Tag Archives: iPlayer

Measuring success

As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?

When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.

Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.

Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.

Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.

Wynona Earp gained ‘momentum’ via social media

Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”

The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.

Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”

Christophe Riandee

In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?

Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.

In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?

“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”

CBS’s Doubt was was cancelled after just two episodes

Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.

Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.

The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.

That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.

David Ozer

“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”

These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.

“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.

“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”

At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”

That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.

Netflix’s Pablo Escobar series Narcos is a social media sensation

For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.

“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”

Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”

MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”

Swedish Dicks broke viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay

Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.

Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”

He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.

“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”

Avingerne – an example of a DR drama with ‘a complex story told through relatable characters’

Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”

Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.

“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.

“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”

In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.

“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”

For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”

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Anthony Horowitz on leaving Foyle’s War for pastures New

After 15 years writing Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz is back on television with crime thriller New Blood. He tells DQ why there’s nothing like it on television.

Investigative drama New Blood broke new ground last week when it became the first primetime drama to launch on the BBC’s on-demand service iPlayer before its linear broadcast.

And with streaming platforms perhaps now representing the best way to reach new and younger viewers who no longer adhere to traditional television schedules, series creator Anthony Horowitz was more than happy to push the show online ahead of its BBC1 debut tonight.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

“I want to write for young people rather than their parents,” says Horowitz, who wrote ITV drama Foyle’s War for 15 years until it ended last January. “Foyle’s War has been a fantastic ride – I’ve loved every minute of doing it. But it did occur to me that a great chunk of viewers weren’t seeing my work. Also, having written the Alex Rider spy novels, I’m meeting people who read my work as kids and are now in their 20s and 30s, and I want to write for them again.

“When I write, I don’t think, ‘This is for young people’ and then write in a certain way. What’s happened with this show is because it has two 25-year-olds in the lead – everything has come from that.”

New Blood executive producer Jill Green, MD of Eleventh Hour Films and Horowitz’s wife, agrees: “It’s great for us because (there’s a lack of) shows that appeal to younger viewers. It’s edited in a very different way, the music is very different too.”

The seven-part series shows London through the eyes of two outsiders, Stefan and Rash, junior investigators for the Serious Fraud Office and the police respectively, who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases.

Young men frustrated with life and trying to find their feet in their professional and personal lives, they team up to become a formidable crime-solving duo as they take on the uber rich and powerful.

And central to the series are Mark Strepan and Ben Tavassoli, who play Polish Stefan and British-Iranian Rash respectively. “Mark has Polish ancestry and Ben is half-Iranian so they fit their characters to a T,” Horowitz says. “Every actor I’ve ever worked with has, to a certain extent, made the character their own. They found them and created them. When I started writing this show I was never sure, if I wrote a line, which character should say it. But now I know exactly who’s going to say what – and that’s partly down to them.

“Working on Foyle’s War, I loved working with Michael Kitchen but if he walked out of the car to the office, that was classed as an action sequence. Now we’ve got people running across London, jumping off buildings, getting punched and getting tied up and put into a car that spins eight times.”

Green continues: “In one scene, they argue about jumping off a hotel roof into a swimming pool and eventually say, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ They’re in their 20s, why not? They literally dive off into a swimming pool. These guys are physical. The amount of things (Horowitz) puts them through has been extraordinary and they love it.”

Casting for the leads wasn’t straightforward, however, with several actors in the running for both parts until Strepan and Tavassoli found instant chemistry during the auditions.

New Blood
New Blood stars Mark Strepan (left) and Ben Tavassoli

“We saw an enormous number of people,” admits Horowitz. “It was always a question of whether we were going to cheat. Could we really cast British-Iranian and British-Polish? Or would we get a British guy who could do a Polish accent? We then found these two guys but what clinched it wasn’t the individual auditions, it was when we put them together.”

Green explains: “At the last moment we had four Rash’s and four Stefan’s so we interchanged them together, looking for the right combination, and it was about that chemistry. It was very real.”

It’s that chemistry that will also make the difference between New Blood being a success or a failure. But Horowitz says he hopes the show has managed to tell serious stories in a serious world with two light-hearted characters at the centre.

“I’m thrilled by their performance,” he adds. “I’ve been around for a long time but these two guys, they’re at the beginning of their careers and I’m so excited to see whether it goes well for them. They’re very likeable.”

From the opening scenes of the first episode, it’s clear Stefan and Rash aren’t the only characters central to New Blood. From Stefan’s bike ride to work into the City to the quick cuts between shots of the capital’s iconic landmarks, the backdrop of London looms large over the series.

“Jill hasn’t forgiven me for setting it in London,” Horowitz quips when asked of the production challenges of filming in the city. “But when you see the show, London is the third character. It’s a really attractive view of London. We tried to find something that isn’t tourist London, isn’t Disney London. It’s real London and it’s energised London. The number of cranes and building sites and traffic jams and roadworks – that’s the London we live in.”

The duo were picked after their chemistry was immediately apparent during auditions
The duo were picked after their chemistry was immediately apparent during auditions

It was a difference experience for Green. “If you’re not doing a US movie on a Tom Cruise budget, don’t try to film in London,” she says. “It’s not a city that’s interested in filmmaking because it’s got terrorism, security and other bigger issues. It was really hard. And because we were 95% location and we had to do some really difficult action sequences, most people didn’t want us around and sometimes they wouldn’t play ball. City Airport shut us down because pilots complained they could see lights from an explosion we were filming in a wasteland that was quite near the airport.

“It’s hard and expensive. The sequence where the guys jump off the roof was shot over three days in three different places. That’s expensive. When you’re doing big action, which has got to have a high production value, you can’t skimp on that. But when you’re doing it in London as well, that’s tough. But it does look and feel like London.”

Horowitz and Green first met when they both were working in advertising. They later took different paths into television and it was only after a decade that Horowitz’s writing started to be developed for the screen by Greenlit Productions and now Eleventh Hour Films – both established by Green, the latter in 2010.

“Why should Jill produce shows for other people and I write shows for other people when we can do it together and control and own the shows?” argues Horowitz. “We’ve done that now for Foyle’s War, Injustice, Collision, Menace and New Blood.”

“We’re very privileged to get Ant’s work and it makes us work 300% harder because the responsibility is huge,” explains Green, whose other credits include ITV thriller Safe House. “There’s no deal (with him) but I know if we don’t take Anthony’s ideas – and we don’t always agree – then somebody else might. But the scripts are wonderful, which is always the best place to start.

“We can be quite rigorous with each other but there’s a fantastic shorthand between us and I do think we work very well together. I think the best work we’ve done has been together, rather than apart. We can problem solve together as well, which you have to do.”

New Blood could be the pair’s best collaboration yet. With music from Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge and a new visual take on London, Horowitz claims “there’s nothing on British television like it – in terms of tone, look, editing, the youth of the two lead actors – it’s really different. It’s very American in some ways in the pacing and ambition of it, and I hope people simply enjoy it.

“It’s not about naked dead women being found tied up in alleyways, it’s not about that sort of brutality and darkness, which I’m not knocking, but I think we’ve now had enough of that. Here is a show that’s got a bit more of a smile. It’s serious when it needs to be, it’s dangerous when it needs to be but isn’t rubbing your face in the underbelly of life. It’s got murder and death but what it hasn’t got is that grubbiness.”

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