Tag Archives: Greenleaf

The growing complexity of commissioning

Vinyl has been cancelled
Vinyl has been cancelled

The process of renewing and cancelling scripted shows used to be pretty straightforward. But these days there is a growing number of variations on this theme.

Recently, for example, we shone a spotlight on Nashville, which was cancelled by ABC and then revived by CMT. And this week, we have a reverse example in the shape of HBO’s Vinyl.

In this case, the music-based series was initially given a second season but has now been cancelled. Despite much hype and creators including Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the first season didn’t rate well and was a prime candidate to get the chop when it finished airing in April.

Instead, programming chief Michael Lombardo decided to stick with it. Now, however, Lombardo has been replaced by Casey Bloys and it is he who has called time on the series. A similar thing happened to VH1’s Hindsight earlier in the year, though in that case it was a change in editorial direction, not bad ratings, that drove the decision.

‘Uncancellations’ and ‘unrenewals’ are not the only new developments in the scripted market. As we’ve reported before, there is also a growing trend for US networks to order two or three seasons of a hit show in one go as a way of locking up the key talent involved (a high-profile example being Netflix’s Orange is the New Black).

The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom

We’re also seeing situations where international coproductions have to rejig their broadcast partner structure because one of them drops out or is no longer regarded as suitable. Netflix, for example, has just replaced BBC America as a partner on period series The Last Kingdom.

Then there is the emerging tendency for shows to be co-commissioned by networks (such as the recent simulcast of Roots across A+E’s main US cable channels) and for commissions that are destined to start their life on OTT or SVoD platforms.

We’ve seen Amazon, Netflix and Hulu lead the way on this latter development, of course, but now we have a number of shows that have opened or will open their account on platforms like Crackle, BBC iPlayer or CBS All Access.

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, CBS CEO and president Les Moonves talked about the decision to debut the latest TV reboot of Star Trek on CBS All Access, an OTT platform that costs US$5.99 per month. It is due to launch in January.

According to Moonves, every part of CBS wanted to get its hands on Star Trek first – and there was also a lot of interest from third-party platforms like Netflix. But it’s a sign of the changing profile of the TV business that a company like CBS that makes most of its money from advertising and syndication/distribution should place this iconic property on a nascent subscription service.

Penny Dreadful's creator has called time on the show
Penny Dreadful’s creator, John Logan, has called time on the show

Other interesting developments have seen creators, rather than networks, call time on series.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, for example, was still in good shape when it came to the end of season three. But creator John Logan has simply decided it has reached its natural end: “I created Penny Dreadful to tell the story of a woman grappling with her faith, and with the demons inside her,” he said. “For me, the character of Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) is the heart of this series. From the beginning, I imagined her story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finding peace as she returns to her faith.”

This is an interesting dynamic, because it runs counter to the usual notion of TV networks being the all-powerful decision-makers, with creatives holding their breath in anticipation of a recommission. As TV becomes increasingly reliant on A-list auteurs and high-profile actors for content that cuts through the clutter of competition, it will encounter this situation more and more.

Maybe networks and distributors will want six or seven seasons of a show in order to fully monetise their investment, but the creative in question may only want to do two or three seasons before following their muse somewhere else. It’s an interesting conundrum that is an inevitable part of a TV system that has become more film-like in terms of its approach. In the case of actors, the problem can be addressed through the use of anthology-style series, but with writers it’s not so simple.

Reference to anthologies is, of course, another example of how the traditional commissioning model is adapting to the realities of 21st century television. Franchises like American Horror Story, Fargo and True Detective are all examples of how networks can, in effect, get a completely new show while leverage existing brand awareness.

Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf
Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf

This kind of renewal can have a re-energising effect on a show – and it’s not the only way that the drama business tries to breathe new life into shows.

Showrunner replacement, especially in the context of the US, is an increasingly common way of trying to sustain a franchise that networks like but don’t think is firing on all cylinders – or where the original showrunner is maybe running out of juice, or distracted by other projects.

We’ve also seen the interesting example of Supergirl moving from CBS to The CW in pursuit of a more appropriate audience.

Finally, in the increasingly complex world of commissioning and renewal, we’ve seen the emergence of the spin-off, which, like the anthology, seeks to marry fresh content with brand track record. Dick Wolf’s Chicago family of shows for NBC and Fear The Walking Dead for AMC show that this approach can work across the range. All in all then, the world of hits and misses, renewals and cancellations, has become much more sophisticated in the multiplatform universe.

Away from the complexities of commissioning and cancellation, one of the big new debuts of the week was Greenleaf, a new scripted series for Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that stars Winfrey herself. The premiere of the drama attracted an audience of 3.04 million and a 2.18 rating in OWN’s target market of women aged 25 to 54. That makes it the biggest series launch in OWN’s five-year history.

Written by Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey and Clement Virgo, Greenleaf is produced by Lionsgate and explores the inner workings of the powerful family behind a Memphis megachurch.

With its predominantly African-American cast and characters, it’s the latest example of the pulling power of shows that appeal to the black audience in the US. It’s also an example of the immense appeal of Winfrey in any screen incarnation (chat show, TV drama or film).

Compared to other cable networks, Greenleaf was the most-watched show on its debut evening. It is also the second-most-watched scripted cable debut of 2016 so far after FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson – which reinforces the point about subject matter that resonates strong with the black community.

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The opium of the TV drama business

TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.

Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.

There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.

The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.

And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.

Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.

Preacher-smallPreacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.

greenleafsmallGreenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”

hand-of-god-amazon-smallHand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.

midwinterMidwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.

Seth-Gilliam-the-walking-dead-lgsmallThe Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.

Adam-PricesmallRides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”

the-path-aaron-paul-image_1531.0.0The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.

exorcist-tv-seriesThe Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.

leftoverssmallThe Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.

vikings-ragnar-rollosmallVikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.

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