Gaumont’s president of worldwide TV distribution and coproduction shares her six favourite series of all time, featuring a mix of US comedies and international dramas.
What could be more compelling than the real-life rise to global power of the world’s most infamous drug lord? In its first two seasons, Narcos (also pictured above) tells the story of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cocaine kingpin who consistently outmanoeuvred omnipotent Drug Enforcement Administration agents, rival drug lords and the Colombian government to become the wealthiest cocaine producer and distributor – reportedly worth US$30bn at the time of his death – in the world.
The series doesn’t sugar-coat the acquisition of Escobar’s ill-gotten gains as he courts the poor, thumbs his nose at authority and executes some of the most cunning business strategies ever. The third season continues the story of the Colombian cartels, while the latest instalment, Narcos: Mexico, switches its focus to Mexico’s cannabis trade and the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s. The true story element makes Narcos an addictive and fascinating show.
Every American of a certain age can recall their favourite episode and has also identified with one or more of the iconic characters in Friends, which enjoyed a decade-long reign on NBC and became one of the US’s most popular television series of all time.
Relatively unknown when the series debuted, Friends stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow were soon catapulted onto the A-list, influencing a generation’s apparel, hairstyles and vernacular. The series is still extremely popular today, and it’s always fun to watch re-runs.
Grace & Frankie
I was hooked from the first episode of this show, when tight-laced Jane Fonda as Grace meets her husband (Martin Sheen) for dinner with his business partner (Sam Waterston) and his hippy-artsy spouse Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin. During the dinner, we learn that the husbands are not only partners at a law firm, they are also lovers and have decided to come out to their wives, each seeking a divorce so they can marry each other.
The series deals with the challenges of starting over, relationships with exes, adult children and more through its sharp, witty dialogue that makes you laugh, touches your heart and leaves you anxiously waiting for each new season.
Las Chicas del Cable (The Cable Girls)
The producers of the acclaimed Spanish series Gran Hotel and Velvet hooked me with this Spanish period drama. Set in 1928 in Madrid, the series follows the lives of four very different young women who work as switchboard operators for the country’s only phone company at the time. It addresses the social mores of the time, as well as the women’s relationships, ambitions and dreams juxtaposed against a changing society. While the technology may be antiquated, the situations and choices these women face are just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent)
This French series may hit a bit too close to home for some in the TV biz, but I love it. Dix Pour Cent follows the lives of three struggling talent agents, each attempting to balance their personal lives with the professional pressures of trying to keep the high-maintenance celebrity clients of the ASK agency happy following the sudden death of the agency’s founder. You’ll laugh, you’ll relate and you may even pick up some pointers.
Sex & the City
OK, I’m just going to say it: I wanted to be sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, just to hang out with her friends –Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda – or to dress in some of the cutting-edge fashion (and those fabulous shoes!) on display in the series.
The show introduces us to the sexually liberated and slightly older Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the guarded and headstrong Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), the sheltered and spoiled Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and the inquisitive writer Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), who uses her personal encounters and those of her friends as fodder for a newspaper column.
While each of these women enjoys a successful career, they all struggle with a roller coaster of emotions and self-reflection as they explore and experience Manhattan’s plethora of available men. This series tackled timely and relevant subjects like sexuality, monogamy and relationships from each of the women’s very different perspectives. It became a classic and still airs around the world.
The search for a missing woman takes two police officers beneath the streets of Paris in Canal+ original series Nox. DQ braves the dark to find out more about this six-hour ‘super-movie.’
For more than a century, the catacombs beneath Paris have attracted tourists from around the world keen to glimpse a small section of the vast tunnel system that sits beneath the French capital.
Unsurprisingly, the creepy location has provided the backdrop for more than one horror film, most recently including 2014’s As Above, So Below and 2007’s Catacombs. And now French broadcaster Canal+ has become the latest to head below the Paris streets, setting six-part thriller miniseries Nox in the eerie maze of sewers and basements beneath the city.
The show stars acclaimed actor Nathalie Baye as retired cop Catherine Suzini, who is forced back into action when her daughter Julie (Maïwenn), who followed her into the police force, disappears into the sewers. Along with the help of Raphaël (Malik Zidi), her daughter’s partner, Catherine chases every clue and uses all her instincts to navigate this terrifying subterranean labyrinth.
Nox was created by Fred Cavayé, Quoc Dang Tran and Jérôme Fansten, with Tran also serving as screenwriter. Mabrouk El Mechri (Maison Close) is the series director. Gaumont and StudioCanal hold distribution rights.
The show’s origins can be traced back to producer Gaumont and Canal+ partnering with Cavayé (The Next Three Days), who had an idea for a series about a woman whose daughter disappears into the basements of Paris. The central character would be an older female police officer, unlike any other detective on television, while the programme would also explore a different side of Paris.
“From the beginning, the series was very dark,” says Isabelle DeGeorges, series producer and Gaumont’s president of French television. “We wanted to show how humanity can be dark sometimes. There are also two big emotions: the the love between mother and daughter, which grows stronger as she thinks she will never see her daughter again, and fear.”
Tran and Fansten joined the project when Cavayé began developing the series. “I have always been fascinated by tales and myths of descents into hell, like Dante or Orpheus and Eurydice,” Tran says. “So that was the concept – a mother who goes through the circles of hell to find her daughter. I thought it would be a great idea for a TV show because at that time we were in the wave of Nordic crime dramas with mysterious lakes and forests – lots of very atmospheric shows. We wanted to go back to something very urban.”
The trio wrote the plot and script outlines together before Tran took on writing duties for the miniseries, which exploits the complicated structure beneath Paris that dates back to the late 1300s.
“The sewers are a maze – if you connect them all together, it’s the distance from Paris to Moscow, so it’s huge,” says Tran. “We knew we had a fantastic playground but we also knew we had to go through each level of the story with a different degree of intensity. It had to be progressive until the finish, which I think is very strong.”
The key to Nox is not its location, however, but how the writers and director keep the tension high throughout with a cast of believable characters. “If you do not care about the characters, you’re lost,” Tran continues. “It’s a very cruel, dark and contemporary tale but what makes it enticing are the characters. Of course, you want to watch the whole show to understand what’s happening below, but mostly you want to watch the whole show because you care about the characters and you don’t want anything [bad] to happen to them.”
Writing the scripts, Tran says he channelled the inspiration of Oscar-winning writer William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), whose screenwriting has a very visual style. “Usually reading a script is boring, but I learned from him that you should have something that’s very graphic and describes things around you so your imagination can work at full speed,” Tran explains.
Cavayé had initially been slated to direct the series but when he stepped down, El Mechri took over, attracted to the project by both its setup and its lead character. “The underground of Paris is a very specific setting, but logistically it’s been a nightmare,” he admits. “The sound is awful and you have a lot of problems having the crew in a very tiny space. So it was difficult, but very exciting.
“The second thing [that appealed to me] was the strong female character that was the real hero of the story, and having the opportunity to work with one of the best actresses in France.”
Production, which took place between July and November last year, was split into three sections – shooting the tunnel scenes inside a ‘sewer school’ north of Paris; studio filming for scenes including the characters’ homes and the police station; and then “tourist friendly” location shots on the streets of the city.
“It was very difficult because half of it is set underground,” DeGeorges says. “We had to create the universe of the series, to find what we could beneath Paris and create what doesn’t exist. It took four months to build the sets of underground Paris, so it was a very challenging production.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, filming underground proved the biggest task for the crew, who found themselves cramped together in unforgiving conditions, particularly when they had to find a way to light scenes that would otherwise have been pitch black, out of reach of sunlight or moonlight.
“Our focus was to keep working on the characters, even if we were in those really hard conditions,” El Mechri says. “The more we were on the surface of Paris, the more we used handheld cameras. Then the more you get underground, the more the camera stops moving, just for your eye to be able to focus on whatever you want in the frame. We kept that principle with us and tried to get something coherent through the whole series to make the audience understand that concept. You just want them to feel that the deeper you go, the more wider shots there are, giving you the chance to discover the underground of Paris by yourself instead of someone telling you where to look.”
To make things more complicated, Baye informed El Mechri when they first met that she was claustrophobic. “She told me, ‘I hate being tied up, I hate having a blindfold,’” he recalls. “But we gave her the whole treatment, the whole nine yards, throughout shooting. She was really a soldier through the series. She was invested and really great to work with, very funny and very professional.”
Prior to shooting, El Mechri uses “natural” readings to allow actors to find their characters, rather than spending time on set in rehearsals. “We don’t try to break a record in rehearsal,” he explains. “It’s a privileged relationship you have with the actor at that moment [when they’re in character] so I want to be ready for that.
“We clear out any doubts about motivation or dialogue on the table but, after that, let’s shoot the rehearsal and see what happens. My job is to keep an actor in a state where they think they’re going to have the time of their life. I just push the camera and say let’s roll, forget about the process. Just be in the situation with the characters.”
Then when the cameras were rolling, “we really did something that I don’t think has ever been done before on French television in the way we shot Paris,” El Mechri asserts. “It’s semi-documentary because we wanted to show something very realistic, so there’s a lot of handheld camera work. At the same time, we messed up the colours to give something more subjective to our take of Paris and how an underground thriller could be done. It was important to have sunny locations versus something very deep underground.”
The director describes Nox as a “super-movie” owing to its six-hour, closed-end format, differentiating it from previous TV projects he has helmed, such as period drama Maison Close, also for Canal+. “I was a huge fan of The Sopranos and the first golden age of HBO,” El Mechri says. “You cannot beat something original and, at the same time, addictive. I think our job in TV is to be entertaining enough not to have somebody touch the remote control, as opposed to the movie where you have to get a nanny, get your popcorn and tickets and go to watch something. Going to the cinema is more of a political act than just being entertained.”
Tran also sees increasing parallels between French television writers and their US and UK counterparts. “There’s no denying that British and American writers are way ahead, skill- and talent-wise,” he says. “French writers have been working very hard; we’re not there yet but we’re working on it. Hopefully it will pay off one day. It’s like pole vaulting – every time, you get an inch and another inch. That’s the story of the French writer; we’re fighting. It’s always been tough and it will always be tough. But series like Bureau des Legends and Les Revenants show there is a light of hope.”
As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?
When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.
Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.
Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.
Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.
Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”
The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”
In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?
Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.
In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?
“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”
Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.
Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.
The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.
That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.
“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”
These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.
“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.
“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”
At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”
That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.
For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.
“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”
Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”
MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”
Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.
Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”
He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.
“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”
Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”
Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.
“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.
“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”
In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.
“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”
For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”