Tag Archives: Daredevil

The Walking Dead reopens violence debate

the-walking-dead-64
The Walking Dead’s latest episode has sparked a social media furore

Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”

He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.

To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.

More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.

Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.

The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.

Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.

“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”

The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?

gameofthronesGame of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.

hannibal1_2553735bHannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.

sons-of-anarchy-seasoSons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”

american-horror-story-hotelAmerican Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.

the-cast-of-vikingsVikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.

the-strainThe Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.

daredevil-the-punisherDaredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”

boardwalk-empire-buscemiBoardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”

followingThe Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.

ozOz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”

The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to be an SVoD audience sleuth

Netflix's Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit

Some producers and distributors like to sell their shows to SVoD giants Netflix and Amazon because no one gets to see the audience figures aside from the platforms themselves. While this might seem to run counter to standard industry practice when selecting a platform partner, there is a certain logic to it.

Such is the range of entertainment options these days that drama launches on free and pay TV often disappoint when judged purely on the basis on same-day or live+3-day ratings.

A producer might have made the best show in the history of the small screen, but there is still a strong likelihood that the target audience won’t discover it for weeks, months or even a couple of years. In my case, I’m about to watch Penny Dreadful, which debuted in May 2014 and came to an end this June. But I’m still excited.

This delayed reaction would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that influential media outlets will be tempted to report that a show’s launch was ‘modest,’ ‘lukewarm’ or ‘below station average.’ Three or four episodes in, this media scrutiny may actually start to damage the show’s prospects.

Potential audiences might pick up on the show’s modest numbers and decide to give it a miss – reasoning that it isn’t going to survive to season two. And that might have an impact on the channel executives who have the ultimate say over the programme’s future. Sure, they’ll have their own strong opinions about it, but they’re only human.

House of Cards' popularity is evidenced by its renewals
House of Cards’ popularity is evidenced by its renewals on Netflix

In the world of Netflix and Amazon, however, it’s harder to judge whether a show is successful – because neither platform is willing to share its audience data. Without data, there is a lack of certainty over criticising a show. Instead, the industry has to watch and wait for news of a recommission – the SVoD industry’s equivalent of the Papal Conclave’s fabled white smoke.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this lack of SVoD data. Aside from the fact television is a very nosy industry, data from Netflix and Amazon would be a big help to the studios that license their shows to the platforms. It would also provide some guidance to producers about whether their creative instincts are right. As a result, a lot of time and effort goes into finding other ways of assessing the performance of a Netflix or Amazon show.

The first useful measure of whether an SVoD show is any good is the ratings it receives on services like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This may sound a bit like sticking a finger in the air to test the strength of the wind, but it’s proven to be a pretty effective tool.

IMDb, for example, places House of Cards, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Daredevil, Narcos and Making a Murderer as the top five shows on Netflix. Most TV observers wouldn’t disagree too much with this list, which is, frankly, excellent. And the fact Netflix has recommissioned all of these shows (some more than once) suggests there is a correlation between IMDb scores and the secret ratings data these SVoD shows are generating.

It’s a similar story with Amazon. While its shows don’t tend to get as high scores as Netflix’s on IMDb, there is again a link between high IMDb ratings and recommissions.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Cases in point include Bosch (8.3), Mozart In The Jungle (8.2) and The Man in the High Castle (8.1) – all of which were renewed. By this logic, I’d guess there will be a second season for Sneaky Pete (rated 8.4).

IMDb is perhaps less accurate in the very early stages of a show’s launch, since its ratings can be skewed by early adopters. But it’s interesting to note that the website’s ratings for Baz Lurhmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down seem to echo the view of critics.

The New Yorker, for example, was disparaging in its assessment of the first four episodes but said the show burst into life around episode five. IMDb’s ratings for the first six episodes were 8.5, 8.6, 8.8, 8.8, 9.2, 9.6 respectively – directly correlating with The New Yorker.

Another limitation with tracking IMDb scores is that a low rating doesn’t always means a show will be cancelled. Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, for example, managed only 7.3 on IMDb, which implies modest viewing. However, it survived for three seasons.

Amazon’s Hand of God was a 7.5 – but it still got a new season. The best explanation for this is that the platforms are picking up some kind of algorithmic support for these shows. Maybe they have super-loyal fanbases, which makes them valuable in winning new subscribers or preventing churn. Hand of God stars Ron Perlman, who was previously a key figure in FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy. That creative connection may be enough to win new customers.

Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb
Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb

Of course, I’m just a TV hack working on a shoestring budget. But if I had a TV studio/network’s resources and I wanted to know about an SVoD show, I’d also use social media monitoring to check out the audience. There are plenty of agencies out there that can provide insights into real-time demographic and sentiment data, levels of engagement, brand affiliation and trends and the performance of shared social content.

Alongside all of the above, a good real-world indicator of an SVoD show’s performance is how it does at high-profile awards. At the Emmys, for example, Netflix has had a total of 75 nominations and 14 wins. Its top performers are House of Cards and OITNB, with some acknowledgement for Bloodline, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (all of which have been recommissioned). At Amazon, it’s a similar story, with the platform’s most nominated shows (Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle) all getting renewed.

Of course, the timeframe around awards is slower so this is less useful as a way of predicting early renewal patterns. But it is a good indicator of whether a show is likely to build into a powerful franchise over an extended period of time.

Award nominations and wins tend to get good media coverage, which then drives advocacy. This, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle of increased SVoD subscriber numbers and audiences. Again, it’s no accident that shows winning several awards in season one are still alive and kicking after three or more runs (OITNB is now confirmed for a minimum of seven seasons, having received 12 Emmy nominations for season one).

Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos
Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos

None of the above is especially scientific, so there have also been attempts by audience analysis experts to decipher the mystery of SVoD viewing. At this year’s Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, for example, research firm Nielsen revealed some findings about OITNB’s audience numbers.

Its key learning was that OITNB is the big hit that everyone suspected it to be. According to data reported on by The Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers. To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV if it lived within the traditional system. Nielsen can presumably replicate this analysis for any show.

Others to have explored the SVoD universe include San Diego-based Luth Research, which created a panel of Netflix subscribers to monitor their viewing habits. This showed strong engagement with Marvel-produced Daredevil, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in its first 11 days on the streaming service. By comparison, House of Cards attracted 6.5% of subs over its first 30 days and Bloodline 2.4%.

Linking back to the earlier part of this column, Daredevil also scores strongly on IMDb – suggesting again a correlation between that scoring system and actual audience data. But think also about Bloodline, which comes without Marvel heritage attached. Luth’s figures show that it had a slower start. Were it a cable show, that might have been cause for some criticism. However, shielded from that kind of exposure, it has been able to grow its IMDb rating from 8 at launch to 9.4 by the end of season two. No real surprise then that the show has been given a third season.

Bloodline
Bloodline has been given a third season

Netflix doesn’t really get involved with all of the debate about its viewing figures. But it does occasionally drop some interesting data about its subscribers’ behaviour. Earlier this year, for example, there was its binge scale blog, which identified the dramas that are consumed most voraciously on the platform.

And before that there was its insight regarding the point in a show when viewers become hooked. This was interesting because it demonstrated that shows often don’t really grab the audience’s attention until episodes four to eight – the equivalent of that point in a novel when you really know it’s good (around page 70?).

Finally, it’s also possible to get a few insights when Netflix’s Ted Sarandos or Amazon’s Roy Price pitch up on the conference circuit. Speaking at this week’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Price described a winner-takes-all scenario in the TV industry: “In today’s environment, having a show that 90% of people think is pretty fair is not that useful because in an on-demand environment people are probably not going to demand that show.

“The key to standing out in such a busy environment is that the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

That’s not as precise as ratings data, of course, but it’s worth thinking about.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Audiences superserved with hero shows

Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, premiers on October 26
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, premieres on October 26

Superhero TV series are nothing new. Over the years we’ve seen small-screen versions of Batman, The Hulk, Wonderwoman and Superman (in both Smallville and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), not to mention an endless array of animated series based on DC Comics or Marvel properties.

In fact, those of us around at the time will recall that ABC’s Lois & Clark was a genuine TV phenomenon, capable of attracting audiences of around 18-20 million at its peak in the mid-1990s – though the show’s ratings fell off a cliff in season four and it was rapidly cancelled.

But right now the industry is in overdrive. Not content with their domination of the feature-film arena, the supers have expanded their influence across both mainstream TV and the subscription VoD market.

The show everyone is talking about right now is Supergirl, a Warner Bros-produced series that will debut on CBS in the US on October 26. The story of Superman’s cousin, it imagines the central character as a 24-year-old woman called Kara (played by Glee’s Melissa Benoist) who is trying to come to terms with her superpowers while also trying to find herself as a woman. In terms of pacing and characterisation, it feels like a superhero version of The Devil Wears Prada, with Kara alternating between saving planes from disaster and agonising over her wardrobe.

Supergirl comes from Greg Berlanti, who is also behind The CW superhero shows The Flash...
Supergirl comes from Greg Berlanti, who is also behind The CW superhero shows The Flash…

Deadline has given the show the thumbs up, calling it a “bounding, deceptively breezy and eminently watchable addition to both the superhero universe and primetime.”

But an early IMDb score of 6.2 (presumably based on the trailer and some access to the pilot) suggests the jury is out. What’s hard to tell at this stage is whether the show will appeal to both the superhero and the romcom audience – or neither of them.

It’s also questionable whether the show will do much for empowered female leads. IGN’s assessment (based on the trailer) is that: “It’s really disappointing that the property is being treated with the flowery touch we often see in romantic comedies aimed at a female audience. It’s disheartening when the material has a segment showing the hero struggling to find something to wear for a date.”

...and Arrow
…and Arrow

Having said all this, Supergirl has Greg Berlanti behind it, which is a good thing from a slick storytelling point of view. Berlanti also created The Flash and Arrow for The CW Network, both of which are top performers for the channel. And there’s no question that Supergirl has a warmth and wit that make it easy on the eye.

One person impressed by the series’ potential is Adam MacDonald, director of UK-based pay TV channel Sky 1, who has just picked it up for his network. He says: “We’ve already seen in the success of The Flash and Arrow that comic-book characters are a big hit with our customers, and with this fresh, fast-paced new series we’re giving them another sure-fire superhero smash.”

To give this some context, The Flash generates around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers for Sky1, which is well ahead of the channel’s slot average of 320,000.

Interestingly, Supergirl’s first episode in the US will be up against Fox’s Gotham, another Warner Bros TV show. The gothic procedural takes place in the Batman universe and focuses mostly on the activities of police chief Commissioner Gordon. Now in season two, Gotham seemed to be wobbling at the start of its new run but its figures look much better once time-shifted viewing is factored in. It is currently attracting just over seven million viewers when you factor in all platforms (Fox, Fox NOW and Hulu) across the first three days of viewing.

Gotham has done well on both Fox in the US and the UK's Channel 5
Gotham has done well on both Fox in the US and the UK’s Channel 5

The show has also been doing well for Viacom-owned Channel 5 in the UK. After drawing in just under two million for the first episode of the new season, Gotham has settled in at around the 1.35 million mark (not including time-shifted viewing) on C5. This is a pretty good performance for the channel compared with key rivals Channel 4 and BBC2.

Other superhero-related shows on the market right now include ABC’s solid but unspectacular Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now in its third season, the series is currently attracting an audience of 3.7 million per episode (same-day figure), which is down on its season premiere of 4.9 million. Nevertheless, orthodox thinking is that the show is a certainty to be renewed.

A leading authority on this is Zap2it’s TVbytheNumbers, which explains why: “It’s a near-ironclad rule of broadcast TV that if a show will end its third season with 66 episodes (give or take one or two) and it’s produced by the sister studio of the network where it airs, then it will be renewed for a fourth season. Media conglomerates make more money selling 88 episodes of a show into syndication than they do with 66 episodes, thus the incentive to keep rolling into a fourth year.”

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D looks likely to get a fourth run
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D looks likely to get a fourth run

Then there is NBC’s Heroes Reborn, an unusual show in that it isn’t part of the DC or Marvel stables. A reboot of Heroes, which ran for four seasons between 2006 and 2010, Reborn is currently in its first season and is doing OK. Four episodes in, it has seen its same-day ratings slide from 6.6 million to 4.4 million, but with time-shifted viewing adding around 40% to the total, the show seems fairly well set for renewal. That would be welcome news for Global Canada and Seven Australia, which were among the first international channels to acquire it.

A number of superhero shows are also being generated as the result of a pact between Netflix and Marvel – the first of which was Daredevil, whose second season is coming soon. As Netflix doesn’t release viewing statistics, we have to content ourselves with the fact that this show has an 8.9 rating on IMDb and has generally been well received by critics.

Next up from the Netflix-Marvel deal is Jessica Jones, a 13-part series that will be made available in one go on November 20. This is a show that might do more for the cause of female empowerment than CBS’s Supergirl. After Jessica Jones will come series based around existing Marvel characters such as Luke Cage, Iron Fist and – if you believe the latest Hollywood rumour – Moon Knight.

Forthcoming series Jessica Jones stars Breaking Bad's Krysten Ritter
Forthcoming series Jessica Jones stars Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter

You’d think by now that Disney-owned Marvel would be running out of characters and worlds to work with. But FX and Fox are also planning two new series based on Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

For the first, Marvel is joining forces with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley and FX to produce Legion, a story that has already been produced as a movie. Based on Marvel comic characters, it follows an army of angels who have waged a war on mankind.

Meanwhile, Marvel TV and Fox are developing Hellfire, based on the Marvel comics group The Hellfire Club. Patrick McKay and John D Payne (Star Trek 3) will write the script for the project.

The big question, of course, is when will the super trend run out of steam as a TV staple? It’s fair to say the performance of Supergirl will affect the answer to that. CBS will be hoping Melissa Benoist’s character will generate as much of a cult following as the formidable Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Binge viewing standard-bearer’s next move

It was the service that changed the rules. But with subscriber numbers continuing to soar and questions being asked about higher prices, what comes next for Netflix?

Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as Sense8
Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as sci-fi series Sense8

You might not remember what you were doing on Sunday Feburary 5, 2012, but Netflix’s early adopters might remember sitting back and watching the first episode of a Norwegian comedy-drama called Lilyhammer.

Starring Steven Van Zandt, it follows a New York mobster who, after testifying in court against a mob boss, is placed in a witness protection programme and relocated to Lillehammer in Norway.

The fish-out-of-water premise might not sound particularly revolutionary in terms of TV storylines, but looking back at the words used by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, to announce the launch of the series, it’s amazing to consider how far the industry has come in little more than three years.

“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favourite shows on Netflix?” he asked. “Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV? Well, starting today, you can enjoy as many episodes as you please of the brand new Netflix original series Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt.”

The phrase ‘binge-viewing’ had not yet become synonymous with Netflix and the way its viewers would use the service, but the foundations were being laid for a major shift in viewing habits.

After describing the series further, Sarandos ended: “Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time, today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want: choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.

Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing
Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing just three years ago

“This will be the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix. We will have more news on those shows as they get ready to premiere. Enjoy the show and tell your friends – but no spoilers! They may not be on the same episode as you are on.”

With these few sentences, Sarandos outlined not only Netflix’s own strategy but one that the rest of the industry would soon follow, with an increasing number of online services commissioning original content and traditional broadcasters widening the opportunity to catch up online. NBC has already gone one step further than other US broadcasters to “push new boundaries” by releasing all 13 episodes of its David Duchovny-starring 1960s drama Aquarius at once. ZDF in Germany also blurred the lines of linear and digital TV with its pan-European crime drama The Team.

Fast forward from that Lilyhammer announcement to this week, when Netflix unveiled its results for the second quarter of 2015.

The service added 3.3 million new subscribers worldwide during that period, bringing the total to 65.6 million. It has 42 million members in the US alone.

Global numbers were boosted by the platform’s international expansion, with moves into Australia and New Zealand in March. It will land in Spain, Italy and Portugal in October this year, and aims to open in Japan in the fall. There are also plans to roll into India, China and South Korea.

These new international outlets will only help to swell subscriber numbers further, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings under no illusion about what is drawing viewers both in the US and around the world to the service.

He told shareholders that subscriber growth was “fuelled by the growing strength of our original programming slate,” which in Q2 included the first seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and season three of Orange is the New Black.

Daredevil is already in production for its second season, he notes, adding: “Our global expansion extends to our content strategy as well. Sense8, the mind-bending cinematic thriller from the Wachowski siblings and J Michael Straczynski that debuted June 5, is an ambitious, truly international show with talent behind and in front of the camera from multiple countries.”

Another international drama, Narcos – “a gripping account of the roots of the cocaine trade, shot in Colombia and starring the great Brazilian star Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar” – launches on August 28.

“They are the perfect example of what we strive for in our original programming: an elevated version of popular genres that reach a large audience globally,” Hastings says.

“We closed the quarter with season three of Orange is the New Black, which went live on June 11 and set off a social media shockwave around the world. On the following Sunday, Netflix members globally watched a record number of hours in a single day, led by Orange, despite the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones and game five of the NBA finals also falling on that Sunday.

“Global enthusiasm for the third season of Orange underlines our ability to create franchise properties that bring new members to Netflix as well as delighting current ones. Nearly 90% of Netflix members have engaged with Netflix original content, another indicator that we are on the right path.”

To that end, Netflix said it would continue to invest in original series (and now movies) as its original content spending is predicted to hit US$5bn in 2016.

The downside, however, is that this spending, coupled with a marketing bill nearing US$1bn in 2016, has led to a 63% fall in net income, according to the results.

If viewers want great content, ultimately they will have to pay for it, and on a subscriber-funded service like Netflix, that means subscriptions will rise.

Hastings alluded to as much when he said subscribers should brace themselves for higher-priced plans in the future, though no details have yet been released.

At a time when the television drama space is becoming increasingly congested, particularly in the US, where cable networks continue to move into original scripted programming to build their brands alongside VoD platforms, viewers will be asked to pay more and more for the high-cost shows they love so much or see them book-ended by advertisements.

But as cord-cutting has shown, viewers’ loyalty to their favourite service provider can, and often does, have a limit. Will Netflix test that loyalty when it unveils its new pricing plan?

The service broke the mould in 2012 when it launched its first original series, Lilyhammer, for viewers to watch in one go. Its attempts to balance spending and subscriber numbers could also be another watershed moment for the industry.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Time to play the game of Emmys

Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy

After a year of amazing ratings success in the US and internationally, HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones has now emerged as the frontrunner at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards.

Nominations were revealed yesterday (July 16) and the show racked up 24, including one for outstanding drama series. The next strongest showing came from FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, with 19 nominations. HBO’s Olive Kitteridge also did well.

Ranked by network, HBO secured the most nominations, a total of 124. Next highest was ABC with 42, just ahead of NBC and CBS (41 apiece). One of the most interesting stats was Netflix’s 34 nominations, which put it ahead of PBS and AMC. This, combined with numerous nods for Amazon’s Transparent, underlines the growing importance of SVoD platforms in the scripted space.

Games of Thrones’ huge nominations haul is, of course, no guarantee it will win any of the key categories. In the drama series section, it faces tough competition from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, AMC’s Mad Men and Better Call Saul, Showtime’s Homeland and PBS’s Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, in the outstanding limited series category, the competitors are
 American Crime, American Horror Story: Freak Show, The Honourable Woman, Olive Kitteridge and Wolf Hall.

Olive_Kitteridge_Still
Frances McDormand has an Emmy nomination for her part in Olive Kitteridge

Among the many categories up for grabs, a particularly interesting one is best lead actress in a drama series, which includes two African-Americans, Taraji Henson for Empire and Viola Davis for How To Get Away With Murder. No black actress has ever won the category, so this is a moment when history could be made. Queen Latifah was also nominated for best lead actress in a limited series of movie (Bessie). However, she’ll have to see off tough competition such as Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honourable Woman) and Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge).

There were, of course, scripted series that didn’t feature as much as might have been expected. Initial reaction suggests that shows to have been snubbed include Empire (notwithstanding Henson’s nomination for best actress), Outlander (one nomination in a music category), The Americans, Justified and Jane The Virgin. Interestingly, The Affair received no nominations despite winning Best Television Series Drama at the 2014 Golden Globes.

Still in the US, it’s getting to that point when Fox will have to decide whether to cancel or renew M Night Shyamalan’s thriller series Wayward Pines. With eight episodes down, there are only two left in the first season. It’s hard to second guess what Fox will do, because the ratings picture is complicated by high levels of time-shifted viewing. Currently, for example, the show is getting a live-plus-same-day rating of 3.3-3.4 million. But time-shifted viewing is virtually doubling that number every week. Latest reports suggest that Fox is considering a second season, set in the same world but with a new cast and characters.

Extant
CBS’s Extant, starring Halle Berry, has continued to shed viewers in its second season

 

Another US network summer series that looks less likely to survive is Extant, a sci-fi show that stars Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from a 13-month solo space mission to find she is inexplicably pregnant. The first season of the show in 2014 rated worse than expected but was saved by the fact that CBS had secured a good streaming rights deal with Amazon. Now in its second season, the show’s ratings have slid still further – despite significant efforts to revitalise it. Even after time-shifted viewing is factored in it still looks like a prime candidate for cancellation. As Deadline says: “It was the lowest premiere live-plus-same-day rating for any scripted series – new or returning – so far this summer. It was also tied with a couple of ABC comedy repeats for the lowest rating for a show on the Big Four networks – original or repeat.”

The main reason for dwelling on Extant is that it is a good indication of how factors beyond ratings performance increasingly play into commissioning decisions. In this case, the involvement of Halle Berry and a secondary rights deal with Amazon were enough to save a show that would otherwise have been axed after its first run. The downside for CBS now is that it is stuck with an underperforming show for another 10 episodes. It is attempting to address Extant’s issues by moving it to a new timeslot, bringing it forward from 22.00 to 21.00 on Wednesdays.

Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue
Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue

UK broadcaster Channel 5, owned by Viacom, has just picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue from distributor Entertainment One for use on its digital channel 5USA. Due to launch on July 28, this could prove to be a neat piece of business, given the fact that Rookie Blue is still going strong in North America after six seasons. The show is produced in Canada and airs on Global there and on ABC in the US. For ABC, the show works well because it delivers solid ratings at acquisition rather than production prices. Season six started this month, bringing the total episode count to 72. So if 5USA does well with the earlier episodes it can look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with the show.

The show will also fit the profile of 5USA very well. Currently, the channel’s top-rated shows are Chicago PD, Longmire, Law & Order, NCIS and Body of Proof, all US crime procedurals, delivering audiences of 260,000-420,000 in 21.00 and 22.00 slots.

In terms of industry-wide trends affecting scripted, this week’s big story is that Netflix has increased its global subscriber count to 65 million, up 3.3 million on the last quarter. The US subscriber base, now 42 million, was up by 900,000 while international grew by 2.4 million to 23 million. CEO Reed Hastings called the growth “higher-than-expected” and said it was “fuelled by the strength of our original programming slate.” Dramas to have featured on the platform during the past quarter include Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and the third season of Orange is the New Black.

For all its success, Netflix is moving into a challenging phase, characterised by high costs and increased competition. The company expects to spend US$5bn on content in 2016 while expenses for marketing will be nearly US$1bn. With rising costs, Hastings also said the price of subscription may increase soon.

AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con
AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con

Finally, AMC has reason to be optimistic about the prospects for its upcoming shows. According to the channel, three trailers unveiled at Comic-Con had managed to attract 24 million views on digital platforms within four days. The season six trailer for The Walking Dead drew 13.8 million, while the trailer for Fear the Walking Dead took 8.2 million.

There was also pretty strong interest in AMC’s upcoming martial arts drama Into the Badlands, which will premiere in November. This attracted 1.95 million views within three days of its release. The Walking Dead was by far the biggest winner at Comic-Con in terms of social media, securing 53% of the Share of Voice on Facebook last weekend, more than double the next highest show.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Let’s ask the audience

Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit
Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit

Subscription VoD platforms Netflix and Amazon have emerged as two of the most important players in the scripted TV business. But they are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest. While they are happy to make carefully choreographed appearances at TV industry events and provide subscriber information during their quarterly results presentations, they are not easy to interview and refuse to provide data about the audiences their shows attract.

This, of course, is their prerogative – but it does make it difficult to judge how original commissions are doing. How do we know, for example, that Netflix flagship House of Cards is the hit show that we all seem to assume it is? And what evidence is there that Amazon’s critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent is anything other than a global media village talking point?

Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal
Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal

In the absence of ratings data, the most obvious measurement of success on SVoD is whether a show gets recommissioned. Viewed from this perspective, House of Cards is clearly doing a good job, because Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season for 2014. We also have to assume that Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove are algorithmically acceptable because they both have third seasons coming up. (Orange’s debuts on June 12, and it actually also has a fourth lined up.) By a similar token, Amazon’s decision to recommission both Bosch and Transparent suggests it is also happy with the impact these shows are having on its business.

Using recommissions as a benchmark for ratings success has its limitations however. For a start, it’s possible that the decision to renew these shows is more about creating a positive PR bubble than rewarding strong ratings. If the SVoD platforms can secure positive notices among critics and reviewers for their shows – plus the occasional Emmy or Golden Globe – they can drive new subscriptions without necessarily winning big audiences.

In other words, raw audience size isn’t an issue for the SVoD platforms as long as they feel like they are achieving ROI with their dramas. But it’s more of a concern for traditional broadcasters thinking of acquiring the rights to a show, because they need metrics to work out a show’s appeal to advertisers.

Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted
Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted

Furthermore, international channel buyers often have to make decisions about whether to acquire a show before the decision to recommission has taken place. So they may find themselves having to acquire a show without any ratings or audience demographic data. In this scenario, they won’t know whether the decision to recommission was for PR purposes or due to a commercial commitment to the producer or distributor of the show, which may only have signed up with the SVoD platforms on the understanding that it would get at least a second/third run.

The TV industry has tried to get round the ratings issues in various away. Variety magazine, for example, recently published some insights from Luth Research, a San Diego-based company that surveyed 2,500 Netflix subscribers to analyse their viewing habits. Although there were some methodological limitations to the research, it showed that Marvel show Daredevil has been the platform’s most popular series of the year so far, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in the first 11 days. With Netflix’s US subscriber base currently at around 41 million, this means the show drew around 4.5 million viewers. The same research showed a more modest audience for House of Cards season three (6.5% over the first 30 days) and a pretty lacklustre performance for Bloodline (2.4% over 30 days – around one million).

Research suggests Daredevil has been  Netflix’s most popular series of 2015
Research suggests Daredevil has been Netflix’s most popular series of 2015

Aside from this kind of bespoke research study, the industry is forced to fall back on audience feedback as a gauge for how a show is performing. So if we stick with Daredevil for a moment, Goscoop.tv was quick to spot the fact that the show secured 4.6 out of five stars on Netflix’s audience review chart, higher than House of Cards. Daredevil also scores well on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb is particularly useful because you get to see a rating (9.1/10) and the number of users who have voted (79,169 at last count). This is important, because high volume hints at high ratings – and also allows us to build a picture of how the mainstream audience has responded to a show. A low volume of reviews will inevitably skew more towards fanboys or haters.

IMDb gets pretty interesting when you start exploring how other dramas stack up against these scores. We can see, for example, that House of Cards has a 9.1 rating from 212,263 users, Orange is the New Black has 8.4 from 129,964 users, Bloodline has 8.4 from 8,833 users, Bosch has 8.4 from 8,745 users, Marco Polo has 8.2 from 21,666 users, Transparent has 8.1 from 7,256 users and Hemlock Grove is trailing the pack with 7.3 from 24,091 users.

This isn’t an ideal way to analyse shows but it does throw up some interesting points. Firstly, it underlines how strong Daredevil is. Not only are its rating high, but it has stimulated high levels of audience engagement in a very short time. With season two already commissioned this is a hit for Netflix and will undoubtedly prove a popular pick up when it moves into distribution.

Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits
Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits

Hemlock Grove’s performance also suggests that the audience’s assessment of a show is broadly in line with the critics, who have not liked the show. Variety’s comment coming into series two was: “While a loyal contingent was inclined to give Hemlock Grove the benefit of the doubt in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way, watching the opening of the second go-round still tips the scales toward so bad — and boring — that it’s just plain bad. Efforts to improve the show, or just make sense out of it, have largely foundered.”

Continuing with this deeply unscientific but mildly entertaining analysis, what happens when we compare the above IMDb ratings with high-profile shows on cable TV (I’ve limited it to cable because these shows are most similar to what is on offer from Netflix and Amazon)? Well, Game of Thrones has a 9.5 rating from 772, 837 users, Breaking Bad has 9.5 from 680,964, The Sopranos has 9.3 from 153,972, Better Call Saul has 9.1 from 69,893, The Walking Dead has 8.7 from 511,536, Mad Men has 8.7 from 121,003, Vikings has 8.6 from 126,260, Wayward Pines has 8.4 from 3,497 and The Returned has 7.3 from 3,473.

If you look at these results through squinty eyes, this isn’t actually a bad reflection of the quality and popularity of these shows (Game of Thrones – notwithstanding recent controversy – and Breaking Bad spectacular, The Returned a disappointment). There’s even a kind of correlation to US platform penetration figures. With cable in 100 million-plus homes and Netflix in 41 million, there’s a proportionality in Breaking Bad and House of Cards user totals.

Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success
Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success

There are all kinds of health warnings you could apply to these numbers, connected to the time they’ve been on air, who their core audience is, whether they are the kind of shows that polarise people and whether the shows’ creators have tried to artificially hype positive reviews. But the overall scorecard seems to suggest that Netflix has had two slam dunk hits (Daredevil and House of Cards) and one that is dividing audiences a bit (Orange Is The New Black). If Daredevil keeps up its momentum, then you’d have to say that Netflix’s four-series deal with Marvel is a masterstroke.

Amazon has had a reasonable start with detective series Bosch, though its numbers are probably skewed upwards by pent-up demand from fans of the book series. This ‘jury’s out’ feel would align with The Guardian’s assessment that Bosch is a paint-by-numbers cop show that leaves “no cop-show cliché unturned.” Arguably, Transparent’s 8.1 rating is one of the most interesting scores. In an era obsessed with transgender TV, Transparent is of its time. And it did win a Golden Globe for best comedy. But if we take 8.7 as a benchmark of high quality (see above), a rating of 8.1 suggests the show is polarising audiences to some extent.

The overall assessment has to be that Amazon is yet to get its scripted strategy quite right. So a lot will be riding on upcoming projects like The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs and Hand of God. Amazon, of course, is still playing catch-up to Netflix – but at some point it will probably need its own Marvel moment.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Speak of the devil: Showrunner Steven DeKnight on making Daredevil

Having grown up as a fan of the comic, Daredevil showrunner Steven DeKnight describes his role as a ‘dream come true.’ He tells DQ of his vision for the show and explains how he’s handling the pressure of leading Marvel’s Netflix charge.

It takes just a cursory glance at Steven DeKnight’s CV to know he has an enviable track record.

Daredevil as he appears in the comic
Daredevil as he appears in the comic

As well as credits for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Smallville, he was the creative force behind US premium cable network Starz’ swords-and-sandals epic Spartacus.

And now he is overseeing Marvel’s Daredevil, the opening phase of Marvel Comics’ attempts to recreate the critical and commercial success of its cinematic universe on the small screen.

The 13-part series, which launched worldwide on US VoD giant Netflix on April 10, tells the story of Matt Murdock. Blinded as a young boy but empowered by extraordinary senses, he fights against injustice by day as a lawyer and by night as Daredevil in modern-day Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.

DeKnight (pictured top alongside Charlie Cox as the masked titular character) executive produces alongside Drew Goddard and Marvel’s head of television, Jeph Loeb. The show is produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios for Netflix.

It was only by chance, however, that DeKnight got the gig, with Goddard pulling out of showrunning duties to develop Marvel’s Sinister Six for the big screen.

“They reached out to me to see if I would be interested in hopping on board and taking over as showrunner,” DeKnight explains.

“I read the scripts and I thought they were fantastic. I went over to their offices and they walked me through the plan for the season, and I thought that was phenomenal, so I signed on. It was an easy choice for me because I grew up reading Marvel Comics. I’ve been a huge fan since I was a little kid, so it was a dream come true to be working in the Marvel universe.”

DeKnight isn’t just a fan of Marvel, though. He is a fan of Daredevil, which made the decision to join the series even easier. “I’ve read Daredevil since I was a kid,” he says. “I was a huge fan of many of the incredibly talented people who worked on the comic, particularly Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis. They really spoke to me, especially Bendis’s work, which had the look and feel of a show that I thought would be great to bring to the screen.”

That show is dark and moody, set in the shadows and barely lit alleyways of a brooding city. “I wanted it to be really grounded and gritty, which is what they were shooting for before I came on board,” says DeKnight.

“One of the things that really excited me about the project is that we can push the adult content. Since I came on, we’ve always called it more PG-15 – it’s not quite an R rating, but we kiss right up to it.

“Netflix has much more adult, edgy kind of material. If Daredevil had an R rating, I don’t think they would care. But of course, with Marvel, we don’t want to alienate younger fans. If you do have kids under 15, I’d suggest you watch a few episodes first yourself before you roll it out because it’s a very different animal in the Marvel universe.”

DeKnight is full of praise for Joss Whedon, with whom he worked on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (pictured)
DeKnight is full of praise for Joss Whedon, with whom he worked on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (pictured)
Daredevil is the first of four Marvel series coming to Netflix as part of a deal, announced in November 2013, which will see them share storylines, characters, cast members and settings akin to the cinematic universe that has struck box office gold time and time again since Iron Man came to the big screen in 2008.

The second Netflix series, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, is already in production and due to air later this year, while series based on the characters of Iron Fist and Luke Cage will follow, before all four superheroes unite in miniseries The Defenders.

Leading off Marvel’s latest television attack, following the launch of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, did DeKnight feel any pressure? “It’s the cornerstone of 60 hours of television. There’s a huge amount of pressure to get it right, but you have to trust your instincts and tell the story you really want to tell and that the audience will enjoy.”

Yet this isn’t the first screen adaptation of Daredevil. Ben Affleck starred as the masked crimefighter in a 2003 film that earned mixed reviews and alienated fans of the original comic. DeKnight says his version is “so different” from the film. “I thought Ben Affleck gave his all, and there were a lot of incredibly talented people in that movie, but anyone who’s ever done TV or a movie knows sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

“The movie was also before Marvel Studios got up and running with Iron Man and controlled its own content, which has made a huge difference in how these characters are portrayed. We came at the show with a different perspective. We approached it first and foremost as a crime drama, with the superhero element laid on top of it. For me, the most exciting scenes weren’t the run-and-jump, they were the more emotional scenes that we get to do with characters. Over 13 hours, you can tell a story about who the hero is, which I found really interesting.”

One thing DeKnight isn’t worrying about, though, is how the four Netflix/Marvel series will entangle themselves in the same universe. “Quite frankly, the onus is on the other series,” he says. “We were the first. Jessica Jones had a writing staff and they were working on it, but Luke Cage and Iron Fist didn’t have showrunners and weren’t getting off the ground. So really, the idea of the whole integrated universe is part and parcel with the other shows, since we were out there by ourselves. The true Marvel fans will see quite a few Easter eggs that set up things that will hopefully happen in the future, so there are some very subtle tie-ins with some of the other shows.”

It was after writing a spec script for sci-fi series Deep Space Nine that DeKnight got his big television break. The UCLA graduate began writing spec feature scripts, and later turned to television. But nobody wanted to read his Deep Space Nine write-up, so he put it in a drawer and, he says, “forgot about it.”

A year later, he was contacted by a friend who was working on a new MTV show called Undressed, headed by The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé. DeKnight recalls: “He said he was working on a show that was very good and that if it got picked up he could get my stuff to Joffé’s people. About six months later, the show gets picked up. It was a kind of teen sex comedy. My friend calls up and tells me to send my stuff. All I had was this Deep Space Nine script – which was not a teen sex comedy. But it was one of those career miracles – they read it and liked it, and that’s how I got my first job.”

DeKnight spent a stint working on Superman prequel series Smallville
DeKnight spent a stint working on Superman prequel series Smallville
From there, he wrote a spec script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer that found its way into the hands of creator Joss Whedon. He was discussing joining Buffy’s animated spin-off that was in development when Whedon offered him the chance to write an episode of the live-action series. DeKnight agreed, and as soon as production had finished on his episode, he was called back to the set, where Whedon offered him a full-time writing job.

“That was really the moment that started my career as it is now – Joss taking me on,” DeKnight says. “I worked on a couple of seasons of Buffy and the last two seasons of Angel, and Joss really trains showrunners. He has you involved in everything: breaking the stories, working the stories. He also has you in casting, on the set, editing, and in all the meetings.

“He wants everyone to learn how to do it all, and he’s also the one who gave me my first shot at directing, on Angel. So he was a huge influence, and I learnt so much from him.”

After Angel completed its five-season run in 2004, DeKnight teamed with Jeph Loeb, now the head of Marvel Television, on Superman prequel Smallville, and later joined Viva Laughlin, a Hugh Jackman-led musical he describes as “one of the hugest disasters of the decade, just a complete clusterfuck.”

The show, a remake of British musical comedy drama Blackpool, was a critical and ratings disaster from the start and was pulled by US network CBS after just two episodes. DeKnight and fellow co-exec producer Tyler Bensinger were halfway through shooting episode seven when they got the news.

“It was seriously one of the most bizarre experiences ever, but I wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “It gave me a chance to spearhead a show for the first time and it was a real trial by fire. I’ll never forget when we aired on a special night right after CSI on a Thursday and lost 10 million viewers. The second episode was that Sunday and we lost millions more viewers, then on the Monday at work we got the call to say we’d been canned. We all saw the writing on the wall.”

It was during a subsequent writers’ strike that DeKnight was reacquainted with Whedon who, while the pair were picketing outside Fox Studios, offered him a place on the writing staff for his latest series Dollhouse.

And it was as he was preparing to direct an episode of the Fox series that DeKnight was asked by his agent whether he was interested in joining Evil Dead director Sam Raimi on a gladiator-style series for US premium cable network Starz.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, 'a 39-episode experiment'
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, ‘a 39-episode experiment’
“In the meeting I found out it was Spartacus, which froze my soul because I’m a big fan of the Kirk Douglas/Stanley Kubrick version. But, bizarrely, it was almost the meeting that didn’t change my life. They said, ‘Great, can you start on Monday?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t start for another nine weeks – I’m directing an episode of Dollhouse.’”

Starz decided to look elsewhere, but DeKnight was informed by his agent halfway through his directing duties that the network hadn’t found anyone else and wanted to know if he was still interested. Of course, he said yes.

DeKnight describes Spartacus, which ran for three seasons and spawned prequel miniseries Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, as a “39-episode experiment” filmed in the style of blockbuster 300 against a green screen. His deal with Starz also saw him develop military sci-fi series Incursion, which has been put on hold, and adapt Italian crime drama Romanzo Criminale.

As his contract ran out, Goddard left Daredevil, and DeKnight was on hand to take on the show and lead Marvel’s Netflix invasion.

“There’s never been a better time to be in scripted drama,” he says. “There’s so many opportunities and so many people taking chances on things that are different. Shows like Fargo, True Detective, Better Call Saul and Game of Thrones. There are just so many opportunities to do things outside the box.

“The explosion of cable, premium cable and now new media places like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu gives you so much opportunity. The downside is you’re no longer doing 22 episodes a year on a major network, so the financial benefit incentive is lower – but it’s more than a fair trade for the amount of creative room you get nowadays.”

tagged in: , , , ,