC show that will premiere on Tuesday September 20.

bullcbsBull: CBS’s new line-up hasn’t attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from critics. But in a market starved of procedurals, Bull is a show to watch out for. It stars Michael Weatherly as a psychologist who runs a trial consulting firm and can read the minds of a jury and influence their verdict. Weatherly starred in NCIS for 13 years before switching to Bull, which means it will probably debut well. It is also regarded as a good fit for CBS. If it starts strongly, expect European buyers to be interested. The show debuts on Tuesday September 20.

timeless-nbc-imageTimeless: AdAge does a report each year with TV Guide listing the upcoming shows audiences are most excited by. It’s pretty accurate, with top-ranking shows generally getting picked up for a full season by networks. One that is showing up strongly this year is NBC’s Timeless, the latest in a flurry of time-travel shows. In this one, a criminal steals a time machine and tries to destroy America by altering past events like the Hindenburg disaster. A soldier, a history professor and a scientist try to stop him. Some critics have hammered the logic of the plot, but are predicting it will appeal to the same audience as Blindspot. There’s just a chance, though, that it will be this year’s Minority Report. Timeless will debut on NBC on Monday October 3.

pitch-premiere-moves-foxThe Pitch: Fox has led the way in on-screen diversity and The Pitch follows that pattern. It tells the story of pitcher Ginny Baker, who becomes the first woman to play in the major leagues (for the San Diego Padres). This column has previously discussed the problem of authenticity in sports dramas, but the good news here is that Major League Baseball has backed the show by allowing the use of its teams and logos in the story. Adweek said: “One of fall’s most ambitious pilots is also one of its best, with a compelling show that could appeal to both sports fans and viewers who like female-centric dramas. With Scandal delayed until midseason, this could resonate with fans of that show looking for an alternative on Thursdays at 21.00.” Interestingly, The Pitch was co-created by Dan Fogelman, who could find himself with two hits on his hands this year. It debuts on NBC on Thursday September 22.

convictionabcConviction: The highly regarded actor Hayley Atwell is back on TV after a couple of seasons as Marvel’s Agent Carter. Now she’s a brilliant but wayward lawyer who is given the job of running New York’s ‘conviction integrity unit,’ which investigates cases where innocent people may have ended up behind bars. Atwell may pull some Marvel fans over to this show, but it is generally regarded as a pretty safe procedural. If it rates well, however, it will be of interest to international buyers. The Conviction premieres on Monday October 3 on ABC.

frequency1Frequency: Inevitably, most of the pre-launch hype surrounds shows on the Big Four networks. But network number five, The CW, also has an interesting show on the way. Based on the 2000 movie, Frequency is another time-travel series in which a female cop discovers she is able to speak to her dead father via his old ham radio. Her attempts to save his life change the present in unforeseen ways. To fix the damage, she has to work with her father across time to solve a decades-old murder case. The AdAge/TV Guide survey rates this as a decent prospect. Premiere is Wednesday October 5.

Footnote: We decided to focus on the positives this week, but shows that already seem to have storm clouds overhead include ABC’s Notorious, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox’s The Exorcist. These seem the best tips for early cancellation at present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Le Carré and Les Misérables in le news

John Le Carré's works have proved popular among TV producers
John Le Carré’s works have proved popular among TV producers

UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.

Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.

The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.

Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.

Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.

The 2012 film version of Les Misérables
The 2012 film version of Les Misérables

Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”

Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.

The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.

It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.

Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”

The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four
The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four

Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.

The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.

Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”

Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”

Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.

The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents
The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents

The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.

As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.

Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”

John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return
John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return

Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.

Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.

Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.

Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”

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Starz Powers ahead but drops its Sails

Power is going from strength to strength
Power is going from strength to strength

As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.

The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.

The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.

As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.

Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”

Black Sails' end is on the horizon
Black Sails’ end is on the horizon

There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.

Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”

Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.

So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.

San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.

Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix's Marvel titles
Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix’s Marvel titles, launching on September 30

Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.

At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.

In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.

Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.

Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”

Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon
Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon

Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.

Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”

There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.

Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser (photo: Ian West/PA Wire)
Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser
(photo: Ian West/PA Wire)

A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.

Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.

One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).

Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”

Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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The growing complexity of commissioning

Vinyl has been cancelled
Vinyl has been cancelled

The process of renewing and cancelling scripted shows used to be pretty straightforward. But these days there is a growing number of variations on this theme.

Recently, for example, we shone a spotlight on Nashville, which was cancelled by ABC and then revived by CMT. And this week, we have a reverse example in the shape of HBO’s Vinyl.

In this case, the music-based series was initially given a second season but has now been cancelled. Despite much hype and creators including Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the first season didn’t rate well and was a prime candidate to get the chop when it finished airing in April.

Instead, programming chief Michael Lombardo decided to stick with it. Now, however, Lombardo has been replaced by Casey Bloys and it is he who has called time on the series. A similar thing happened to VH1’s Hindsight earlier in the year, though in that case it was a change in editorial direction, not bad ratings, that drove the decision.

‘Uncancellations’ and ‘unrenewals’ are not the only new developments in the scripted market. As we’ve reported before, there is also a growing trend for US networks to order two or three seasons of a hit show in one go as a way of locking up the key talent involved (a high-profile example being Netflix’s Orange is the New Black).

The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom

We’re also seeing situations where international coproductions have to rejig their broadcast partner structure because one of them drops out or is no longer regarded as suitable. Netflix, for example, has just replaced BBC America as a partner on period series The Last Kingdom.

Then there is the emerging tendency for shows to be co-commissioned by networks (such as the recent simulcast of Roots across A+E’s main US cable channels) and for commissions that are destined to start their life on OTT or SVoD platforms.

We’ve seen Amazon, Netflix and Hulu lead the way on this latter development, of course, but now we have a number of shows that have opened or will open their account on platforms like Crackle, BBC iPlayer or CBS All Access.

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, CBS CEO and president Les Moonves talked about the decision to debut the latest TV reboot of Star Trek on CBS All Access, an OTT platform that costs US$5.99 per month. It is due to launch in January.

According to Moonves, every part of CBS wanted to get its hands on Star Trek first – and there was also a lot of interest from third-party platforms like Netflix. But it’s a sign of the changing profile of the TV business that a company like CBS that makes most of its money from advertising and syndication/distribution should place this iconic property on a nascent subscription service.

Penny Dreadful's creator has called time on the show
Penny Dreadful’s creator, John Logan, has called time on the show

Other interesting developments have seen creators, rather than networks, call time on series.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, for example, was still in good shape when it came to the end of season three. But creator John Logan has simply decided it has reached its natural end: “I created Penny Dreadful to tell the story of a woman grappling with her faith, and with the demons inside her,” he said. “For me, the character of Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) is the heart of this series. From the beginning, I imagined her story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finding peace as she returns to her faith.”

This is an interesting dynamic, because it runs counter to the usual notion of TV networks being the all-powerful decision-makers, with creatives holding their breath in anticipation of a recommission. As TV becomes increasingly reliant on A-list auteurs and high-profile actors for content that cuts through the clutter of competition, it will encounter this situation more and more.

Maybe networks and distributors will want six or seven seasons of a show in order to fully monetise their investment, but the creative in question may only want to do two or three seasons before following their muse somewhere else. It’s an interesting conundrum that is an inevitable part of a TV system that has become more film-like in terms of its approach. In the case of actors, the problem can be addressed through the use of anthology-style series, but with writers it’s not so simple.

Reference to anthologies is, of course, another example of how the traditional commissioning model is adapting to the realities of 21st century television. Franchises like American Horror Story, Fargo and True Detective are all examples of how networks can, in effect, get a completely new show while leverage existing brand awareness.

Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf
Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf

This kind of renewal can have a re-energising effect on a show – and it’s not the only way that the drama business tries to breathe new life into shows.

Showrunner replacement, especially in the context of the US, is an increasingly common way of trying to sustain a franchise that networks like but don’t think is firing on all cylinders – or where the original showrunner is maybe running out of juice, or distracted by other projects.

We’ve also seen the interesting example of Supergirl moving from CBS to The CW in pursuit of a more appropriate audience.

Finally, in the increasingly complex world of commissioning and renewal, we’ve seen the emergence of the spin-off, which, like the anthology, seeks to marry fresh content with brand track record. Dick Wolf’s Chicago family of shows for NBC and Fear The Walking Dead for AMC show that this approach can work across the range. All in all then, the world of hits and misses, renewals and cancellations, has become much more sophisticated in the multiplatform universe.

Away from the complexities of commissioning and cancellation, one of the big new debuts of the week was Greenleaf, a new scripted series for Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that stars Winfrey herself. The premiere of the drama attracted an audience of 3.04 million and a 2.18 rating in OWN’s target market of women aged 25 to 54. That makes it the biggest series launch in OWN’s five-year history.

Written by Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey and Clement Virgo, Greenleaf is produced by Lionsgate and explores the inner workings of the powerful family behind a Memphis megachurch.

With its predominantly African-American cast and characters, it’s the latest example of the pulling power of shows that appeal to the black audience in the US. It’s also an example of the immense appeal of Winfrey in any screen incarnation (chat show, TV drama or film).

Compared to other cable networks, Greenleaf was the most-watched show on its debut evening. It is also the second-most-watched scripted cable debut of 2016 so far after FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson – which reinforces the point about subject matter that resonates strong with the black community.

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