With six series on air, veteran writer and producer Dick Wolf talks to DQ about the changing television industry and reveals why he would tell aspiring producers to go into a different line of work.
For someone who currently has six series on air, Dick Wolf is remarkably modest. With a screen career spanning four decades, the esteemed writer and producer created the long-running Law & Order series and has had a hand in developing the ever-expanding Chicago franchise. He has also won numerous awards, including an Emmy, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Yet Wolf describes himself as “the luckiest guy in the lower 48 states of the US,” believing his success has been as much about good fortune and timing as his continued backing of evergreen network procedurals at a time when streaming platforms and serialised storytelling are hogging the limelight.
“My timing was very fortunate. I got the best of it,” he says, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “It sounds terrible, but the crumbs are left. They don’t want anybody to make money but them, which is understandable but not invigorating.”
Wolf is referring to the on-demand giants that are busy signing up some of the biggest and brightest talents in television. Netflix has snared Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), while Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), Lena Waithe (The Chi) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) have moved in with Amazon Prime Video. But though these overall deals pay big up front, there’s little reward further down the line.
That doesn’t sit easily with Wolf, who has been rewarded over the years for the longevity of his series and their repeatability in US syndication and overseas.
“My advice [to a young producer] would be, ‘Do you have anything else you want to do?’ This business is essentially over in terms of people being able to come in, make a hit show and make a lot of money,” he says. “The streaming services want to know exactly how much [a show] is going to cost forever. So far, the deals are pretty uninteresting. So to give people advice, I’d tell them that to go and do something where there is a concrete ceiling, rather than a glass ceiling, is difficult now.”
Not tempted to move online, where a season of a network show that clocks in at between 22-25 episodes a year could mark the lifespan of a single series on Netflix or Amazon, Wolf is doubling down on his commitment to network drama.
Heading into its 21st season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) is now the longest-running live-action series in the history of US TV, while Wolf’s other series on air include Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med, plus FBI (pictured top) and its new spin-off FBI: Most Wanted. He is also hopeful a reboot of his 1990s crime drama New York Undercover will get picked up this year.
Wolf says there’s no secret formula behind his work, noting that Law & Order was taken from the headlines while FBI is much more “ripped from the zeitgeist.” The series – which centres on the unique work undertaken by the agency’s New York field office and returns to CBS for its second season this month – comes from Universal Television in association with CBS Television Studios and is distributed by CBS Studios International.
“It’s about what’s going on in the world, rather than a specific case. That’s the biggest difference between them,” Wolf continues. “Law & Order truly was ripped from the headlines. When I sold it to NBC, [then network president] Brandon Tartikoff said, ‘What’s the pitch?’ I said, ‘The front page of the New York Post.’”
Whatever his method, viewers certainly approve. “The numbers are ludicrous,” he says of the viewing figures his shows attract. “SVU, off network, draws 93 million people on the various reruns, and the reason to me is pretty apparent: closed-ended stories. We have serialised elements but the secret of the success we’ve had is audiences know you can tune in and get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end and know the bad guy is probably going to get caught. It’s going to be emotionally satisfying.”
Strong writing has also been key, Wolf notes. “It’s always the writing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Laurence Olivier [in the cast]. If the words aren’t good, the show isn’t going to work. It really is the overwhelming element of success.”
Another reason Wolf’s shows work so well are the ensemble casts that lead them – and the opportunity to continually refresh them by introducing new characters.
“Law & Order was a six-person ensemble and, for the 20 years it was on, there were 29 actors who were regulars,” he says. “On SVU, the only one who was in the original cast that’s still there is Mariska [Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson]. So I usually see recasting as an opportunity, not a burden. But it’s never easy. People aren’t thrilled by the news [they’re being written out].”
Speaking to Wolf, it’s apparent that he plans to be in the TV business for many more years, if only to clear his head. “There are so many shows bouncing around in there,” he adds. “There could be a third FBI show that is totally different, and bringing back New York Undercover is going to be a lot of fun. I only do things I like watching.”
Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.
For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.
Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.
Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.
The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”
Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.
Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”
With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”
One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.
“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”
However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.
“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”
Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”
Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.
Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”
Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.
“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”
Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”
Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”
“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”
Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.
“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”
Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.
“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”
Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”
In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.
Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.
“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”
The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”
Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”
But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”
René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”
However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.
With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.
“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”
Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”
As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.
Perry Mason, Petrocelli, JAG, LA Law, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice, Damages – no one does legal drama quite like the US. Here are 10 current and upcoming law-based series.
Suits Season six of Suits will launch in July. Created by Aaron Korsh, it focuses on slick city lawyer Harvey Specter and his talented protégé Mike Ross. Now up to 76 episodes, it’s a big hit for USA Network and gets an impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb. Part of the appeal of this New York-set show is its fast-paced humour, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Korsh’s background on successful comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond.
The Good Wife This show, created by Robert and Michelle King, has just come to an end after seven seasons on CBS. It tells the story of Alicia Florrick, who returns to work as a Chicago-based litigator after 13 years as a stay-at-home mother. There is still a lot of affection for the show, which explains why CBS is planning a spin-off that will only be available via subscription. The Kings are expected to co-write the first episode but will not run it.
Law & Order Created by Dick Wolf, this procedural juggernaut ran for 20 seasons until 2010 on NBC. The first half of every show focused on the investigation of a crime and the second half was the prosecution of the defendant in the New York courts. The show spawned four spin-offs including one set in LA. Another of these, Law & Order: SVU, is still running after 17 seasons. With more than 1,000 episodes in the archive, it’s no surprise that the franchise has also been a big seller in distribution and has been the basis of several adaptations in markets like the UK, France and Russia.
Chicago Justice Also from NBC and Dick Wolf, this show is the latest in a run of Chicago-based procedurals. It was soft launched during Chicago PD this month and is now being prepared for next season’s schedule. It’s early days but the basic line is that it will focus on lawyers in the Chicago area. The story for the Chicago PD launch of the show was created by Wolf but the teleplay was written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Matt Olmstead, all of whom are exec producing the new show.
How To Get Away With Murder An interesting take on the genre, this ABC show focuses on a law professor at Philadelphia University (played by Viola Davis) who gets caught up in a murder plot along with five of her students. Davis has received a lot of plaudits, as has series creator Peter Nowalk, part of the team at Shondaland. Nowalk learned his trade on other Shondaland series (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) before taking the lead. The show has just completed season two and will be back next year.
Doubt Starring Katherine Heigl, this new CBS show will tell the story of a successful defence lawyer who starts to fall for her charismatic client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal crime. The idea was actually developed for the season just gone but wasn’t picked up as a series. However, it has now been reworked and will feature in the network’s 2016/17 season. Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman and Adam Bernstein will serve as executive producers with the husband-and-wife team of Phelan and Rater sharing writing duties. Their credits include Madam Secretary, Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order: Trial By Jury.
Better Call Saul It’s easy to forget this AMC series is a legal drama because of its quirky characterisation and links to Breaking Bad. It may not be a procedural in the Law & Order vein but it is a great insight into the machinations of US lawyers. Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the New Mexico-set show is a strong performer and was recently renewed for a third season.
Conviction This new drama for ABC from the Mark Gordon Company (Quantico) will debut in 2016/17. The pilot was written by Liz Friedman, who has made a name for herself with Jessica Jones and Elementary. The show tells the story of Carter Morrison, the brilliant but rebellious daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job as the head of Los Angeles’ newly created Conviction Integrity Unit. She examines cases where there’s suspicion that the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.
The Grinder This Fox show makes our list though it was actually cancelled last week after one season. Created by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, it’s a comedy drama about an actor (played by Rob Lowe) who returns to his home town in Idaho after his TV series (The Grinder) ends. Having played a lawyer on TV he thinks he is equipped to work with his family law firm – cue comedy. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show were low.
Shots Fired Fox hasn’t given up on the law after the failure of The Grinder, but it has gone for something more serious. For next season it has lined up Shots Fired, an event series that follows the aftermath of a racially charged shooting in a fictional town in North Carolina. Sanaa Lathan, Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss star. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood are the series creators on this one. Their writing credits, respectively, include Before I Fall and Gun Hill. There are echoes in this project of the recent FX hit The People vs OJ Simpson, written by a team of six headed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.