As sci-fi drama Humans enters its third season, movement choreographer Dan O’Neill reveals the new challenges he faces turning the show’s expanding cast into its iconic ‘synths.’
If the cameras are rolling on the set of Channel 4 and AMC’s sci-fi drama Humans, the chances are that Dan O’Neill will be there too. Each season, the movement choreographer is responsible for turning actors into the robotic ‘synths’ central to the show’s premise.
But what started out as a relatively small cast of synths in season one, which debuted back in 2015, has grown dramatically in season three, now airing in the UK and launching in the US on June 4.
To complicate matters further, the synths are no longer all at the same juncture in terms of their emotional or physical capability. Following the mass synth awakening at the end of season two, millions of androids are now able to think and feel, just like the original ‘synth family’ of remaining members Mia (Gemma Chan), Niska (Emily Berrington) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah).
Meanwhile, season three also introduces a new breed of synths, collectively called ‘orange eyes’ (earlier models have green eyes), which are advanced versions of the original models but without the prospect of them being hacked or gaining consciousness – or so they say.
“In the original season, we had the family of these bespoke synths and then the background synths, who have now become conscious too,” O’Neill explains. “Now there’s been a relaunch of new synths, so that was a real challenge for me this time around because not only did I have to flesh out what a newly sentient AI would be like, but also what would this new product would be like.
“We took a decision to make the new ones simpler, plainer and more clearly robots in their costume and make-up. Everyone’s played into this idea that this new product, being so clearly a synthetic that there’s no way it could pass off as a human, there’s no way it could be corrupted or hacked. So we created something very standard, very identifiable, so it means we’ve got these various layers of AI and consciousness, which has been loads of fun to explore.”
O’Neill compares the ‘green eyes’ synths, those with consciousness at this point in the story, to teenagers, whose personalities are being shaped by their experiences and knowledge of the world they find themselves in.
“But certainly in terms of physicality, all of us creatively have had to work really hard to get these distinct nuances between three types of AI wandering around, if you include Gemma, Emily and Ivanno,” he explains. “So there’s lots of layers. It’s the third season. It’s great to still have so many challenges being set by [the writers] Jon [Brackley] and Sam [Vincent].”
Before each season, O’Neill takes charge of what he calls ‘Synth School’ – casting auditions for groups of 20 people at a time who are put through their paces as he teaches them the basics of becoming synths, covering how they stand, talk, walk, run and interact. For season three, he saw up to 350 people, including many returning actors whose characters had survived the first two seasons.
“It isn’t just about movement, it’s about the look, and the make-up and costume departments have a big say in that, so we agree on this consistent look and feel to it,” he explains. “Then some of those people were selected to be orange eyes, so I had to make up a whole new workshop process to teach them to be different from the standard original green eyes. So that’s all a bit complicated.”
Synth School starts up to six weeks before shooting begins, and O’Neill also held individual sessions with new leading actors Holly Earl (who plays Agnes), Ukweli Roach (Anatole) and Dino Fetscher (Stanley).
Original cast members Chan, Berrington, Jeremiah and Ruth Bradley (as Karen Voss) also returned to “brush up” on their synth skills. “They’ve been away doing other things, doing plays, waving their arms about, expressing things with their faces and generally acting,” O’Neill jokes, “so I get them back in the room. They say it takes a while but, once they get it back, it’s like an old friend. They’re astonishing, those original synths who helped me create this stuff and have been on board since. They just come to work every day and are just a joy.
“When we started, we didn’t know what we were making. I remember Gemma after day one said two things to me: ‘I can’t do anything else but worry about being a robot. I’m not acting, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all,’ and, ‘I’m not going to be a character. I’m just going to be this dead machine.’ I told her she was the most interesting thing I’d seen in such a long time because I don’t know what’s going on behind the eyes. That’s been the real power these actors have found. That’s the thing they have shown me with the movement. It’s not stuck on, it’s inhabited.”
O’Neill says the hardest part about becoming a synth is walking, the challenge of which is to remove any individuality and remain consistent. “It seems so simple but there’s loads of little tells that we do that we don’t want to see a machine do,” he explains. “And finding emotion without being able to express it in ways one would normally use is also tough.”
On set, cast and crew shoot four pages a day on average – four minutes of screen time – and O’Neill notes that the ambition and scale of season three has been ramped up beyond anything seen in the show before.
“There are literally hundreds of synths in the show. But despite that ambition, bigger action and bigger set pieces, we still achieved it on time because the actors are good at what they do,” O’Neill says. “We don’t need to work out how to get in and out of a car anymore, we’ve done that. Over the years we’ve ticked off walking down the stairs without looking and other thing synths can do. Sometimes you get some very complicated takes where there are special effects that may take a while but they’re always ready, always off book. They’re a great team.”
There has been one unlikely new skill for the synth actors to get to grips with, however. Season three features a scene set in a bar that becomes a popular hangout for both humans and robots, calling for synth dancing. “I did it as one of my improvs in the very early development stage before we started filming season one,” O’Neill says. “I did a whole improv based on going out for a night with synths and what would happen. So we’ve got a flash of that.”
Being on set every day, O’Neill also works closely with the directors to ensure the synths keep to the specific movements that have been established over the first two seasons. This means he can jump in and suggest scenes be reshot if something isn’t quite right. But that’s a judgement call, he admits. “If it’s 18.30 and you’ve got half an hour left and they want to grab another setup, obviously you think, ‘We can live with that, they’ll cut round it or won’t use it.’ So you can’t be precious but, at the same time, you have to be as adaptable as possible within the boundaries of making TV drama. It’s not like working in the theatre or the movies, you don’t get that indulgence.”
But the attention to the detail of the synth’s movements is one of the reasons O’Neill thinks the eight-part drama is credible, which has translated into its popularity in the UK, the US and around the world.
“The quality of the people who come now to casting —–dancers, movement specialists, choreographers – all kinds of people have started coming just to have the experience of it and be on the show,” adds O’Neill, who is also working on Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew. “It means the quality of the standby artists is fantastic. I hope it’s flawless. They’re really committed and they really enjoy being part of a process. For me, that’s a real strength of a show. Without that care and detail they bring, it would lose its credibility. It’s been a gift as a choreographer to work on the show.”
Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.
When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.
The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.
The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.
Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.
Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”
He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”
Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.
“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”
For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”
The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.
“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”
Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”
Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.
But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”
Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.
The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.
Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.
One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.
“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”
Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”
But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.
Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.
“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”
Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.
“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”
Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”
Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.
Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.
“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”
Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek
In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.
All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.
At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.
Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.
Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.
I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.
The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.
The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…
The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.
This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.
This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.
Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.
The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.
Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.
Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.
Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”
In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.
One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.
Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.
In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.
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.
From Sophocles to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie to Arthur Conan Doyle, great thriller writers have distinguished themselves by their ability to shock and surprise audiences. It’s no different in the world of TV drama, where intriguing setups, sudden changes of direction and disguised denouements are key to keeping viewers engaged. We ask writers of recent hit shows how they hooked audiences and kept them off balance until the reveal.
Jack Williams wrote the BBC1/Starz thriller The Missing alongside his brother, Harry. Across eight episodes, fans tried to work out the identity of the villain who snatched Tony Hughes’ son, Oliver.
Discussing their approach, Jack says: “For us it’s about not treating characters as villains – every character needs to be three-dimensional and have their own back stories. That way, no one stands out more than anyone else, making it possible for anyone to be the villain. And for us it’s often more important why someone did it, rather than who did it.”
Williams says he and his brother always try to “play fair” with their audience, but stresses it is important not to underestimate them: “Audiences are very smart, and assuming they won’t get something is always the first mistake. Assume your audience is smarter than you and then try your hardest to surprise them.”
However, he doesn’t believe it is necessary to have endless twists and turns to keep fans hooked: “As long as the characters and emotional journeys are compelling enough, that should carry you through. You have to earn every plot turn and twist – if we believe what the characters are doing, any twist is much more surprising.”
In The Missing, the story focuses on the possibility that Oliver has been taken by paedophiles, and maybe even exported as a child slave. In the end, though, it’s revealed he was the victim of a bizarre accident involving the owner of the hotel where he and his family had been staying.
“The hotel keeper wasn’t the most obvious villain – in all the newspaper polls, he was very low down on every list,” says Williams. “But eagle-eyed viewers had worked out that he shared a surname with the mayor Georges Deloix and started to realise around episode six he might be involved. What interested us about the hotel keeper is that he wasn’t an evil paedophile. He was a drunk and a coward who made a terrible mistake.”
Indeed, it is Tony’s deterioration that is the masterstroke of the story, meaning viewers didn’t over-obsess on the whodunnit resolution. “We always wanted all our characters to be interesting in their own right, and for the audience to care more about their journeys than the whodunnit. We liked the notion that everyone would immediately be hugely sympathetic to Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) – what he’s gone through is so awful and primal. But something like that would corrupt someone’s soul, and it was interesting for us to see how far that audience sympathy stayed with Tony as he went to darker and darker places.”
Asked about his favourite dramas, Williams picks out FX’s Fargo: “The first episode, when Martin Freeman’s character (Lester Nygaard) snaps and kills his wife with the hammer – it’s really well played and was very surprising. A brilliantly judged and executed moment.”
Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are the writers who adapted Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans) for the English-speaking market. A hit for Channel 4 in the UK and US cable network AMC, the show imagines a world in which ordinary people own robot servants that look like attractive young humans (called Synths).
Thematically, the show explores what is means to be human. It also uses the Synth idea as a metaphor for issues like race and migration, analysing the way that mobs can come to distrust and abuse ‘the other.’
The plot centres on a small group of Synths capable of independent thought. The sentient Synths are pursued by a government agency that fears their potential. But there are other unexpected twists that take the story in different directions. For example, young policewoman Karen is revealed as one of the thinking Synths who regards herself as a freak experiment.
This, say Vincent and Brackley, is their favourite twist: “Karen’s reveal as a Synth is such an unexpected, odd and striking image. And (actress) Ruth Bradley’s performance is wonderful – very coolly shifting into eerie Synth mode.”
Finding out that Karen was a Synth was, however, only a partial reveal because her motive still wasn’t clear: “It provided mystery rather than conclusiveness. The fact she’s a Synth didn’t necessarily mean she was an antagonist, nor did the fact she was looking for the other Synths. It was only in the penultimate episode we finally found out what it meant to her and how she was going to react.”
Vincent and Brackley were in an interesting position because they were working with an existing format. They say: “We can’t take credit for several of the key twists in the show, as they were created by the brilliant Lars Lundstrom for the Swedish series. But we did a lot of moving around and additional reveals to keep the audience on their toes.
“We were also wary of trying to hang on to big twists and hooks for too long. It’s good to keep your powder dry for the finale, but it’s also good to blow some up at the beginning – and in the middle.”
The audience response has been hugely gratifying for the writers, but not just because of the plot: “What’s satisfying is that people seemed to be talking about artificial intelligence, technology and the future. We always wanted to spark debate and that was reflected in the show’s coverage in the media – there were lots of articles discussing moral and tech issues beyond the show’s content.”
In terms of twists from other shows, they say: “We remember watching
the first series of 24 together and being blown away when Nina Myers was revealed to be the mole and killing (main character) Jack Bauer’s wife. More recently, pretty much every death in Game of Thrones has had us on the edge of our seats. For a show that’s famous for the indiscriminate dispatching of characters, it’s amazing how they manage to make it a heart-stopping surprise every time they do.”
Modus is an eight-part thriller commissioned by Sweden’s TV4 from Miso Film. Based on books by crime author Anne Holt, the series is directed by Lise Siwe (The Bridge) and Mani Maserrat, and written by Emmy-winning Danish writers Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe.
The story centres on criminal psychologist and profiler Inger Johanne Vik and her detective partner. Vik is drawn into the investigation of a series of brutal murders in Stockholm after one of the killings is witnessed by her autistic daughter Stina. Vik discovers a connection between the case and a ruthless international network.
“Modus is about love and hate,” say co-writers Brostrøm and Thorsboe. “It is a dark, entangled contemporary tale about death and holy wrath.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe are well-established writers, and for this reason have become wary of the genre’s cliches. For example, they try not to over-promise at the outset, despite the fact that producers often want a high-impact opening: “We try to hold back and not give away the story too quickly. There is always a risk for writers if they promise too much at the start of the story because it is difficult to keep on climbing towards the climax. In this case, the opening of the show involves a wedding, where we try to give the impression evil is coming, that something will happen.”
For similar reasons, Brostrøm and Thorsboe don’t over-emphasise the whodunnit or cliffhanger elements of the story. “We see this story more as a ‘whydunnit.’ This isn’t a story where everyone in the show could have done it… we wanted something with more realism. We learn the identity of the killer before the last episode but then explore the motives. This is a way of keeping the audience more involved in the structure of the story. They aren’t spending their whole time trying to guess the killer. We have questions at the end of each episode but not deadly cliffhangers.”
Having said this, they still feel all the usual pressures of trying to keep the audience on their toes: “You have to be like a magician, getting the audience to look at one hand as you do something with the other. There is a big twist near the end that we think will take the audience by surprise. Producers like to have twists.”
Writing a thriller based on existing novels has its own challenges, they admit. “On the whole it is not as hard as writing from scratch. But you have an obligation to the writer, the book and the fans, who you can’t cheat. At the same time, it needs to work for television. This story is actually drawn from three Holt novels.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe add that there are advantages to working as a team: “We do a lot of talking about character and plot – we love to challenge each other and come up with ideas for crazy endings. In terms of how we work, there is always paper on the floor and the tables and pictures on the walls that help set the atmosphere.”
In recent years there has been a small but significant trend for non-English-language drama to be aired in its original form in English-speaking markets. This began with the export of Nordic scripted content, such as Borgen, but has since expanded to encompass French, German and Italian shows – including Les Revenants, Generation War and Inspector Montalbano respectively.
For the most part, this trend has involved the sales of shows to British broadcasters and subscription VoD platforms. But there was a major breakthrough earlier this year when US cable channel SundanceTV picked up the original version of Deutschland 83, an eight-part drama from UFA Fiction set in during the latter years of the Cold War.
Nico Hofmann, producer and chairman of UFA Fiction, said of the deal: “Never has a German-language series received so much attention before broadcast. Sundance TV’s reputation for exceptional series is yet further confirmation of Deutschland 83’s high quality. This is a milestone for German TV production.”
The arrival of Deutschland 83 in the US brought a lot of mainstream PR and a positive critical response. For example, Variety called it a “taut spy thriller” that “mixes coming-of-age material for the protagonist and intrigue from the tense political climate that Germans on both side of the (Berlin) Wall faced in the 1980s.”
It also scored well on IMDb, securing an 8.6 rating out 10. To put this in perspective, it is higher than Orange is the New Black (8.4) and Sense8 (8.5) – albeit based on a much smaller voting sample.
Deutschland 83’s positive reviews, however, haven’t transformed into very high ratings for Sundance. With the last episode airing on August 8, the website ShowBuzzDaily has the show’s ratings coming in at around 70,000-100,000.
Clearly, caveats need to be made regarding time-shifted viewing, repeat airing and the ferocious competitiveness of the US market, but this figure suggests the US cable audience isn’t quite ready for non-English language drama.
To compare with the UK, an equally competitive but much smaller market, this kind of content would probably secure an audience somewhere in the region of 500,000.
Deutschland 83’s ratings may have been impacted by the fact it is at the forefront of a new wave, and Sundance is to be applauded in this respect. So it may be that the AMC Networks-owned channel will need to persist with foreign-language drama in order to build up a loyal audience base. In the meantime, the best bet for foreign-language producers will continue to be the formats route.
All of this shouldn’t, however, have a negative impact on Deutschland 83’s sales performance elsewhere in the world, where language is not such a barrier.
Distributor FremantleMedia International has, for example, sold the series to Canal+ France and numerous mainstream broadcasters across Scandinavia.
Still with the AMC family, this Sunday will see AMC air the last episode of Humans. A bona fide hit for Channel 4 in the UK, which recently renewed the show, Humans has proved a steady but not spectacular performer for AMC. After debuting with 1.7 million viewers, it has been running at about 1.1-1.2 million ever since. AMC is already on board the second season.
Meanwhile, this was a big week for ABC Family’s long-running hit series Pretty Little Liars, with Tuesday’s Game Over Charles episode involving a big reveal. For six seasons, the show’s central characters have been hounded by a mysterious enemy, whose identity was finally revealed this week.
The result was a two-year ratings high for the show among its target 18-34 and 18-49 demographics. With 3.1 million total viewers and 1.8 million viewers among 18-49s, the show was also the top performer across all US cable viewing.
The ABC group has established a good reputation for its ability to build social media buzz around its shows, and Pretty Little Liars is a prime example. With 1.6 million tweets, the latest episode became the third most tweeted-about scripted show in cable TV history, accounting for 50% of all TV tweet activity for the day.
Significantly, the only shows ahead of it in this list are also episodes of Pretty Little Liars. All told, the show has three million Twitter followers and 3.4 million Instagram followers.
Commenting on the programme’s social media performance, Jenn Deering Davis, editor-in-chief of social analytics firm Union Metrics, said: “Pretty Little Liars’ finale was a true Twitter triumph. ABC Family continues to innovate in how it encourages fan participation across social media, never content to let its social strategy stagnate. Before the finale even started yesterday, Pretty Little Liars fans had already posted more than two million tweets about the show, breaking previous all-day records. Pretty Little Liars still has one of the most active and engaged Twitter fandoms in existence.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, ABC Family has already commissioned two further seasons.
There was also good news this week for The Last Ship, commissioned for a third season of 13 episodes by US cable channel TNT. According to the channel, the Sunday-night show is “basic cable’s top scripted series this summer with adults 25-54.”
The programme is currently nine episodes through its second season and is a steady performer with ratings of around 2.9 million. TNT has also set things up so that authenticated users can watch all previous episodes of the show on an on-demand basis.
This summer the series is “reaching an average of nine million viewers across TNT’s linear, VoD, digital and mobile platforms,” according to the channel.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, The Last Ship chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly destroys the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy, forcing captain and crew to confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they are among the few remaining survivors.
We’re only a few weeks away from the all-important autumn season and a lot of buzz is building around NBC’s new scripted series Blindspot. The show focuses on a mysterious tattooed woman who has lost her memory and does not know her own identity. On her back is the name of an FBI agent, who soon learns that the other tattoos on her body contain clues to upcoming crimes.
The two-minute trailer shows the lead character, played by Jaimie Alexander (Thor), being found naked in a holdall in the middle of New York’s Times Square. So perhaps not surprisingly it has racked up millions of views on YouTube. The big question now is whether Blindspot can sustain the narrative beyond an intriguing opening premise.
The show was created by Martin Gero and Greg Berlanti, who recently discussed it at the Television Critics Association’s summer press event. Gero’s enigmatic assessment was that Blindspot is “a procedural for people who don’t like procedurals, and a character drama for people who don’t like character dramas.”
He added: “There is an overarching mythology to this show week to week. You’re going to get some great resolution by the end of the year – you’re going to get some great resolution by the end of episode two. As we come through this mythology, there are a lot of twists and turns.”
A spokesman for FremantleMedia International, which distributes Deutschland 83, has provided further viewing figures for the show on Sundance. She said: “Over its eight episodes Deutschland 83 significantly outperformed the Sundance slot average share across several key demographics and more than doubled the average in the channel target audience adults 25-54 (Live+3D). Deutschland83exceeded the Sundance slot average share by 83% for total individuals 2+, 109% among 25-54s, 73% among 18-49s and 59% among women 18+ (Series 1, Live+3 Days).”
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.”
The finale of Humans’ first season airs in the UK this weekend and the show continues to do exceptionally well for Channel 4. BARB ratings for the first six episodes show there was an inevitable dip after stellar ratings for the first two parts, but that the show has stayed remarkably consistent since then. From episodes three to six, it recorded between 3.63 million and 3.93 million viewers (seven-day figures) – way ahead of anything else on C4.
With the show now approaching its climax, it would be a major surprise if it didn’t equal or surpass those figures for episodes seven and eight. And then a commission for a second season would look highly likely.
The only cloud on the horizon for Humans is that AMC in the US is not getting such good ratings with the series (which may place a question mark over its involvement in a second season), but the strength of the C4 showing ought to be enough to see it through.
Still in the UK, there was a strong showing for BBC1’s Agatha Christie adaptation Partners In Crime, which attracted 6.5 million viewers for its first episode (Sunday at 21.00). Starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine as amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, the six-part show is the channel’s biggest new drama launch since Poldark, demonstrating that Sunday evening is still a time when audiences like to spend time with familiar faces and brands.
Earlier in July, Sky Atlantic and Showtime announced plans for a third season of gothic horror drama Penny Dreadful. Looking at the final ratings for season two of the show on Sky Atlantic, it’s easy to see why. According to BARB’s seven-day data, the final episode attracted an audience of 544,000 – up from 450,000-500,000 for the previous few episodes.
With Game of Thrones finished for another year, Penny Dreadful became channel’s top-performing drama, some way ahead of The Affair (433,000) and True Detective season two (352,000). In the week following Penny Dreadful’s departure, nothing on Sky Atlantic managed to attract more than 315,000 viewers. The show has also been attracting attention internationally, securing a deal with Australian subscription VoD platform Presto last week.
In the US, MTV is halfway through the first 10-part season of Scream, a horror series that has been spun out of the iconic feature-film franchise. A strong debut saw the show attract six million viewers (live plus three), making it “the most watched new series premiere of the summer on cable with millennials,” according to MTV. In an added bonus, the first episode was also streamed more than 500,000 times on MTV.com and the MTV app.
Since then the ratings have dropped a little but stayed strong enough for MTV to announce a second season. At the midway point, 21 million viewers have tuned in to Scream on air while the series has generated 7.9 million streams across other platforms.
Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s summer event this week, MTV head of scripted programming Mina Lefevre said: “It has been a wonderful experience working with (Scream exec producer) Bob Weinstein and his team, who are such connoisseurs of this genre, and we are thrilled by how viewers have responded to the reinvention of Scream.”
Meanwhile, the US TV industry’s love affair with Scandinavia took a double hit this week. Following the news that Netflix has cancelled Lilyhammer, NBC announced that it has canned eOne’s low-rated comedy Welcome to Sweden. The show, created by Greg Poehler, did moderately well in season one but has fallen away badly in season two, with NBC pulling it from the air after just four editions of its 10-episode run.
Commenting on Instagram, Poehler said: “Due to some craptastically low ratings in the US, WTS is officially done. I am eternally grateful to all of our fans. When you make a show – and write, produce, obsess and act in it – all you want is for someone, somewhere, to tell you they appreciate it. There have been so many of you in both Sweden and the US that have done so, and every compliment has made me immeasurably happy. So, thank you. Thank you, thank you…”
In the Hispanic US market, Telemundo continues to make inroads into the audience share of its major competitor Univision. DQ reported on the success of El Senor de los Cielos last week, and now Telemundo says the finale of Tierra de Reyes (Land of Honor) attracted 2.39 million total viewers.
This helped make Telemundo the number-one Spanish-language network in primetime, beating Univision. It has also just launched Bajo el Mismo Cielo (Under the Same Sky), the story of a hard-working Mexican immigrant who crosses the border illegally and settles with his family in LA. Episode one attracted 1.72 million viewers and also hit 3.3 million global Facebook users with a 30-minute preview.
On the corporate front, the TV market is waiting to see the implications of the US$1bn merger between Banijay Group and Zodiak Media (announced this week). Between them, the two companies own approximately 45 prodcos.
While there are some complementary areas between the two businesses, there is also a lot of overlap in markets like the US, France and Scandinavia. In drama terms, the deal brings together companies including Touchpaper (UK), Yellow Bird (Scandinavia), Magnolia (Italy), Marathon Media (France), DLO Producciones (Spain) and Screentime (Australia and New Zealand).
Finally, this week’s big corporate ‘miss’ is Ryan Kavanaugh’s film and TV studio Relativity Media, which has filed for bankruptcy after racking up $320m in unpaid loans. Kavanaugh’s next-generation studio model, with its strong emphasis on data analysis, enthralled the industry for a few years but in the end couldn’t survive a number of high-profile box-office failures.
Speaking at Mipcom in 2013, Kavanaugh expressed his intention to get more into the TV business, expounding his theory that films “are perhaps the greatest TV pilots ever.” His goal at that stage was to sell five or six TV series properties a year. However, this never came to pass. The main TV titles to come out of Relativity have been National Geographic’s Act of Valor and Limitless, a spin-off of the Bradley Cooper-starring movie in the form of a series will soon air on CBS.
Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent tell Michael Pickard how they transformed a Swedish sci-fi thriller into Channel 4’s biggest original drama for 20 years.
From spies to Synths, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can now be considered among the top writing talents in the UK after building a career across television and film.
Best known for running BBC1 spy drama Spooks for its final two seasons, they also brought the series to the big screen earlier this year in Spooks: The Greater Good.
For their latest project, the longtime collaborators are behind Humans, an eight-part sci-fi thriller that has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years.
Based on the Swedish series Real Humans (aka Äkta människor), it is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like humanoid.
Featuring a cast including William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington and Neil Maskell, the debut episode drew a consolidated audience of 6.1 million viewers.
The drama represented an interesting challenge for Vincent and Brackley, who were brought on board by Kudos (Spooks, Broadchurch) to pen the series after the producer won a battle for the format rights. US cable network AMC later joined the series as a coproduction partner, with the show debuting stateside two weeks after its UK launch on June 14.
Brackley says: “We’ve worked with Kudos for the last couple of years, doing the last two seasons of Spooks and the Spooks movie. We got a call from (former Kudos CEO) Jane Featherstone, who said they’d just won a rights battle to this Swedish series about robots and wanted to know if we’d be interested. So we said yes.
“They gave us the first season to watch and we loved it. It’s so full of fascinating, interesting ideas, and approached in such a genuinely new way that we really wanted to have a go at bringing our own take to the show.”
In particular, Vincent says it was the drama’s unconventional take on artificial intelligence and how this could be placed at the heart of a family drama that attracted the pair to the series.
“Putting it right in the heart of the home was really fresh,” he says. “Usually these stories would be about the origins of the technology or a dark conspiracy surrounding its use, but this was about one ordinary family and how the strains and stresses that are already present open up into chasms by the arrival of this machine. That was the real creative coup of the original concept.”
Vincent and Brackley watched the first season of Real Humans twice, and then pushed it aside, fearful of relying too much on the source material and simply translating the original series, rather than putting their own stamp on its themes.
“If you compare the first episodes of the original with ours, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” explains Vincent. “You’ll see scenes that are the same and the key characters, but as we developed the story, it very organically grew into its own thing and you move further and further away (from the original) as the series progresses, so by the season end you’re in a very different space. It was all fairly organic and natural.”
The writing pair had not adapted a foreign-language drama before, but compared the process to joining Spooks after it had already been on air for eight seasons – taking over an established set of characters and taking them in a new direction, while retaining the show’s original spirit and tone.
That’s not to say they dispensed with Real Humans altogether, however. Brackley says: “There are individual moments that we really liked from the original that we kept, but in broader terms the narrative goes in a completely different direction by the end of the season. And if we’re lucky enough to get a second season, we’ll be carrying on from the end of ours.”
A second season is yet to be confirmed, but the ratings success of the first season suggest it’s more a matter of when than if. And it’s that success that Vincent and Brackley believe justifies the decision to remake Real Humans in the first place.
“We always knew there would be a few people saying ‘why remake this?’ but it’s not really an argument we have much sympathy for, because you only do it if you feel it’s creatively worthwhile,” says Vincent. “You feel you’re changing it for a different audience, growing it, developing it. We felt we were in conversation with the original and could do things in a slightly different way and build on certain aspects. There’s certainly room for both.”
Brackley adds: “There’s always a place for remakes as long as it’s doing something different, if it’s not just retreading the same territory in the same way then there’s always a place for an adaptation or translation into another country or another format.”
Having previously adapted another Scandinavian drama, the worldwide smash hit The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), AMC was a natural US partner for Channel 4. Vincent admits he and Brackley were slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of working with the network, which counts Mad Men and The Walking Dead among its biggest hits, but says AMC were “incredibly supportive” and were fans of the show’s UK identity – ruling out fears that the show might suddenly be transplanted to a US location.
“The only concession we made for the American market was that we removed ‘milk float,’” he reveals. “We weren’t even told to do that, people just kept asking us what milk float meant.”
As for the key to making a successful remake, Vincent says writers have to steep any adaptation in cultural relevance: “Real Humans has a great universal concept but a lot of it is quite culturally specific. We wanted to turn the lens of the concept onto an English-speaking culture and Britain today, and that produced a lot of subtle and interesting effects and differences.
“You have to ask whether it’s truly worthwhile – are you just reheating something, or are you actually refreshing it, reinvigorating it, changing it for a different audience and bringing a lot of yourself to it? If you’re not, you really have no business doing it. It would be madness trying to adapt something you weren’t passionate about in the first place. If you’re as passionate about the source material as we were about Real Humans, then it can be a really fantastic process.”
Before putting pen to paper, however, Brackley and Vincent both met with the show’s original creator, Lars Lundström, to discuss the series and how they might adapt it for a new audience.
Lundström says the idea of blurring lines between humans and robots was something he’d been working on for several years, and had pitched to a few producers before it was picked up by Swedish pubcaster SVT. Real Humans first aired in 2012, running for two seasons.
“I have no idea where the idea for it came from, it just popped up in my head,” he says. “SVT were willing to take a chance on it because they saw it not as sci-fi but more as a drama or thriller.”
Of his meeting with Brackley and Vincent, Lundström says: “We spoke about the DNA of the show, but the storyline is up to them. We were speaking about what I thought was the bottom line of the show, and it was very fruitful. They’re two very intelligent writers so they picked it up and shaped it nicely.
“One thing to be clear about is the hu-bots (as Synths are called in the Swedish version) are neither bad nor good. They’re just something humans have created, so it’s not like other AI shows where they are purely bad and we have to destroy them. That makes it a bit more complex and complicated than other similar shows, and that was very important for me. It’s a show that explores interaction with technology and what it means to be human. It’s not really about robots; it’s about humans.
“I had full confidence in them and I knew they would do something great with it. When I read the first couple of scripts, I was just happy. It’s fun that it gets a new life in the English language.”
Lundström – who is now working on new “mystical thriller” 1001 for Gaumont International Television, Matador Film and Eyeworks Scandi Fiction – has written a storyline and some scripts for a third season, but says these are now unlikely to come to air.
Instead, he hopes Humans will pave the way for more series to be adapted across borders. “I hope broadcasters will dare more with their shows,” he adds. “Sci-fi is hard because it usually doesn’t hit big numbers, but now we’ve proved it can. In the US they have done lots of shows like The Walking Dead that prove genre can be big and broad.”
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.”
Sci-fi drama Humans is now halfway through its eight-episode run on Channel 4 (C4) in the UK and two episodes into its airing on US cable channel AMC. In both cases its ratings are on the slide, but it is doing well enough in the UK that C4 will want a second series.
In the UK, the show generated a huge number of headlines when its opening episode attracted an impressive audience of 5.47 million (live plus seven days). Episode two dropped to 4.45 million, the third outing secured 3.6 million and the numbers are yet to be released for the most recent fourth edition. In the minus column is the scale of the slide, but on the plus side Humans is still massively outperforming C4’s usual drama ratings. Even if figures dip further over the next two to three episodes, the hardcore audience looks strong enough to merit renewal.
The AMC audience, however, has not been so enthused with the show. After a debut audience of 1.73 million for episode one, the show attracted 1.09 million for episode two. That’s a 37% drop, compared with the 19% drop on C4. Of course, we need to give the show a few more episodes on AMC before we reach any firm conclusions. But producer Kudos will be hoping that the US audience stays strong enough to merit an AMC renewal. It won’t want to be in a position where C4 says yes and AMC says no. For comparison, AMC’s version of Low Winter Sun was cancelled after one season, having averaged 1.21 million and a 0.43 rating among 18-49s. Humans is performing at a similar level on AMC.
While AMC will need to think carefully about Humans, its sister channel SundanceTV has announced a fourth season of Rectify. Revealing the renewal on the eve of the season three premiere (July 9), Charlie Collier, president of AMC and SundanceTV said: “Even in an increasingly crowded field of dramas on TV, Rectify has established itself as something special. What (creator) Ray McKinnon, this incredible cast and everyone associated with the show have achieved is remarkable, and we are so pleased to usher in this third season with an order for a fourth.”
Rectify follows the life of Daniel Holden, who returns to his small hometown in Georgia after serving 19 years on death row. It has received good reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly (“TV’s wisest, deepest drama”) and TIME (“Terrific slow-burn drama”). News that it is going to a fourth series will be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which has sold the show internationally to such firms as Sky Germany, Netflix and Arte.
USA Network’s much-hyped hacker series Mr Robot launched this week to a solid start. Live-plus-three ratings came in at 3.7 million, which is at the upper end of recent USAN launches. Elements in the show’s favour include the fact that the audience was pretty strong in terms of the all-important 18-49 demo. It’s also important to take account of the fact that the show had been previewed online a month earlier, attracting 2.7 million viewers. Presumably, some of those early adopters wouldn’t have bothered to watch this week’s linear TV transmission.
Success with the 18-49 demo is also one reason why Lifetime has decided to renew UnREAL, its reality TV-based drama. The opening episode of the first season didn’t rate at all well, but Lifetime’s subsequent decision to put the first four episodes online appears to have revived the show’s fortunes – resulting in a strong showing for the TV airing of episode five. The dynamic at work here seems to be that Lifetime wants shows like UnREAL to attract younger audiences. But the problem is persuading those younger audiences to come looking for content on Lifetime. The online experiment seems to have addressed this conundrum, by allowing non-traditional Lifetime audiences to sample the show. The result is that UnREAL is now being described as Lifetime’s youngest scripted series ever, with a median viewer age of 43.
Commenting on the renewal, network executive VP and head of programming Liz Gateley said: “We couldn’t be more proud to bring back UnREAL. With authentically flawed characters, sharp storytelling and impeccable performances, this show is propelling our brand in a truly exciting direction – an unexpected and bolder Lifetime. We are thrilled to continue our work with (co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) and the A+E Studios team, as we together bring a new generation of viewers to Lifetime.”
Adweek has a good analysis of this story, exploring the way US channel chiefs are increasingly leaning on digital numbers when making their renewal decisions.
Adweek also makes an interesting observation about the tendency for cable channels to recommission shows early (Rectify, Mr Robot and UnREAL all being examples). It says early pickups are a way for networks to “assure viewers who may be on the fence about diving into a new show that might get cancelled that, yes, it’s safe to start watching.” This is a growing problem for channel chiefs – and not just in the US. Audiences don’t want to invest time and emotional energy in shows that may be axed in the near future, so viewers adopt a wait-and-see attitude by banking episodes. The problem with this, of course, is that their reluctance to jump on board may increase the likelihood of cancellation, because it dampens ratings performance. This is another factor channel chiefs need to ponder.
In terms of projects to watch out for, July 19 sees the launch of Spike US’s six-part miniseries Tut. Produced by Muse Entertainment, the drama will tell the story of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s rise to power and the political machinations in his court. There is very little indication yet as to what the show will be like, but it has been acquired this week by Channel 5 in the UK, which – like Spike – is part of the Viacom family of channels.
When Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik attended the C21 Drama Summit in London last Autumn, he talked about wanting to grow his channel’s subscriber base by targeting underserved audiences. Citing an example, he explained how Starz would reach out to the female audience with Outlander, a historical time-travel scripted series based on the best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon.
The first 16-part series of Outlander concluded at the end of last month. And while its final two episodes focused on tough subjects such as brutality, torture and male rape, the series has achieved its objectives. With Zap2it referring to Outlander as “Game of Thrones for Soccer Moms,” the show has attracted an average of around 2.5 million women per episode. What’s more, Nielsen estimates 64% more women than men watch the show, which is an unusual profile for a fantasy-based project.
A number of factors explain Outlander’s female appeal. At a superficial level, it helps that the show has a hunky male lead in the shape of Sam Heughan (similar to Poldark in the UK). But more important is the fact the show is told from a female perspective, with a romantic narrative and solid moral values at its heart. Contrast that with Game of Thrones, which (brilliant though it is) is fundamentally a story about power and patriarchy, in which the women are either are either damsels in distress, psychotic megalomaniacs or exotic mystics. Even the women that run counter to gender stereotype (Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte) are all recognisable female subsets of the fantasy genre.
So Outlander has done its job, the reward for which is a second series that will have a minimum of 13 episodes. Should that also prove successful, it could run and run – because there are currently nine books in the series. Internationally, the show is distributed Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has sold the title to an estimated 87 territories across Latin America and Europe.
Quite a few of SPT’s deals are with SVoD players such as Clarovideo, Viaplay, Sohu and Lightbox, so it’s not easy to get a sense of how well the show has resonated with audiences outside the US. But there are a couple of indications that Outlander can travel in space as well as time. In Canada, for example, it attracted almost one million viewers per episode for specialty channel Showcase. Reinforcing the results from the US, it has been the number-one specialty programme among women aged 25 to 54 this year. In Australia, meanwhile, it debuted strongly for Foxtel’s drama channel Soho in autumn 2014, delivering the second highest audience of the year.
An interesting side story is that Outlander also generates a lot of social media traffic. For the first season, Starz ran eight episodes and then gave the show a break. It then brought the show back on April 4 (episode 9 – aka the mid-season premiere). When it did, the show trended on Facebook for more than 12 hours. It also ranked second in Nielsen Ratings for Twitter conversation volume among all television series on premiere day, and trended at number five on Twitter during Saturday’s 21.00 ET/PT premiere screening.
This fits a wider pattern. Most social media stats in the last couple of years have supported the thesis that women use Facebook and Twitter more than men to talk about TV shows (both before and during transmission). So there’s clearly the potential for an audience amplification effect if you can get women to take ownership of a scripted series – because they are then more likely to champion it via social media than men are.
Another show that demonstrates the cross-platform power of female-centric shows is ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which returned for a sixth season earlier this week. Although the new season kicked off with slightly lower ratings than in previous years, it remains one of the top shows in the US among females aged 12-49. It’s also a social media phenomenon, with new stats showing it has topped 110 million tweets, 2.6 million Instagram followers, one million Snapchat friends and 13 million Facebook fans.
Lest men should start to feel there’s no room for them in the living room with all this fem-centric drama, let’s turn to the History channel’s testosterone-fuelled Western Texas Rising, which secured five million and 4.1 million viewers for its first two episodes (May 25, May 26, Live+3 ratings) respectively. According to History, this is “the best cable miniseries start in Live+3 since The Bible.”
Directed by Roland Joffé and starring Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez, Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media. It is distributed outside the US by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. In terms of its editorial setup, History has clearly struck gold with Bill Paxton, an articulate and charming actor who was at MipTV to help promote the show. He previously starred in Hatfield & McCoys, another storming success for History. In terms of where History is going next with its dramas, try reading Clive Whittingham’s Q&A with Dirk Hoogstra, the general manager of History and H2.
A couple of weeks ago we expressed our concern that the BBC’s period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might not recover from a modest opening on May 17. Episode two on May 24 confirmed these fears, with the show sliding from 4.5 million to 2.6 million. Already lagging behind the average for its slot (Sunday 2100), the seven-part series will struggle to regain momentum.
Channel 4’s offbeat procedural No Offence, penned by Paul Abbott, is also drifting. Having started strongly with 2.5 million (way ahead of the slot average), episode four recorded the series’ lowest rating to date at just under 1.3 million (though there’s no information yet about any boost from time-shifted viewing).
Hopefully, the No Offence’s ratings have now bottomed out, because it would be good to see a second series. Abbot and his US-style writing team have created a distinctive piece of work, which centres on a strong group of female characters who are not constantly having to justify their status to male colleagues. The show, which has attracted positive reviews in the UK, has also introduced a superb cast of Down’s syndrome actors. All in all, it’s done enough to deserve a second bow.
In scripted terms, the next few weeks are important for Channel 4. Aside from the climax of No Offence, it has the launch of Humans to look forward to. Based on the acclaimed Swedish drama Real Humans, it imagines a world in which families own ‘synths,’ highly developed, artificially intelligent servants. Produced by Kudos, the eight-part series will air on C4 on June 14. It will then air on AMC in the US on June 28.
The original version ran on SVT in Sweden for two seasons (20 episodes total). The last episode aired in February 2014 and there has been no news since about whether a third series will be greenlit, though there is an outline and scripts should SVT decide to revive the production. Real Humans has sold to 50 countries worldwide, but has not hit English-language markets yet, presumably because of fears it will interfere with the launch of the English language spin-off.
With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?
The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.
In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”
For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”
Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.
“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”
With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.
The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”
BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.
In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”
The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”
Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”
His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.
For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”
He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”
While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).
Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”
It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”
Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”
Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”
With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”
eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”
One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”
The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.
The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.
Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”
While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.
One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).
Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”
This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.
Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”
On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”
Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”
For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”
While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.
The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”
Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”
So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”
At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.
C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.
Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.
However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”
BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”
Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”