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:
So many shows that appear in this column start strongly but then fade away, like books that people can’t be bothered finishing.
A clear exception to this is Game of Thrones, which has just come to the end of its fifth season. Packed with the usual array of murder, mayhem and fan-enraging reversals of fortune, the final episode of the latest run, Mother’s Mercy, brought a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers to HBO in the US (not including any laggards who will watch on a delayed basis).
This season is approximately one million up on season four, which itself was a massive hit. Only AMC’s The Walking Dead has achieved higher ratings on US cable.
Game of Thrones has also proved a big hit for Sky Atlantic in the UK, where the show has averaged 1.2 million across its 10-episode run. When time-shifted viewing is factored in, the figure is more like two million. These numbers are well ahead of season four, and more than fives times higher than the channel’s slot average.
But Game of Thrones’ success shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a superb launch for Kudos-produced robot thriller Humans on Channel 4. An eight-part coproduction with AMC, the show achieved a record-breaking four million viewers, making it C4’s biggest ever original drama series launch. With an 18.3% share, the show more than doubled the channel’s 21.00 slot average.
Humans’ strong ratings have been reinforced by generally positive reviews. The Guardian called the show “a clever, high energy thriller,” while Neil Midgley, writing for Forbes, said Humans “hasn’t yet reached Blade Runner’s standards of greatness. But its first episode offered a pretty good start.”
Slightly less enthused was The Telegraph, which concluded: “With seven episodes still to come, it’s hard to imagine working up strong feelings for these robots with feelings. As a dystopian sci-fi police thriller satirical family drama, Humans felt like it was suffering from conceptual overload and in need of a reboot.”
All that remains then is to see how the show holds up in episode two. While there is bound to be a drop-off as some of the audience pull out and others set their TVs to record the series, the degree of the decline will tell us a lot about the Humans’ future.
One thing the series has in its favour is that it was scripted by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, whose staying power was proven with spy drama Spooks and its recent movie spin-off Spooks: The Greater Good.
Back in the US, one show that seems to be doing well enough to merit a renewal is Fox’s Wayward Pines. Directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, the show’s on- and off-screen talent meant it was always likely to get off to a good start. But five episodes into its first 10-episode season, it is holding up very well, with same-day ratings coming in around the four million mark.
Indeed, the general consensus is that episode five (The Truth) is the strongest so far, a fact that has boosted Wayward Pines’ ratings and got the fanbase buzzing. While some critics have complained that the set-up of the series has been too slow, the fact is the audience’s loyalty to the show is also evident through its strong catch-up ratings, which usually add a further three million or so viewers in the week after an episode’s launch.
With particular strength among 18-49s, it would be surprising if Wayward Pines didn’t earn a second season. The real question now is just how good can it become creatively.
Of course, measuring a show’s success has become much more complex in recent years, thanks to the number of different platforms on which people can view. While there’s still a temptation to judge a show on the size of its first-night ratings, executives are having to hold their fire until all of the data has trickled in.
There was a good case in point this week. US cable channel FX has just released figures that show the last season of its anthology series American Horror Story (AHS), entitled Freak Show, was FX’s most-watched programme ever when all viewing platforms are counted. Based on the latest tally of linear and non-linear viewership, ratings research firm Nielsen estimates that roughly 12.64 million viewers on average watched Freak Show. Not only does this surpass the previous season of AHS, it is also higher than the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (11.69 million). Particularly impressive were the show’s VoD viewing figures. At 12% of the total, they were the highest percentage among any FX show to date.
Interestingly, AHS Freak Show finished in January – so it has taken FX half a year to make the above announcement. While the channel no doubt had an unofficial indication of the numbers a few months ago, it’s still a useful warning against snap judgements.
This isn’t to say that overnight ratings no longer have any value. But the real indicator of a show’s appeal is not just the size of its live audience, it is the ability to sustain that level over a number of weeks. As explained earlier in this column, shows that shed audience rapidly from episode one to two are usually in deep trouble. For the record, American Horror Story returns for season five in October and will have pop icon Lady Gaga among its new cast members.
Finally, the second series of HBO’s True Detective franchise debuts this Sunday. This, of course, means it is too early to make snap judgements based on overnights. But it isn’t too early to make a few premature observations based on reviews.
For the most part, reviewers that have watched the show have displayed due respect to the writing talents of Nic Pizzolatto and a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. But they are split over the merits of the show. In the pro camp are Deadline and The Telegraph, with the latter declaring “Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return.”
Less palatable for HBO is The Baltimore Sun’s pithy summary: “This season (Pizzolatto) seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama.”
Now all we need is for the audience to have their say.
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.
Season five of fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones has picked up where its previous runs left off, delivering massive ratings for US cable network HBO. Overnights for the first three episodes came in at eight million, 6.81 million and 6.71 million respectively.
That slight week-on-week decline shouldn’t give too much cause for concern, because so much viewing of the show is now time-shifted, on-demand or via other platforms. To underline the point, HBO has just released data that shows a staggering 18.1 million viewers watched episode one in the first week after its launch (a period of time referred to as live+7). This figure, which includes linear showings, HBO Go, HBO Now and on-demand views, confirms the serious pulling power of the show – while also cautioning against hasty judgements about first day viewing.
Game of Thrones is also popular internationally, with the UK launch garnering similarly enormous ratings. Sky Atlantic, which airs the show one day after the US transmission on HBO, reported record overnight ratings of 1.57 million – up 29% on season four’s debut. As in the US, those figures are certain to increase once time-shifted and multi-platform viewing is factored in. There were also record ratings for Foxtel in Australia, where 242,000 tuned in to watch episode one at 11.00 local time. An additional 311,000 tuned in at 19.30, creating a record day-one audience of 553,000.
Game of Thrones’ ratings success is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is such a heavily pirated show. In the US, it holds the dubious honour of having been the most-pirated show for the past three years in succession. Problems with piracy have been exacerbated this year, with the first four episodes of season five having been leaked online ahead of the show’s official launch.
The ratings story is less rosy for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s 12-part series AD: The Bible Continues, which has seen its audience on US network NBC slide in consecutive weeks. After a robust opening of 9.7 million on Easter Sunday, the next three episodes have come in at 7.75 million, 6.36 million and 5.77 million respectively.
AD is a sequel to The Bible, a Burnett/Downey miniseries that aired on cable channel History US last year. Its underperformance is a surprise, given that The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers per episode over its 10-episode run – making it the biggest US cable show of 2014.
AD’s performance has led some analysts to suggest that NBC will probably cancel the show (though a final decision on that will need to take into account time-shifted ratings and a couple more episodes of data). This would be a blow to Burnett and Downey, who told journalists at MipTV in Cannes that they would like AD to be the launch pad for a multi-series franchise that tells more stories about the early years of the Christian church. Possibly, in hindsight, they would have been better placing AD in the less ratings-obsessed world of cable.
The standout performer in the UK so far this year is BBC1’s Poldark. Based on books by Winston Graham (and also a remake of a classic 1970s series), the show is set in 1790s Cornwall, where former soldier Ross Poldark battles against vested interests to make a success of his family’s copper mine. Not an obvious ratings winner, it has been boosted by the brooding good looks and heroic demeanour of Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark. While Captain Poldark’s handsome face, enviable abs and moral rigour have led to some mockery, The Independent newspaper gets it about right when it calls the show “an addictive Sunday night treat.” Poldark may not be Wolf Hall, but it is a hugely entertaining show.
With consolidated ratings averaging around 7.5 million across an eight-episode run, Poldark has been recommissioned for another series, to be filmed in September. And there are reports that the BBC wants to tie Turner down to a long-term contract and build Poldark up as its answer to Downton Abbey. The programme also looks set to have a decent life internationally, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment licensing it to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Sweden. Confirmation of a second series will help ITVSGE with its further sales efforts.
Elsewhere, the international drama community has been keeping a close eye on the Nordic territories after a run of recent successes. The latest show to watch out for is Acquitted, a 10-part series from Miso Films for TV2 Norway. Acquitted follows the story of Aksel Borgen, who left his native town after being cleared of the murder of his high-school sweetheart. Twenty years later, he returns to save the place that once turned its back on him – but the past has not been forgotten.
Acquitted has rated well for TV2, with its first six episodes averaging 649,000 (55% up on the slot average). This week it also premiered on SVT in Sweden, where it achieved similarly strong ratings. With more than one million viewers (30.5% share), Acquitted ranks as of the most successful foreign dramas to have launched on SVT over the last five years. Miso Films co-founder Peter Bose says: “In an industry where we’re constantly hearing about viewers migrating to non-linear platforms, Acquitted has been quite an achievement on SVT.”
Ratings, of course, play a huge part in deciding whether to renew a show. So it’s no real surprise to see ABC US cancel Revenge after a couple of seasons of modest ratings. It seems, however, that the US can’t get enough of zombies. AMC’s The Walking Dead is as strong as ever, which explains the network’s decision to launch a spin-off called Fear the Walking Dead. The CW is also having some success with iZombie, which debuted in March this year. Now halfway through its first run of 13 episodes, the show is achieving healthy ratings in the 1.7-1.9 million mark. Aimed at a younger audience that The Walking Dead, it has received a positive critical response and is expected to return.
A bigger question, perhaps, is the future of A+E’s The Returned, which was eight episodes into a 10-episode run at time of writing. The Returned is a supernatural drama that explores what happens when the dead return to a small town and try to live normal lives, much to the shock and confusion of the living residents. Its significance is that it is based on a successful French series called Les Revenants (produced by Haut et Court for TF1). For those in the format sales business, it’s important that shows like The Returned do well, to avoid spreading fear among US commissioners that shows don’t transfer well into their market.
So far, ratings have not been especially encouraging, starting at 1.54 million but sliding to 0.82 million by episode eight. There are two possible explanations for this – one is that ABC has been airing a similar-concept series called Resurrection; the other is the view among some critics that the A+E show has not taken the French version forward. The Wrap calls it “a serviceable but mostly by-the-numbers remake of a brilliantly nuanced French series that didn’t need to be brought back to life in America a second time.”
A+E is not the kind of network that gives up on shows easily, however, so a cancellation at the end of season one would be surprising. Netflix will be watching developments with interest, having recently picked up the global rights to the A+E series.