Lorenzo the Magnificent takes centre stage in the second chapter of Renaissance drama Medici: Masters of Florence. As filming continues apace in Tuscany, DQ speaks to the star and producers of the Rai series, which has built a worldwide audience on Netflix.
The life of Lorenzo de Medici is widely associated with the golden age of the Renaissance. Politician, diplomat, magnate, he was also a patron of scholars, artists and poets. Who better, then, than Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known, to be at the centre of the next season of Medici: Masters of Florence.
The series – Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent to give it its full title – begins in Florence in 1469, when an attempt on Piero de Medici’s life forces his son, Lorenzo, to assume leadership of the family-run bank.
Once in power, young Lorenzo resolves to do things differently. With his brother Giuliano and young artist Sandro Botticelli at his side he abandons the cynical politics of the past to usher in a new era of creative and political revolution. This sparks conflict with the head of Florence’s other powerful banking family, Jacopo Pazzi, leading to one of the most notorious political intrigues in history: the infamous Pazzi conspiracy.
The Magnificent follows the first chapter of the anthology series, which focused on Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo (played by Richard Madden) and great grandfather Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman).
“Lorenzo the Magnificent is considered the greatest Medici of all,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz of the Italian banking family and political dynasty. “He’s a remarkable guy who changed the course of history. It just so happens he was also the victim of one of the greatest conspiracies of all time. The drama is just irresistible. Assassins set upon Lorenzo and his brother in church during mass – you don’t have to make it up, you just have to try to do it justice. It’s an incredibly obvious, juicy target for a series. Why hasn’t anybody done this before?”
Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions coproduces the English-language series for Italian broadcaster Rai with Lux Vide, whose CEO, Luca Bernabei, also an executive producer, is quick to point out the differences between the first Medici series and this forthcoming show.
“This is a completely different; it’s not even season one and season two,” he asserts. “Every actor changes because we’re now in the middle of the Renaissance, so there’s more colour, more light, the costumes have more colour. And because we were surprised by the presence of a young audience who watched the first season, we are looking to this audience even more on this season because this story is really about a young group of people getting the power from the old nobles.”
To build on the young following of the show, the Medici producers also sought a young actor to play the role of Lorenzo, who was just 16 when he entered political life and assumed power four years later on his father’s death, in 1469. He went on to rule Florence until he died in 1492.
They found Lorenzo in the shape of London-born actor Daniel Sharman, who has played roles in Teen Wolf, The Originals and, most notably, Fear the Walking Dead. His co-stars include Bradley James, Sean Bean and Sarah Parish.
“It’s quite nice to have a basis for a show like a period of time that was obviously fascinating,” Sharman says. “The obvious way would be to do this story first, but it’s quite nice that there’s this precursor season because there’s a foundation there for what happens this season. This world is just incredibly dramatic and we’re dealing with the beginning of the Renaissance.
“You have geniuses being born within 30 or 40 years of each other, where all these influences were within this tiny geographical point. This series is dealing with that moment, that incredible alchemy. I didn’t have to be pitched it, I just had to research that time and my job was just to do it justice. You get out of the way of making it more dramatic than it already is.”
Sharman researched the period before the scripts — a move that he says paid off, because otherwise, “I never would have believed it was true,” he says. “Then I went down the rabbit hole of wanting to know everything about this family and about everything that influenced it and what it influenced.
“You get Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo Di Vinci – these are heavyweights of the world, and it’s all in the script because it’s a truly glorious time. I was working in Mexico at the time [he got the role] and was listening to a lot of audiobooks and reading and then I was in Africa reading this biography of Lorenzo. I’ll never forget being in the back of a truck in Uganda just becoming overwhelmed by this amazing period.”
Fans of Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, however, should be aware there won’t be too many similarities between Lorenzo and Troy Otto, the character Sharman plays in the AMC zombie drama.
“I don’t think I could imagine a more different part if I’d tried,” he adds. “An American prepper on the border with Mexico to Lorenzo the Magnificent was definitely a big jump, but that’s the joy in what you do. It’s a different rhythm, a different posture. That’s the lovely part about inhabiting someone else.”
From the outset, Spotnitz and Bernabei agreed that if they were going to do The Magnificent, it had to be better than the first Medici season, which drew record ratings in Italy as 7.5 million viewers watched the first episode in October last year.
“We wrote and wrote and wrote – it was quite a process,” says the former X-Files showrunner. “It took longer than we thought it would take because we’ve already done a Medici series, but this is completely different. The characters are different, the ideas were different and we under-estimated how hard it was going to be to get to the bottom of that. But to our credit, we didn’t give up until we thought we actually had it.”
Bernabei also teases a more action-packed series, with directors Jon Cassar (24, The Kennedys: After Camelot) and Jan Michelini (Don Matteo) behind the camera.
“The way he shoots, whether with a steadicam or a handicam, it’s fast,” he says of Cassar. “But he always pays attention to the heart of the scene. The actors are always moving on the sets and he’s always moving the camera, so actor and camera are always moving together.
“The first season was a bit more stagey. It is completely different visually. It appears the same but the way we are lighting it is very different. It’s going to be interesting. It’s still Medici but completely different. In the first season, there was less light, so you couldn’t see the backgrounds. But we have been studying a lot to achieve it. Even the costumes are much more modern.”
Sharman agrees that there’s a modernity and freshness to this period drama that will make it stand out from its stuffier peers.
“It’s all very well being historical accurate but if that’s all you are, then you’re missing something when these were times when people were pushing the boundaries of art and fashion,” the actor explains. “So in order to do that, you have to make costumes that suggest a period but have a modern influence, because then it feels energetic and new.
“Sometimes when you do a period piece you are almost a museum piece – you’re recreating a perfect sense of what it was back then. That misses the point, and if you’re doing something in the Renaissance, it has to have an energy and artistic flair people haven’t seen before.”
Filming is currently continuing across Tuscany, with the crew returning to locations such as Pienza and Montepulciano and adding new backdrops such as Mantua. Bernabei has been particularly instrumental in securing access to the real locations to ensure this second chapter, distributed by Beta Film, is as authentic as possible.
“It’s something we’re really taking care of,” he notes, adding that he didn’t want the scenes to be recreated on a studio backlot. “We have a special deal with the Italian ministry of culture because they consider these locations national property. Because our series is conveying images of Italy, they’ve given us the opportunity to film in places they wouldn’t normally allow. We have to be really careful not to use certain lights, but it was more difficult using film because you need more light. Now, with digital, you can almost use natural light. It’s less complicated.”
Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent is due to air on Rai next year, with Netflix also carrying the series around the world. A third season is already in the works, adds Spotnitz, who teases: “The saga continues.”
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.
When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.
A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.
Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.
The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”
The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”
A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.
Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.
Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.
Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.
Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.
Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.
Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…
We’ve talked frequently about the importance of brands in this golden age of drama. A while ago we also discussed Stephen King’s appeal to the film and TV business.
So it was no huge surprise this week when Viacom-owned cable network Spike greenlit a series adaptation of the horror-meister’s 1980 novella The Mist. The show is scheduled to go into production in the summer and will air in 2017.
Those of you who watch a little too much film and TV will know that The Mist also had an outing as a movie in 2007. That version was directed by Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) and produced by Dimension, which is also behind the TV version.
The novella (and film) tells the story of a small town in Maine that gets shrouded in a Mist that conceals a group of murderous monsters. The film was okay, without being spectacular, so a little more effort will need to be taken to turn this into a hit.
Interestingly, the Spike version of The Mist is being adapted by Danish writer Christian Torpe, whose previous credits include Rita. This is another indicator of the high regard in which Nordic talent is now held.
Sharon Levy, Spike’s head of original series, said: “Christian and the entire team at TWC-Dimension TV have crafted the framework for a compelling and distinctive series that will resonate with Spike’s expanding audience.”
Spike will be hoping this show goes smoothly. Last year, the network announced its intention to move more aggressively into scripted TV – but since then it has encountered a couple of bumps in the road.
First, it pulled the plug on a Jerry Bruckheimer drama called Harvest, which it had given a straight-to-series order. Then, a couple weeks ago, it suspended production on Red Mars, another straight-to-series order based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed science-fiction trilogy.
With regard to that project, Spike said in a statement: “We will continue to develop Red Mars with (producer) Skydance. The Red Mars trilogy is one of the most beloved modern science-fiction properties, in part because of its tremendous scope and ambition. We are pausing to ensure we get the script right and to deliver fans what they want – a fantastic show that fully captures the spirit of these wonderful books.”
Another novelist in high demand by the TV and film business is Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods is currently in production for Starz. This week, The Guardian reported that another Gaiman project, Good Omens (co-written in 1990 with Terry Pratchett), is also being adapted as a limited TV series.
This one follows an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, as they try and prevent the end of the world because they’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of Earth. Apparently, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Gavin Scott looked at making a TV series based on Good Omens in 2011, but that project was later scrapped. If this one goes ahead as planned, it will be adapted by Gaiman. According to The Guardian, Gaiman decided to adapt the book after reading a posthumous letter from Pratchett asking him to do so.
Perhaps not surprisingly, US cable network AMC has announced there will be a third season of Fear The Walking Dead, consisting of 16 episodes. The news follows the successful launch of season two, which attracted an impressive 8.8 million viewers in Live+3 ratings.
“What Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman have invented in Fear The Walking Dead is to be applauded,” said Charlie Collier, president of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. “Watching Los Angeles crumble through the eyes of our characters and seeing each make decisions and try to figure out the rules of their new world – it’s fresh, eerie and compelling and we’re all in for the ride. We thank the fans for embracing this mad world and look forward to sailing far into the future.”
As the above titles demonstrate, horror/fantasy is still very much in demand. Another illustration of this is Hulu’s decision to acquire the exclusive rights to Freakish from AwesomenessTV. Freakish was created by Beth Szymkowski and is set after a meltdown at chemical plant. It sees a group of highschoolers battle against the predatory mutant freaks that have taken over their small town as a result of the accident. The 10-episode first season is in production and is being lined up for 2017 transmission.
There are also reports this week that Lionsgate is preparing a drama for Amazon based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Entitled Time Out of Mind, the project will be headed by writer-director Josh Wakely – who has secured a rights deal that gives him access to Dylan’s vast music catalogue. The idea is that the show will be inspired by characters and themes within Dylan’s work. The news continues the trend towards scripted series based on musical subjects, discussed here, with Amazon itself also developing a series about legendary band The Grateful Dead.
Among other stories doing the rounds this week, there are reports that CBS’s new Star Trek series will be a seasonal anthology. It’s not clear exactly what that means in practice. Other seasonal anthologies shed their cast each season but it’s hard to imagine a show that jettisons the entire USS Enterprise crew after every season. Possibly the anthology nature of the series will relate to the challenges faced by the crew. So star names could be brought into new adventures as non-recurring characters, while the Enterprise cohort is kept broadly the same each season.
On the international distribution front, Denmark’s DR has sold its financial crime series Follow the Money to France Televisions. The show has already been sold to BBC4 UK, CBC Canada and SBS Australia. Other DR-distributed dramas to have secured sales in the wake of the recent MipTV market include SF Film’s crime drama Norskov, acquired by on-demand platform Walter Presents, and Happy End’s Splitting Up Together, which was licensed to NRK Norway.
Family drama The Legacy, which was explored in detail at C21’s Drama Summit at the end of last year, was also sold to SBS. In terms of shows to look out for, TV2 Denmark’s DNA should be a major event, since it has been created by Torleif Hoppe of The Killing fame.
It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).
Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.
The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.
Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.
In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.
Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.
It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.
The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.
If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.
Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).
“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”
One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.
Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.
On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.
This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.
“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”
Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.
A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.
This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.
AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.
In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.
The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.
TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.
The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.
The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.
Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.
For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.
Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).
Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.
As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.
HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.
Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.
Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.
US cable channel AMC is in phenomenally good shape. Its flagship scripted series, The Walking Dead (TWD), continues to deliver massive ratings and has spawned a successful spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. And now TWD has provided the launchpad for another strong performer – the martial arts fantasy series Into the Badlands.
Into the Badlands debuted on Sunday at 22.00, after the latest episode of TWD. Despite some reviews suggesting the opening episode spent too long on its setup, the show attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers and a 3.15 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds. That makes it one of the biggest new series of the autumn so far across both cable and broadcast TV, comparable to shows like Supergirl and Blindspot. Once time-shifted viewing is factored in, the series can expect to see another surge in its numbers.
Even if Into the Badlands experiences a drop-off in episode two, its premiere performance suggests it will still even out as one of the top-performing cable shows of the year. And the good news doesn’t end there for AMC. Still to look forward to is season two of Better Call Saul, which is due in February. The Breaking Bad prequel was a strong performer for the channel last year and there is no reason to suppose this will change as the show starts to tie in to the mythology of its critically acclaimed parent.
Having four massive hits in its schedule gives AMC the freedom to support other programmes that don’t rate so highly, which bodes well for the likes of Humans and Halt & Catch Fire.
Returning to TWD for a moment, it’s interesting that the latest episode saw a 5% jump in 18-49s week on week. That rise can probably be explained by the fact that the episode focused heavily on Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus). If the character is ever killed off, expect to see a huge spike in time-shifted viewing followed by a decline in the youth audience.
In today’s fragmented TV landscape, the numbers achieved by Into the Badlands are genuinely impressive – but pay TV channels don’t need to be getting ratings of this magnitude to be classified as a success. Just as important is what a show says about a channel’s brand. If it sends out the right message, it can help with the pickup or retention of subscribers. If you look at European pay TV platform Sky, for example, a lot of money has been spent on demonstrating that it is the home of quality content. Its relationship with HBO, recently extended, is a classic example of that – as is the company’s heavy investment in original drama.
Having said all this, drama is an expensive genre. So Sky has been looking for ways to deliver quality without breaking the bank in terms of its scripted content investments. One way it is doing this is by acquiring or making dramas that can play across all 21 million homes in its five core European markets: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, it is seeking to coproduce with PayTV providers in other markets – so the commercial risk is spread even more broadly.
Let’s say, for example, that Canal+ in France comes on board a drama – then suddenly your production is hitting an addressable market of around 28 million. If Sky’s distribution arm Sky Vision is then able to sell the show into other markets, the cost is further defrayed. Fortitude was a high-profile example of this. Although it only attracted around 700,000 viewers in the UK, the fact it was played out in numerous other markets made it a relatively easy decision for Sky to back a second series.
Slightly less certain is Sky’s new series The Last Panthers, a coproduction with Canal+ and US network SundanceTV. The show debuted in the UK last week and attracted just 228,000 viewers, 38% of which were 35- to 44-year-olds. That figure is ahead of the slot average – but it’s still quite low for an original. Sky will be hoping it picks up some momentum in the coming weeks.
There are probably a couple of explanations for The Last Panthers’ debut falling so short compared with Fortitude. The first is that it didn’t have the same kind of cast clout as Fortitude, which made it less promotable. True, it features Samantha Morton and there was a fleeting glimpse of John Hurt. But this is nothing compared with Fortitude, which boasted Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston (briefly). Second, the opening episode was not easy to get to grips with, switching language and location frequently and not making it obvious who the audience should root for. While UK audiences are more comfortable these days with subtitles, The Last Panthers probably makes them work a bit too hard.
The UK critics are split on the show. For The Guardian, The Last Panthers is “bold, smart and seductive,” but for the Telegraph it’s “turgid” and “lacks tension.” The Independent gets it about right when it says: “If you can cope with the violence, the underlit filming, the dialogue in French with subtitles and the unremittingly depressing scenes then The Last Panthers is a fine thriller, with a touch of The French Connection about it.” SBS Australia seems happy enough, acquiring the show this week.
While an important element of the current ‘golden age’ of drama is the freedom to pursue interesting creative ideas like Badlands and Panthers, it’s also worth noting that NBC’s big success at the moment is a trilogy of procedurals that are all based in Chicago. If you look at the channel’s top five dramas at the moment, three of them are Chicago PD, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med, which launched this week with a same day audience of 8.6 million.
Fire was the first to appear and has recently been renewed for season five. PD came next and has just been renewed for a fourth run. Med is only one episode old but already looks like it will get a renewal. Apart from the procedural formula, the common denominator among the three is that they come from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. Aged 68, Wolf continues to be one of the masters of mainstream drama and has an awards cabinet to prove it.
Finally, we can’t sign off without observing that Downton Abbey is over, except for the upcoming Christmas Special. The final episode of the final season scored a consolidated audience of 11 million viewers for ITV. There’s no question that Carnival Films’ drama, superbly scripted by Julian Fellowes, has been one of the most memorable British TV dramas ever made. While the show was perhaps starting to become a little repetitive, it continued to make hugely entertaining Sunday night viewing.
The fact Downton Abbey is now ending is a clear loss for ITV, particularly when the show has so many unresolved storylines. In fact, the broadcaster would be mad to let all of that stored up audience affection just fizzle out. No US network would allow the show to die at this stage in its life cycle. And in any other business you’d be castigated for giving up on such a strong brand.
While it’s possible that Julian Fellowes and some of the cast are keen to move on, ITV should at the very least explore whether there is spin-off potential – maybe a series focusing on the London lives of some of the younger cast. Lady Edith, Thomas the footman and a handful of others could provide the spine of a new show.
In the meantime, take a look at this video if you want to see the cast of Downton behaving badly.
AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.
The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.
The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.
Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).
This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.
The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.
In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).
Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.
Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”
Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).
Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.
Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.
After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.
Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.
The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.
Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.
With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
It’s a truism in the TV business that audiences prefer domestically produced dramas over acquired series. But for many territories, the next best thing after homegrown shows is US scripted content. That’s why, on the eve of programme market Mipcom, international TV channel buyers will be watching US schedules closely.
Right now is an important juncture in the year because US broadcast and cable networks have just launched their latest batch of new shows. While some international networks have already acquired these series (basing their decisions on scripts or pilots), many prefer to wait and see how well shows rate before committing their cash.
From this perspective, Mipcom comes at the perfect time, providing a great opportunity for buyers and sellers to discuss a show’s performance face to face in Cannes.
In this week’s column, we take a look at some of the new drama series that have just hit the US market, providing a few pointers as to how they are shaping up during their debut seasons. The shows are listed according to how well they have started out.
NBC’s Blindspot is one of the top performers among this year’s new US dramas. Last week, we reported that its first episode attracted 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Since then, delayed viewing has pushed the show’s total viewership up to 15.9 million (Live+3 ratings). The show, which centres on a tattooed woman found in a duffel bag in Times Square, has been given the go-ahead by NBC to deliver nine more scripts — an encouraging sign. Buyers that pick up this series can be confident it will come back for a second season. The show is distributed by Warner Brothers International Distribution, which has already licensed it to TVNZ New Zealand, CTV Canada and Sky Living in the UK.
We took a close look at ABC’s Quantico in this week’s Writers Room. The story of a group of FBI trainees attempting to foil a terrorist plot attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49 in its Sunday 22.00 slot. This is a good opening, and the reviews have also been generally positive. Distributed by Disney, the show has already been sold to CTV Canada and UKTV in the UK. Quantico doesn’t look as much like a dead cert as Blindspot to return, but it is better positioned than most shows to get a renewal.
A spin-off from the Bradley Cooper-starring movie of the same name, Limitless is about a man who takes a super drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain’s potential. He then uses his newfound ability to work with the FBI. Airing on CBS, Limitless was one of the strongest performers among the new shows, attracting 9.8 million viewers for its first episode. The show then attracted 9.6 million for its second episode, which is a pretty good audience retention level. Also positive is that the show stayed strong among the 18-49 demo (1.9 rating). Limitless stands a pretty good chance of renewal, though it is too early to call. It is distributed internationally by CBS Studios International, which has already licensed the show to the likes of Fox TV in Sweden and RTL CBS Entertainment – a pan-regional pay TV channel in Asia.
USA Network was so pleased with the first episode of this hacking drama that it immediately ordered a second season. With the first run now over, Mr Robot seems to have found a cult audience and a decent level of critical acclaim (an IMDb rating of 9.0 makes it one of the best-received of this year’s new shows). One buyer impressed by the series is Amazon, which swooped in and secured streaming rights to the first season. However, Amazon is not yet in many territories, so there is still plenty of scope for international networks to buy Mr Robot. It would probably suit a pay TV or subscription VoD platform – though an edgy terrestrial channel might also find a post-22.00 slot for it.
UnREAL aired on Lifetime this summer. Set against the backdrop of a fictional dating show, it focuses on flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by her executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). UnREAL didn’t debut very strongly but Lifetime’s decision to stream a number of episodes online gave the show a boost. The series finished its run as Lifetime’s most successful ever among younger viewers (part of the channel’s plan) and has already secured a second season. The show is distributed by A+E Studios International, which is bringing Appleby and Zimmer to Mipcom. It airs on Lifetime in the UK and has been licensed to streaming services such as Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). Some networks will be put off by the fact it parodies the TV entertainment business, but others will embrace its slick humour.
This revival of the Heroes franchise did moderately well on its return. Having scored a 2.0 rating among 18-49s on its opening night, time-shifted viewing took it up to a 3.1 rating (Live+3). Nielsen’s figures have Heroes Reborn ranking as the fourth best launch out of 11 on the big four US networks last week. A 7.9 rating on IMDb is not spectacular, but it’s okay to start with. The show was simulcast in Canada on Global and started airing on Seven Network Australia on September 30. The original series is currently on Netflix.
Fear The Walking Dead
You can understand the editorial and commercial reasons behind AMC’s decision to extend the world of The Walking Dead, but Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) is not quite living up to the hype. After a massive 10.1 million audience for episode one, it has since slumped significantly. The audience for episodes four and five was around the 6.5 million mark, which is good compared with other shows but not compared with its parent show. Season five of The Walking Dead averaged around 14.8 million. An IMDb rating of 7.8 suggests that the audience hasn’t really bought into FTWD – though there is time for that to change because AMC has already committed to a second season. Internationally, the show is airing on AMC Global where that channel is available (including territories in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In Australia it is on FX. Hulu has picked up US streaming rights while Amazon streams FTWD in Germany and Austria. One interesting development is that AMC has also created a 16-part web series, Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, for its website (amc.com). One of the characters in the web series will be introduced in FTWD’s second season, which is a pretty cool piece of transmedia storytelling.
There was a lot of prelaunch hype around Fox’s Scream Queens, an anthology comedy-horror series from Ryan Murphy (Glee) that makes heavy use of guest appearances by big stars (such as singer Ariana Grande). But the show hasn’t got off to a particularly strong start. Episodes one and two were shown as a two-hour special and attracted a modest 4.04 million viewers (1.7 rating among 18-49s). There was some improvement once time-shifted viewing for episode one was included, but the second episode’s audience of 3.76 million suggests Scream Queens hasn’t really managed to grip America’s imagination. Review site Rotten Tomatoes sums up the show: “Too tasteless for mainstream viewers and too silly for horror enthusiasts, Scream Queens fails to satisfy.” The series is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has so far sold it to E4 in the UK, which is probably the right kind of home for it. Murphy’s involvement makes renewal a possibility, but Fox will want to see an upturn in the ratings to justify a new run.
A week ago, we would have been lauding the performance of the latest Muppets revamp. But a disastrous ratings decline for episode two changes the picture somewhat. For episode one on ABC, The Muppets attracted nine million viewers. But for episode two the show was down 35% to 5.8 million. There was also a drop-off in 18-49 viewers. The decline is so significant that we’re going to need a few weeks to see where the show settles down. Nevertheless, The Muppets has a sufficiently strong following globally that international sales are bound to follow for Disney. Early buyers of the show include Sky1 in the UK.
The Player, another new drama from NBC, got off to a slow start. The main problem seems to be an over-complicated premise, which involves a secret amoral organisation that bets on crimes before they are committed. The first episode attracted a modest 1.2 rating among 18-49s on its first night and a total viewership of 4.68 million (rising to seven million after three days). Nevertheless, Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which distributes The Player internationally, has been very quick to secure some deals for the show. Broadcasters that have signed up include TF1 France, RTL Germany, AXN Spain, Seven Australia, D-Smart Turkey and OSN in the Middle East. All told, SPT has sold the show to broadcasters operating in 105 territories (some deals are pan-regional). Sales have probably been helped by the fact that the The Player features Wesley Snipes, but the chances of a renewal already look slim.
A spin-off from the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, Minority Report hasn’t started very well. Episode one attracted an underwhelming 3.1 million viewers (1.1 rating among 18-49s). Fox fought a rearguard action by pointing to episode one’s increase as a result of time-shifted viewing. But episode two’s audience of 2.56 million (0.9 rating among 18-49s) shows a downward trend that is not encouraging. With IMDb giving the show a low 6.1 rating, it will be a major surprise if Minority Report makes it to season two. That will clearly impact on the distribution strategy for the series.
Finally, a brief mention for the BBC in the UK, which has been running a superb series of feature-length dramas based on classic British literary works. While the dramas in questions didn’t always rate highly, they were excellently produced and provided a great showcase for why public service broadcasting matters.
The top-rating production was An Inspector Calls (5.8 million), which has a particularly high profile in the UK. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover (4.9 million), then Cider with Rosie (3.9 million) and finally The Go-Between (2.6 million). The latter, based on a novel by LP Hartley, is the least well known of the four works, so its lower ratings aren’t too much of a surprise. But it was a well-made drama. Overall, these four films were a job well done by the BBC.
After several near-misses, Fear The Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson tells Michael Pickard why this was the right time to join the world of the ‘walkers.’
For Dave Erickson, it seemed the opportunity might never arise. Having almost joined the writing team of The Walking Dead on several occasions, the timing was never quite right.
But when AMC announced a companion series to its hit zombie drama, Erickson finally landed his chance – as showrunner, no less – and is now steering a show that shattered cable records when it launched in August.
“I wrote a pilot based on a treatment by (The Walking Dead creator) Robert Kirkman five years ago. I didn’t know Robert or his work, but I started reading his comics,” Erickson tells DQ. “Shortly after, The Walking Dead launched on AMC and I danced around working for him on that show a couple of times but never actually did.
“I was always working. It coincided with my time working for Kurt Sutter on Sons of Anarchy. There was always an overlap; there was never a window of time that I could have done a season of The Walking Dead without it conflicting with Sons.
“But (Kirkman) and I stayed in touch, and when he came up with the idea to do the new series, he called to see if I was available – and I was.”
That new series, Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD), launched on AMC to record ratings for a series launch in terms of both total viewers (10.13 million) and adults aged 18-49 (6.3 million).
The story follows the struggles of one family living in LA at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.
With its six-episode first season drawing to a close in October, the show has already been renewed for a 15-episode season to air in 2016. Season six of The Walking Dead also begins in October.
Signing up for FTWD, Erickson says he was aware of the popularity of the original series – which is regularly described as the biggest show on TV and draws ratings that dwarf those of many network shows. But it wasn’t until he appeared at San Diego Comic-Con this summer that the magnitude of its fandom became clear.
“I’m a bit of a luddite, I don’t track the ratings, but I knew how big The Walking Dead was,” he explains. “However, I didn’t get caught up in it until Comic-Con. It was my first one, and it was an interesting awakening getting up close and personal with the fanbase.
“What was interesting to me (about FTWD) was the way Robert looked back at the comics and the original show and saw elements he hadn’t fully explored. He saw opportunities for more narrative. Because the original series begins with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) waking up from a coma, there’s a big chunk of story readers and the audience never got to see. There’s the opportunity to see the fall of a major city and the building blocks of the apocalypse, but he was also interested in exploring specific thematics.
“He was very interested in the theme of violence. The Walking Dead goes from zero to apocalypse very quickly. Robert’s point in our show is that killing is hard – and because the walkers (The Walking Dead universe’s term for zombies) are ‘fresher,’ they seem human.
“So it’s a physical challenge to stop a walker but it also takes an emotional toll. There’s psychological trauma that goes with that, and Robert felt that was something he hadn’t had the opportunity to do in the original.”
Erickson was also able to bring his own ideas to the show, most notably the struggles of the central family. “The idea of a blended family and resentful children of divorce was something I wanted to explore,” he says. “The great irony for me is that, fundamentally, it’s a family drama. It’s a story of two parents trying to rein in this dysfunctional family and bring them under one roof and the only way that happens is because of the onset of the zombie apocalypse.”
As well as Sons of Anarchy, the FX crime drama that ended after seven seasons last December, the showrunner’s credits include another AMC series, Low Winter Sun, and Netflix original series Marco Polo.
He cites Sons creator Kurt Sutter as one of his showrunning role models, alongside Low Winter Sun’s Chris Mundy.
Speaking about creating the first season of FTWD, he says: “We had more lead time because Robert and I had written a pilot. We’d also done a fairly comprehensive season arc so we had a very specific line for the first six episodes.
“When the writers room was assembled, we were working off this document, but the great thing about bringing the room together and getting fresh eyes on your material is you realise sometimes there are other options and the choices you made may not be the best ones. It’s pretty much the same set-up as we had for Sons of Anarchy. Marco Polo was the same too. The room comes together and it’s about talking through characters and trying to figure out how they respond to whatever obstacle or conflict you throw at them.”
Going into season two, does Erickson have a map for the rest of the series? “I have arcs in mind, I have scenes in mind,” he says. “I have moments for specific characters and places I want to land. It’s just a question as things evolve whether they will be included in season four or season seven, for example. I need some kind of end point for an episode and a season. It doesn’t mean that won’t change as you get deeper into the story, but I like to have mile markers.”
Despite FTWD and The Walking Dead being set in the same zombie-ravaged universe, Erickson says the two are fundamentally different shows and that there are no plans to synchronise their timelines any time soon.
“It’s not a priority right now. It’s about letting our show and our characters evolve and seeing how that defines the chronology,” he explains. “We have the same DNA; the show lives under the same mythological umbrella as The Walking Dead and the comic. The walkers are infected, they have similar rules, they die the same way and they come back the same way. But it’s become its own thing.
“It does have a different base – it’s slower at the beginning because I’m taking time to develop the family. We have time to examine the family dynamic – whereas in the original show, they went ‘full zombie’ very quickly and the family drama element was always at par or catching up with the apocalypse itself.
“We’re able to examine smaller stories on this larger apocalyptic stage. It’s very much a smaller story set against this larger backdrop, as opposed to the larger backdrop being established first and trying to play on that. It’s definitely apocalyptic – we depict the fall of civilisation – but I think we found a way to do that through a very specific filter and a very specific lens.”
On the back of its record-breaking debut, FTWD has proved an able companion for The Walking Dead. With web series Fear The Walking Dead: Flight 462 set to launch alongside its season one finale, fans are certain to get their fill of zombies before season two returns next year.
As AMC launches in the UK with big hitters including Fear the Walking Dead and Into the Badlands, Stephen Arnell assesses the channel’s opening line-up and its potential threat to Sky Atlantic.
Not content with vying with Sky for football rights in the UK, BT is set to challenge Sky Atlantic in the field of upscale drama with the launch today of AMC UK as part of AMC’s strategy of rolling out across the world.
Although limited in terms of audience by initial exclusivity to the BT platform (and as part of the BT Sport package on Sky), AMC is a clear statement of intent that the platform is set to up its game across all genres. BT MD Delia Bushell calls drama a “key motivator” for driving customer growth in what she describes as a “golden age” for TV series.
Irrespective of its actual audiences, Sky Atlantic has dominated the high-end imported drama market in the UK, with the likes of Fox and Universal generally perceived (with a few exceptions) as providing little in the way of real competition.
Details of the actual schedule are relatively sketchy at the moment, but the channel has secured some heavy hitters in the shape of The Walking Dead ‘companion piece’ Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) and the martial arts mash-up Into the Badlands.
Set in LA and starring the familiar faces of industry veterans Cliff Curtis (Once were Warriors, Live Free or Die Hard), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Deadwood) and actor/musician/politician and all-round renaissance man Reuben Blades (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Counselor), FTWD looks set to capitalise on the worldwide success of its parent show and help kickstart the fledgling channel.
Advance reviews have been fairly positive – with the usual caveats about pilot episodes, which tend to be chiefly involved in scene-setting.
According to Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC Global and SundanceTV Global, social media reaction to the first transmission of FTWD on August 23 has been “phenomenal in its scale.”
This was backed up when overnight figures for the show were released – 10.1 million Live+SD viewers, the highest audience for a cable launch ever in terms of individuals and all key demos.
FTWD will debut three days after AMC UK’s launch, on Monday, August 31 at 21.00 – where Sky Atlantic traditionally airs its heaviest hitters (Game of Thrones, True Detective), but in this case the opposition will be David Simon’s Yonkers public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, justifiably hugely praised but of strictly niche appeal in the UK.
The six-part Into the Badlands, vaguely reminiscent of the 1970s David Carradine-starrer Kung Fu, follows the quest for enlightenment of Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists) and his young companion in a dystopian-future US ruled by warring feudal barons.
Eminently promotable, Into the Badlands is pencilled in for a 2016 run on AMC UK after its November 2015 transmission in the US and a first window on Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, now in its third season (and already commissioned for a fourth run) on AMC’s SundanceTV, the critically acclaimed Rectify – created by Ray McKinnon (probably most familiar to audiences here as the tragic Reverend Smith in Deadwood) – is a slow-burning drama concerning the events surrounding the release of a death-row inmate after 19 years in prison when conflicting DNA evidence is discovered.
Rectify’s challenging script and occasional longueurs probably mean it’s unfortunately unlikely to be more than an acquired taste in the UK, but it is well worth checking out.
AM UK will also be premiering Sony’s Cleaners (previously shown on VoD platform Crackle in the US), a two-season actioner starring Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage, The Mentalist), Gina Gershon (Bound, Face/Off) and David Arquette (Scream).
Another title new to the UK via AMC will be Manhattan (Lionsgate, pictured top), a critically well-regarded drama shown on WGN America in the US. Centred around the development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos in 1943, the show features some well-known faces including William Petersen (CSI) and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, The Ghost Writer).
Some of AMC’s most popular series are already tied up with other UK broadcasters (Humans on Channel 4, The Walking Dead on Fox and Hell on Wheels on TCM), which means the channel will rely on movies, Mad Men (also on Sky Atlantic in the UK), Breaking Bad (Spike), FX’s rogue-cop series The Shield and the cult hit Weeds to bulk out the schedule.
Older AMC series such as the short-lived conspiracy thriller Rubicon (2010) could also get some airtime.
The US network also has a couple of hybrid docudramas – this year’s eight-part miniseries The Making of the Mob: New York and the forthcoming The West, a Sundance production that profiles the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Crazy Horse.
From details released so far, post-watershed movies playing on the UK channel will not at first include blockbuster hits, with a relatively low-key opening night line-up that includes George Clooney’s debut directorial effort Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and the Jim Thompson Noir thriller The Killer Inside Me (2010).
AMC US also plays host to retro-appeal series such as The Rifleman and The Three Stooges, which unsurprisingly will not cross the pond.
Upcoming John Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager (starring Hugh Laurie) as a coproduction with BBC (as Humans was with Channel 4) will also not be aired on AMC UK. AMC Global plans to continue these coproductions.
There exists the possibility of raiding the SundanceTV larder for shows such as The Red Road, a Banshee-style drama starring Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian), which ran to two six-part seasons, and the Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83.
2016 will see Sundance transmit the eagerly awaited adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s popular Hap & Leonard crime novels, with cast that includes the UK’s own James Purefoy (The Following, Rome), Michael K Williams (The Wire, Broadwalk Empire) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).
Also in development is Seth Rogen’s long-gestating comic book adaptation Preacher, set to air in the US next year.
Eager to use its existing libraries and distributor partnerships, AMC is unlikely to consider the Sky Atlantic route of international coproduced commissions in local territories, at least for the foreseeable future.
And, of course, the channel could always bolster its schedule with Nordic noir, which is pretty much a sure-fire way of attracting viewers. Scandi detective period series AD 1790 has yet to find a home – perhaps it will at last get an airing in the UK?
With all the hype and heritage, it’s no surprise that The Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) started so strongly last week.
Debuting on August 23 on AMC, it delivered 10.1 million live/same-day viewers “becoming the number-one series premiere in US cable television history for total viewers and all key demos.”
That’s according to AMC, which added that the cable network is now home to “three of the top five cable series premieres of all time in live/same-day viewing – Fear the Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead – a remarkable accomplishment so far into the post-DVR era.” It’s interesting to note that two of these series are spin-offs.
AMC and SundanceTV president Charlie Collier said: “It is increasingly difficult to evaluate a show’s success on night one. However, we are releasing these live/same-day ratings because Fear the Walking Dead delivered record-breaking numbers that are all the more special in this era of time-shifted viewing and audience fragmentation.
“To have a companion series to the number-one show on television driving communal, urgent viewing, social activity and pop-cultural relevance of this magnitude is truly differentiating. Of course, none of it is possible without the fans, whose passion leads to these results.”
AMC is airing six episodes of FTWD this autumn, before taking a break until 2016. The key figures to watch out for now are how many time-shifted viewers it picks up in the run-up to episode two, how well it sustains audience for episode two, and what kind of response it gets internationally.
The series premiered simultaneously on AMC Global in more than 125 countries so some figures might start trickling in over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, our only clues regarding FTWD’s prospects are reviews and ratings. IMDb gives the show a rating of 8 at the moment, which is something of an amber alert, suggesting that the audience was not especially gripped by episode one.
Variety was also disparaging, calling the 90-minute debut “too much like a snore, narrowly following a single, not-terribly-interesting family, and leaning heavily on musical cues to stoke a sense of suspense. A second episode begins to propel the story forward, thankfully, but for starters, anyway, it’s more a snack than a feast.”
Forbes’ assessment was that episode one was “not bad” but it did have a gripe with what it called “disposable black men syndrome. Not one, but two, fairly important black male characters die off in the first episode. This after tons of criticism of The Walking Dead for doing the exact same thing. I struggle to find what AMC and showrunners David Erickson and Robert Kirkman can possibly be thinking here. No major white character dies in this episode.”
One show that doesn’t have this problem is Starz’ Power, which is also a strong performer in the US cable market. On August 15, the second-season finale set a Starz series record in Live+3 ratings with 2.39 million viewers, outperforming the previous week’s record of 2.29 million and up 51% compared with the first run’s finale, which pulled in 1.59 million.
With such strong ratings, Starz will feel vindicated in having ordered a third season of Power just as it was launching season two. For those not familiar with the show, Power tells the story of a wealthy New York nightclub owner living a double life as a drug kingpin. It was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh and counts Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson among its executive producers.
Also of interest to number-crunchers is that Power is consistently one of the most requested shows on Comcast’s Xfinity On Demand, which delivers three billion hours of time-shifted TV a year.
In the UK, French-language drama Witnesses limped to the end of its run with an audience of just 290,000 on Channel 4 (C4). Over six episodes, it averaged 359,000 viewers at 22.00. This is a disappointing figure when you consider that another French drama, The Returned, achieved an audience of 1.2 million on C4 last year at 21.00.
Witnesses is a good show that rated well in France and was reviewed positively in the UK. So the only real conclusion that can be drawn is that the audience for foreign-language drama doesn’t want to watch at 21.00. Perhaps this is borne out by the fact that BBC4 is currently picking up an audience of 600,000 an episode for Italian drama Young Montelbano, which it airs in a 21.00 slot. C4 may have felt that Witnesses was too gruesome to air at 21.00, but it’s a point to keep in mind next time it acquires foreign-language fare.
On the drama distribution front, All3media International has secured a number of sales for Eleventh Hour Films’ “returnable miniseries” Safe House, including France 3 and Germany’s ZDF Neo.
The four-hour thriller debuted on the UK’s ITV in April this year, securing a decent 25% share in primetime. Peter Grant, the senior VP of sales who concluded the deals for France and Germany, said: “Safe House sees Christopher Eccleston lead a cast of internationally renowned talent in this fresh and contemporary take on the investigative crime genre. We knew this sophisticated ‘event’ thriller would play out well with our international broadcasters and are delighted to announce such a strong line-up of deals. The drama made its UK debut to great reviews and 5.6 million primetime viewers, which has only fuelled global demand.”
Returning to the US, a mid-season check suggests USA Networks’ decision to renew Suits for a sixth season was the right one. After nine episodes, the show’s ratings are actually ahead of where they were at the start of the season (circa 2.3 million viewers).
Meanwhile, the channel has postponed the finale of season one of Mr Robot until September 2, following the on-air murder of two journalists in Virginia this week. The network said: “The previously filmed season finale of Mr Robot contains a graphic scene similar in nature to today’s tragic events in Virginia. Out of respect to the victims, their families and colleagues, and our viewers, we are postponing tonight’s episode. Our thoughts go out to all those affected during this difficult time.”
Sometimes the search for hot new dramas can distract you from shows that have been quietly going about their business for years.
There’s a good case in point in the UK right now, where the 12th season of BBC1’s comedy-drama New Tricks is currently out-rating more sophisticated BBC fare such as Ripper Street and Partners in Crime, the lavish new Agatha Christie adaptation.
Now up to the 100-episode mark, Wall to Wall-produced New Tricks is centred on a team of retired police officers who are recruited to reinvestigate unsolved crimes. The new season kicked off in the week commencing August 3 with ratings of 6.5 million (live+7 days) and pretty much held its ratings the following week.
Ripper Street, by comparison, attracted just under five million for its season three debut but had fallen away quite dramatically by episode three. Partners in Crime has held up a bit better, but is still lagging about 1.5 million viewers behind New Tricks.
In fact, the only thing that beats New Tricks are the UK’s soaps and factual entertainment juggernaut The Great British Bake Off.
Critics generally regard New Tricks as middle of the road. But its popularity with audiences is largely down to the fact that its cast is made up of actors who are national treasures. Although some of them have come and gone over the show’s 12 seasons, there is a warmth and familiarity to the series that recalls other favourites like Last of the Summer Wine, Minder and Birds of a Feather.
Interestingly the BBC decided earlier this year that the current run will be the last season of New Tricks. Possibly it did this because the audience is older than it would like. Or maybe it decided that, as a public broadcaster, it is duty-bound to try something new. Either way, it will soon kill off one of its best-performing shows – something that would never happen in the US TV market.
Ironically, the new season has actually had some good reviews, with The Times calling it “lean and pacy” and The Daily Telegraph admiring its humour, pace and suspense.
There have even been suggestions that the BBC may regret its decision. “New Tricks is formulaic, but it’s a stable formula that never goes stale,” says the Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens. “Midsomer Murders is faced with the constant challenge of devising more outlandish killings, and Silent Witness must always seek out darker crimes, but New Tricks is timeless. All the components are endlessly recyclable.”
Meanwhile, AMC’s ad agency epic Mad Men has inspired a number of other series set again recent period backdrops, with notable examples including Aquarius, The Americans and Pan Am. One that is coming to a close this week is The Astronaut Wives Club, an ABC series based on the book by Lily Koppel. Set in the 1960s, the story focuses on a group of women whose lives are transformed once their spouses start launching off into outer space.
It’s not clear if The Astronauts Wives Club was ever conceived as a returning series, but the official line over the last few months has been that it is a self-enclosed limited series. This is probably the right decision given the lukewarm response from critics and its recent decline in ratings. Having set off on its journey with 5.5 million viewers, the penultimate episode dipped to a season low of 3.2 million. The final episode aired last night but is unlikely to have done anything to change the show’s fortunes.
Having said this, creator Stephanie Savage hasn’t ruled out the idea of other series that focus on female characters against the backdrop of a key historical event or era. So possibly we are seeing the genesis of another anthology series.
Speaking to Variety, Savage said: “There are so many incredible stories of women in history that haven’t been told. I’d be very happy to do one every summer for the rest of my life. It’s the twenties and the Second World War and Wall Street and the eighties – there’s so many worlds that can be explored and women have amazing stories that haven’t been told the way they should be.”
Turkey is Country of Honour at Mipcom 2015. So you’re likely to see a lot of stories about Turkish drama over the next few months as part of the PR activity around that event. One show you’ll hear a lot about is Ezel, a crime drama that was a ratings hit at home and has since been sold to various territories around the world by distributor Eccho Rights.
This week Eccho has further enhanced Ezel’s reputation with a raft of sales to broadcasters in Latin America. Unitel in Bolivia, TV Accion in Paraguay, Latina in Peru and Caracol in Colombia will all air the series, which is produced by leading Turkish production company Ay Yapim. Eccho, which worked with worked Miami’s Somos Distribution on the deals, claims Ezel has now been sold to every country in Latin America.
Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD), the companion series to AMC megahit The Walking Dead, debuts this Sunday, August 23. Where possible, AMC wants FTWD to air on its own international channel AMC Global (in order to link the show brand with the channel brand). But where that isn’t possible it is doing licensing deals with third parties, via distributor Entertainment One.
This week, it was announced that FTWD will debut in Germany and Austria exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video – a day after the US broadcast. Amazon also picked up second-window rights for the show in the UK, where the show will debut on AMC Global. This time next week, we’ll be able to explore whether the spin-off has managed to benefit from the buzz around its parent show.
In TV, execs mostly talk about the relative merits of miniseries, limited series and returning series. But there are also times when one-off dramas can do a good job for networks. UK public channel BBC2, for example, has been airing a run of 90-minute dramas with reasonable levels of success. After The Eichmann Show and Marvellous, the most recent example was The Scandalous Lady W, a racy period drama set in the late 18th Century. With Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) attracting plenty of positive critical reviews in the lead role, the drama attracted ratings of 2.5 million viewers at 21.00, almost double the slot average of 1.3 million.
Interestingly, the show, like New Tricks, was produced by Wall to Wall, which will be celebrating the fact that it has delivered ratings success at both the populist and niche ends of the BBC drama spectrum.
As AMC prepares to launch Fear The Walking Dead, Michael Pickard looks at the trend towards producing spin-offs of popular shows and examines why such series are so popular with television networks.
In the increasingly congested world of television drama, it takes a brave commissioner to back a slate of original series for fear they might crash and burn without ever breaking into the public consciousness.
So what better way to offer new programming and give viewers more of what they like than to build on an existing hit series?
Reboots, re-imaginings, prequels, sequels and companion series are nothing new, of course.
Among the biggest successes was The Bionic Woman, a follow-up to 1970s series The Six Million Dollar Man, while Star Trek: The Original Series led to countless continuations, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.
Stargate SG-1 led to Infinity, Atlantis and Universe; Doctor Who branched off with Torchwood; and, more recently, The Vampire Diaries spawned The Originals, Pretty Little Liars moved to Ravenswood and Once Upon a Time led to Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
In Britain, the success of time-travelling police drama Life on Mars led to hard-hitting detective Gene Hunt getting his own series in follow-up Ashes to Ashes, while Inspector Morse was followed by sequel Lewis and prequel Endeavour.
Perhaps the most famous examples of spin-offs are the long-running procedural series that have been reworked for multiple locations across the US. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, set in Las Vegas, was spun off for New York and Miami, and also led to cyber-crime series CSI: Cyber.
JAG led to NCIS, which itself has had spin-offs NCIS: Los Angeles, failed pilot Red and New Orleans.
Meanwhile, another long-running series, Law & Order, led to Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury and Los Angeles, and has been adapted in the UK and Russia.
Elsewhere, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was followed by Angel, and Chicago Fire is now part of an NBC franchise created by Law & Order’s Dick Wolf that includes Chicago PD and Chicago Med.
The list goes on – and it’s about to get even longer.
Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD, pictured top), which launches on US cable network AMC on August 23, is a “companion series” to the hugely successful zombie drama The Walking Dead, which is now entering its sixth season on the same channel.
Ahead of the spin-off’s launch, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman shared his hopes for the new series in an open letter, in which he hinted that Fear will stand alone from its parent show.
“Here we go again,” he begins. “I don’t say that with the exhausted tone one might expect coming from someone embarking on a companion show while also working on the sixth season of the original. Truth be told, I would have to fill this space with exclamation points to accurately represent just how excited I am about Fear the Walking Dead. It’s so cool for me to be expanding The Walking Dead universe in such exciting and new ways.”
Kirkman, who created the comic book on which The Walking Dead is based, says the original series has always been about the characters – and the spin-off series gives him and the writing team the chance to introduce a new band of survivors in their post-outbreak world.
“These people have their own experiences and reasons to survive,” he explains. “They’re complicated, real characters who will not be dealing with the undead the same way. They’ll learn new things, they’ll find new tools, they’ll learn faster or slower. But what we end up with is a very, very different show… set in a world we love exploring as much as we’d all never want to live there.”
At a recent Television Critics Association panel to discuss the series, FTWD showrunner Dave Erickson separated the two shows further by stating that, unlike those in the original, characters the new series won’t use the term ‘walkers’ to describe the zombies.
Executive producer Dave Alpert added: “The show (The Walking Dead) in season six is different from what’s happening in season one and there were so many questions about what happened in season one that we thought it was a ripe area that wouldn’t tread on the mothership. We look at Fear as unique enough to stand on its own with characters you’d be invested in.”
With the trend for spin-offs showing no sign of slowing down, surely expanding what’s arguably the biggest show on television has to be a safe bet.
AMC certainly believes there are more stories to tell in the Walking Dead world, with FTWD already building on its six-part first season with a 15-episode second run in the works.
Another show that could get a companion series is music drama Empire. Creator Lee Daniels teased the idea when discussing the Fox series, which is preparing for its season two launch, as it is already known that he’s developing another drama about an all-girl band called Star.
Spin-off series offer fans the chance to enjoy more of their favourite television series by expanding the world in which they’re set, so long as they contain engaging characters and unique stories. They can also lead to ‘event’ crossover episodes – as is the case with Arrow and The Flash on The CW.
But if variety is the spice of life, TV networks might be wise to ensure they don’t rely on diluting their most popular franchises for fear of fulfilling the law of diminishing returns.
There are only three weeks to go until the launch of Fear the Walking Dead, US cable channel AMC’s LA-based spin-off of its hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead.
Earlier this year, AMC said it had greenlit two series of the new show. This week it added some detail, saying that there will be 15 episodes in the second run, which is scheduled to air during 2016.
Fear The Walking Dead, which launches on August 23, has a special significance for AMC because, unlike The Walking Dead, it will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global, which is available in 125 countries after a rapid international roll-out over the last year.
The Walking Dead started to gain momentum as a franchise before AMC had an international channel to air it on. So internationally most of the branding benefits of the show have gone to Fox channels, which have the international rights.
This time, however, AMC wants to make sure it is the primary beneficiary. To make the most of its relationship with Fear The Walking Dead, it also plans to air the show simultaneously around the world, a move that will drive its social media stats sky-high.
AMC has also announced the launch date for its hotly anticipated martial arts series Into the Badlands. Scheduled to premiere on November 15, this show will also be available internationally on AMC Global. It’s too early to say if Into the Badlands can have the same kind of impact as The Walking Dead, but it is the most ambitious martial arts project to have hit TV screens for some time.
“Martial arts is not only a new genre for an AMC series, but also one that has been largely absent from television for 15 years,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming for AMC and SundanceTV. “The team behind Into the Badlands, led by showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, is comprised of some of the best martial artists and martial arts filmmakers in the world, and they have crafted a show that over-delivers against two big goals we set for the show: to create a compelling character drama and to introduce the highest calibre of martial arts filmmaking to a weekly, ongoing series.”
Other interesting developments include National Geographic Channel’s announcement that it has ordered a pilot script from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for Last Men Out. Based on a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the series will look at the rearguard actions of a band of marines during the final days of the Vietnam War. Fontana, whose credits include Copper and Borgia, will write and executive produce the pilot through Levinson/Fontana Co – the production company he formed with Levinson.
If all of the above sounds too violent for your tastes, then US cable channel The CW has revealed plans for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic Little Women, to be written by Alexis Jolly and produced by Solar Drive Productions in association CBS TV Studios.
However, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie version of the book that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst may be in for a surprise. Press reports claim The CW is planning a “hyper-stylised adaptation” of the novel in which “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”
Last year, cable channel E! entered the scripted market for the first time with The Royals, a series based around the public and private lives of a fictitious British Royal Family. Now it has announced plans for a second project, with the working title Hollywood Teen Medium. Following the life of 19-year-old Tyler Henry, the series explores the world of a “self-proclaimed clairvoyant medium as he balances his unique abilities with trying to be a regular teenager. Formerly of a small-town, Tyler has become one of Hollywood’s top mediums, bringing messages from the heavens and profound visions to today’s hottest stars.”
With a greenlight for eight one-hour episodes, Hollywood Teen Medium “adds a new layer of mystery and intrigue to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that our audience is so passionate about,” said Jeff Olde, executive VP for original programming and development at E!.
This week has also seen a fair amount of activity in terms of series renewals. The big news at Starz is a fourth season of Black Sails, which stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint.
The first two seasons of Black Sails averaged 4.5 million multi-platform viewers per episode and the series is distributed in 175 countries worldwide. A greenlight for the fourth season comes despite the fact that the 10-episode third season doesn’t air on Starz until 2016. As mentioned previously, Starz has also cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons.
Amid a slew of announcements over the last week, Netflix said the fourth season of Longmire will air on September 10 (available to audiences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Based on the novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson, Longmire is a crime drama that centres on a Wyoming county sheriff who returns to work after his wife’s death.
The show is interesting because the first three seasons aired on A&E, which then cancelled it. Producer Warner Horizon TV then touted the show around, at which point Netflix stepped in and saved it.
Finally, Channel 4 has announced a second season of its hit sci-fi drama Humans, produced by Kudos from a Scandinavian drama by Matador. It is coproduced with AMC.
The decision was announced just prior to the finale of the first run this Sunday. Commenting on the decision, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said the drama “marks a key moment for C4 as we expand our remit for bold and original drama into the international copro space.”
As the dust settles on another Comic-Con, Michael Pickard rounds up all the news and casts his eye over the hottest trailers that were unveiled to thousands of fans in San Diego.
And so Comic-Con ends for another year. As more than 130,000 people make their way home from the San Diego Convention Centre, the latest round of this annual four-day event has only served to establish it further as the new must-go place for television series, and their producers, directors, writers and cast members, to build up the noise surrounding their launch or return to our screens.
Alongside announcements about series renewals and surprise star appearances, it’s always intriguing to see where television drama – and genre fare in particular – is heading over the coming year.
Panels were hosted by shows including Limitless, Orphan Black, iZombie, Scorpion and Sherlock. Game of Thrones, The 100 and Marvel’s broadcast series – Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – also drew fans to hear gossip from the set and more about what fate might lie in store for their favourite characters.
Elsewhere, MTV announced Teen Wolf had been renewed for a sixth season, while cable network WGN America ordered a third run of its spellbinding period drama Salem.
Comic book drama Arrow released an image of the Green Arrow’s costume ahead of season four launching on The CW this fall, while the casts of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash, both also on The CW, joined in the fun.
Universal Cable Productions announced it is teaming with Warren Ellis and Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) to adapt 1970s Mexican network Televisa’s format El Pantera, as well as adapting UK film The Machine with writer Caradog James for Syfy. It has also optioned IDW Publishing comic Kill Shakespeare.
The producer of NBC reboot Heroes Reborn, Imperative Entertainment, said it had optioned rights to adapt Hugh Howey novel Sand, which tells of a family of sand divers who use wetsuit-type technology to dive beneath the desert that covers a lawless dystopian world to retrieve valuable relics that help them survive.
Minority Report producer Darryl Frank also revealed that Steven Spielberg had been working with executives on the Fox reboot of the celebrated director’s 2002 feature film.
At Syfy, the network revealed new details about its six-hour adaptation of Arthur C Clark’s novel Childhood’s End, and former Lost star Josh Holloway was reunited with the show’s executive producer Carlton Cuse as they discussed their latest collaboration: USA Network’s forthcoming Colony.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller also gave hope to fans of Hannibal that the now-cancelled NBC drama could be resurrected as a feature film, though there were celebrations at the Grimm panel, where the show’s stars and executive producers discussed plans for the NBC series’ landmark 100th episode.
But for all the talk at Comic-Con, its the exclusive clips and trailers that got fans off their seats and on their feet inside the convention centre.
Here DQ showcases trailers for some of the most anticipated shows heading to television over the next year:
There’s a lot of excitement in the world of telenovela right now following the news that Brazilian TV giant Globo has started production on A Regar do Jogo (The Rule of the Game).
Due to air in August, the show is from Joao Emanuel Carneiro, the creator of global hit Avenida Brasil (Brazil Avenue). It tells the story of a much-loved politician whose life is more complex than it appears on the surface. The cast is led by Alexandre Nero (Empire) and also features Giovanna Antonelli (The Clone) and Caua Reymond (Brazil Avenue), among others.
Expectations for The Rule of the Game are high after the success of Avenida Brasil. Not only did Carneiro’s previous show secure massive ratings in its domestic market (the final episode secured an 84% share), it was sold into 130 territories worldwide. Business magazine Forbes called the show the most successful telenovela ever, estimating that it generated more than US$1bn in ad revenue (against a US$45m production budget). Let’s hope Carneiro has secured himself a favourable contract for the new project.
As discussed in a recent column, San Diego’s Comic-Con has become a key event in the calendar for US broadcasters. At this year’s edition, for example, there were numerous trailers, sneak previews and exclusive premieres on show for upcoming series. There was even some renewal news, notably MTV’s announcement that it has greenlit a sixth season of Teen Wolf and WGN America’s revelation that Salem will have a third run.
One other major topic was the upcoming array of zombie shows set to hit the market. AMC, for example, announced that The Walking Dead season six will premiere on Sunday October 11 at 21.00 with an extended 90-minute episode (preceded by a Zombie Apocalypse week, running from October 5-11). As in previous seasons, the show’s sixth run of 16 episodes will air in two parts, with the second eight hitting screens in February 2016.
AMC also revealed that its brand new companion series Fear The Walking Dead will premiere on Sunday August 23 at 21.00. Significantly, the show will also debut on AMC Global channels around the world simultaneously with the US premiere. “Anticipation for Fear the Walking Dead is reaching a crescendo and we are ecstatic about delivering the series to worldwide fans at the exact same time as the US,” says Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “Whether you’re in Hong Kong, Madrid or São Paulo, AMC viewers will be able to experience the start of the zombie apocalypse together.”
If all of that doesn’t satiate your thirst for dead flesh, then this autumn also sees the launch of Ash vs Evil Dead, a series from Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Greenlit by Starz, this particular zombiefest will launch on Saturday, October 31 at 21.00, wisely avoiding a confrontation with AMC’s megahit.
Currently in production in New Zealand, the 10-part Starz series is a follow-up to classic horror film franchise The Evil Dead. The cast is led by Bruce Campbell, who reprises his role as Ash, and Lucy Lawless (Salem, Spartacus). The first episode was directed by Raimi, creator of the original Evil Dead series as well as director of Darkman, Drag Me To Hell and the Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi’s involvement should ensure that this is more than just an attempt to cash in on the current fascination with the undead genre.
In Europe, pay TV broadcaster Sky has been flexing its muscles in recent years by investing in original programming. This week, its UK-based entertainment channel Sky 1 announced an autumn schedule that it says is underpinned by “a 20% increase in spend on new programmes.” In addition, it said that, for the first time, there will be brand new UK drama and comedy all year round, with drama on Wednesdays.
“I’m so excited we can offer absolutely top-quality drama all year round and I love how brilliantly unique our comedies feel,” said Adam MacDonald, director of Sky 1. “The range of original programming we have reflects what Sky 1 stands for: the very best of modern Britain and Ireland, and all the eclecticism, diversity and joy that implies. We know that some of the best family moments come from sitting around the TV and enjoying that time together, and we hope with this new line-up to create more of those moments.”
From September, Sky 1 will ramp up its commitment to drama with You, Me & The Apocalypse, starring Rob Lowe, Pauline Quirke, Mathew Baynton, Paterson Joseph and Joel Fry in an “adrenaline-fuelled, continent-spanning tale about the final days before a comet collides with the earth.” For the festive season there will be four-part drama Fungus the Bogeyman, based on the book by Raymond Briggs. This stars Victoria Wood, Keeley Hawes, Joanna Scanlan and, as Fungus, Timothy Spall.
Following a 2014 one-off, Ashley Jensen will return as Agatha Raisin, with eight mysteries based on the bestselling novels of MC Beaton. Acclaimed thriller writer Harlan Coben has also created his first original story for TV with The Five. A taut mystery about the consequences of a terrible childhood incident for a group of friends, the cast includes Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
Separately, comic-book legend Stan Lee has co-created his first UK TV drama, alongside writer Neil Biswas. Called Lucky Man, it stars James Nesbitt as a down-on-his-luck police officer whose fortunes mysteriously change.
Back in the US, HBO has renewed its series Ballers for a second season. From creator Stephen Levinson (Entourage, Boardwalk Empire), the show looks at the lives of former and current football players, focusing on former superstar Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson), who is trying to reinvent himself as a financial manager for current players in Miami. “We are thrilled with the overwhelming response the series has received,” says Michael Lombardo, president of HBO Programming. “The charismatic and hugely talented Dwayne Johnson, along with the rest of the Ballers cast, has struck a chord with the HBO audience.”
The first episode of Ballers season one aired on June 21 and has so far gathered 8.9 million viewers across HBO’s branded platforms, making it HBO’s most watched first episode of a half-hour series since 2009. Furthermore, the episode has also tallied a staggering 5.6 million views on Dwayne Johnson’s Facebook page. Aside from all the fan love, the show has also received critical acclaim, with Entertainment Weekly describing it as “funny” and “fast-moving,” and the Hollywood Reporter calling Dwayne Johnson “magnetic,” hailing his “star performance.”
Elsewhere, Broadcast reports that discussions are underway between Channel 4 and Kudos over a second season of Humans, which is currently in the middle of its first run. Broadcast quotes C4’s head of international drama Simon Maxwell as saying a second run is “very much under consideration. We’ve got a story that is told over a great many episodes and is designed to return.”
Finally, this week also sees the launch of the Heroes Reborn App, described by NBC as “a portal to the past, present and future of the Heroes universe.” According to NBC, the app provides fans with a simple, intuitive way to quickly catch up on the saga, with curated clips from all four seasons of the original Heroes series. The Heroes Reborn App also offers access to a six-episode prequel Dark Matters and special content from Heroes Reborn, which will be rolled out ahead of the series launch on September 24.
The App is an interesting insight into the way digital can be used to build a supporting mythology for scripted franchises. “We want fans to have a place where they can speed binge – either by season or by character – and experience all the excitement of Heroes and, at the same time, look into the future to see how Heroes Reborn continues this compelling franchise,” says Robert Hayes, executive VP for digital at NBC Entertainment. “This one-of-a-kind app is a one-stop shop for any Heroes aficionado.”
According to NBC and Tim Kring (creator of Heroes/Heroes Reborn), digital prequel Dark Matters will bridge the gap between the original series and Heroes Reborn, reintroducing viewers to the Heroes universe and unveiling a new generation of characters. “Anyone who watches Dark Matters will find the ton of clues, backstory and Easter eggs that we’ve layered in,” says Kring, who is executive producing Heroes Reborn. “Watching it before seeing Heroes Reborn completes the entire saga, and guarantees a deeper, more rewarding experience for the fans.”