This week, BBC1 in the UK launched Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part drama based on the period fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke. Scheduled at 21.00 on Sunday evenings, the first episode attracted 4.5 million viewers. While it is highly likely that this number will be boosted once time-shifted viewing is included, the live audience is probably at the lower end of expectations.
It is lower, for example, than Poldark and The Casual Vacancy – both of which previously occupied this slot. And it’s also less than the slot average for the last 12 months (which is just over five million).
UK newspapers were divided over the appeal of the show. The upmarket titles were generally upbeat, with The Independent calling it “a real treat” and The Daily Telegraph describing it as “a brilliant adaptation of the novel.” However, The Daily Mail was not impressed, acerbically noting that: “If your idea of a racy evening is chit-chat in the dons’ common room at an Oxbridge college, then perhaps you found this entertaining. For the rest of us, it was so deathly dry it might as well have been dehydrated.”
The Spectator, meanwhile, hedged its bets, concluding that: “In theory, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention. In practice, it hasn’t yet banished the feeling that it might end up seeming a bit silly.”
As a public broadcaster, the BBC is not compelled to chase ratings. But it seems likely that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from the fact that there was no compelling PR hook on which to hang its launch. The Casual Vacancy benefited from the fact it was based on a book by JK Rowling (who takes Harry Potter fans with her whereever she goes), while Poldark had two things going for it. Firstly, it was a remake (thus appealing to older audiences). Secondly, there was a lot of media interest in lead actor Aidan Turner’s six-pack (thus appealing to younger female audiences). Having failed to ignite audience interest for episode one, JS & Mr N is now in a fragile position and the BBC will need to hope that The Daily Mail’s assessment is wide of the mark. If so, it may regain momentum from word of mouth/social media.
Of course, all of the above might prove to be overly pessimistic if the show does pick up a lot of additional viewing via time-shifting technologies. In this respect, there is encouragement from the US this week, where Wayward Pines has just recorded the highest ever percentage increase of any Fox debut show as a result of time-shifted viewing. Having debuted on May 14 with around 3.75 million viewers, live plus-three ratings surged by 65% to 6.2 million.
As is the way these days (to avoid piracy), Fox made Wayward Pines available to the international market as soon as possible after the US launch. It then pumped out a series of figures that suggest the show has been well received. In Australia, says Fox, the show “increased the performance in its primetime slot by 683% and outperformed The Walking Dead’s season five premiere.” In Germany, meanwhile, the show increased its slot average by 158%. As for Norway, the Wayward Pines premiere is the best series premiere for a new show ever for Fox Norway among viewers aged 12-plus. Portugal also tuned in. Here, the premiere was the most watched show of the day on pay TV.
Channels around the world debate endlessly about the relative merits of local versus international TV. The orthodox view is that audiences prefer local content because it better reflects their own life experience. One area where this thesis seems to break down, however, is in the world of scripted series. Here, there are still plenty of examples of US shows outperforming local rivals.
One case in point is UK pay TV channel Sky Living, which recently saw its origination budget cut for exactly this reason. In this case, the origination budget has been handed to sister channel Sky1 (so it can fund more ambitious projects), while Sky Living will place its emphasis on acquired shows. This decision makes a lot of sense when you see how Sky Living’s US dramas fare compared with its home-grown shows. Typically, US dramas like Bones and The Blacklist pull audiences of around one million-plus on the channel. By contrast, a recent showing of Eleven Films’ original three-parter The Enfield Haunting pulled in around 676,000.
This is actually a pretty good audience when compared with the channel’s slot average. And there’s no question it was a great piece of television. With a superb cast headed by Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, The Guardian called it “an outstanding chiller, beautifully directed and packed with big scares and superb performances.” Presumably, however, the problem lies squarely with the economics of pay TV. Acquiring a US show is usually cheaper than making a domestic original. And it typically offers a lot more episodes. Limited-run dramas like The Enfield Haunting require a lot of pre-transmission marketing and have limited amortisation value afterwards. Overall they are better-suited to free-to-air channels which are able to mobilise big audiences more easily. Having said all that, however, hats off to Eleven for a great piece of TV. All eyes will now be on Nazareth, which the company is reportedly developing for Fox in the US.
Still in the UK, BBC4 has become an important staging post for non-English-language dramas hoping to establish a presence in English-speaking markets. Titles to have aired on the channel include Wallander, Spiral, Borgen, The Killing, Inspector Montalbano, The Bridge, Salamander and Hostages. The basic rule is that if a foreign-language show can rate well on BBC4, it stands a chance of selling into the US as either a completed series or a format. And if that happens, it may then pick up interest from other markets that wouldn’t have considered it prior to a US deal. In some ways, BBC4 has become a victim of its own success, because it is now experiencing competition for this category of shows from UK and US pay TV channels (such as E4 and Sundance) and SVOD platforms. But it remains an important player.
All of which brings us to 1864, a Danish drama that has just debuted on the channel with an audience of 642,000 at 21.00 – well ahead of the slot average. An eight-part series that originally aired on DR1 in Denmark, 1864 tells the story of a war between Denmark and the German Confederation (as it then was). The show is significant for the Danes, which are trying to demonstrate to the world that the breadth of their storytelling skills goes well beyond spooky police procedurals. Borgen went some way to proving that point, but 1864 shows a new side to Denmark’s production prowess. Also look out for Follow The Money, another DR series that has been acquired by BBC4. Coming soon, this is billed as “the story of speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.”
Sue Deeks, the BBC’s head of programme acquisition, says: “Follow The Money is a stylish, intelligent, thought-provoking and complex multi-stranded drama. We are delighted to have another superb series from DR on BBC Four.”