Tag Archives: Mr Robot

Asia awaits Korea’s Moon Lovers

The original version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
The original Chinese version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.

The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.

In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.

The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.

The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.

Doctors has done well on SBS
Doctors has done well on SBS

The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.

The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.

The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.

There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.

Descendants of the Sun
Descendants of the Sun

There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.

A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.

Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).

Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.

The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures
The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures

Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”

This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.

The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.

The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.

Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky
Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky

In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.

Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.

Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.

In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.

Mr Robot will return to USA Network
Mr Robot will return to USA Network

Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.

There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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Golden Globes makes bold TV selections

Mozart in the Jungle's writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds
Mozart in the Jungle’s writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds

I’m not sure if bookmakers take bets on the Golden Globes. But if they do, they would have offered a long price on Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall winning the three TV drama categories.

That a cable series about hackers, an obscure Amazon original about classical musicians and a British series about Thomas Cromwell could come out on top is testament to the significant changes that are currently taking place in scripted television.

Mozart in the Jungle, which won Best Series – Music or Comedy, is perhaps the most surprising choice, particularly as it came out ahead of its much-praised Amazon stablemate Transparent. A quirky story of professional musicians working the New York concert circuit, Mozart is based on the memoir of an oboist called Blair Tindall.

It was brought to the screen by a company called Picrow, with the pilot episode written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Once the show was commissioned as a 10-part series, a further eight people were credited with either writing scripts or providing stories. The most prominent names among these were John Strauss and Paul Weitz, the latter also directing a number of first season episodes.

Season two, which was released on December 30, 2015, involved some of the same writers but there were also five new additions – giving the show an ensemble feel both on and off the screen.

Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Among the key names, one of the best known is Roman Coppola – partly because of his famous father Francis Ford Coppola. However, Roman, like sister Sofia, has proved himself a genuine talent in his own right. In 2007, he co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Wes Anderson and Schwartzman and then, in 2012, he co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Anderson (securing an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay).

Mozart in the Jungle collaborator Schwartzman, still only 35, is better known as an actor than a writer, having appeared in a string of excellent, usually quirky, films dating back to Rushmore in 1998. He has since featured in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is now a member of the Mozart cast. Aside from his involvement with The Darjeeling Limited, his only writing credits to date are the three episodes of Mozart that he has so far co-written with Coppola and/or Alex Timbers.

Timbers, who has written or co-written four episodes of Mozart, is a Yale graduate whose career to date has mostly involved writing and directing for Broadway. Twice Tony-nominated, his directing credits include Rocky The Musical and Peter & The Starcatcher.

The appropriately named John Strauss wrote three episodes of Mozart season one and is much more of a jobbing writer than the three who produced the pilot. Major credits go all the way back to TV series Boy Meets World in 1994, followed by movies such as There’s Something About Mary and The Santa Clause 2 and 3.

Weitz, writer and director on Mozart, is arguably the most feted of all the creatives behind the show. An experienced producer, director and writer, his many credits include American Pie (director), About a Boy (writer/director), Little Fockers (director), and Off Centre – a 2001 sitcom for The WB network about a couple of young guys having a crazy time in New York.

Sam Esmail's Mr Robot has been given a second season
Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot has been given a second season on USA Network
Once you see the array of different talents involved in Mozart in the Jungle, you begin to get some sense of why it has been so successful. The above five bring film and TV experience, an array of skillsets and a deep love of New York to the table. That the series was ordered by Amazon just goes to show how much viewers are benefiting from the current SVoD revolution.

Mr Robot, a Universal Cable Productions show for USA Network, beat Narcos, Game of Thrones, Empire and Outlander to win the Best Television Series – Drama category, which is an extraordinary achievement.

There were six credited writers on the 10-part first season. But unlike Mozart in the Jungle, it’s clear who Mr Robot’s driving force is, with Sam Esmail writing five episodes including the story setup and the conclusion. He also directed three. Esmail, 38, had limited success before Mr Robot, which he originally conceived as a movie – but that has now changed.

Aside from his Golden Globe success, he was a winner at the 2015 American Film Institute Awards and is also nominated for the 2016 Writers Guild Awards.

USA Network has ordered a second season of Mr Robot, which Esmail will direct in its entirety, while Universal Cable Productions has given the writer a seven-figure TV deal under which he will write other series for NBCUniversal’s family of networks.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall won Best TV Limited Series
“Sam is a visionary and, although he might not use the term himself, a real mensch,” said Jeff Wachtel, CCO of NBCUniversal cable entertainment and president of Universal Cable Productions when announcing the deal. “Everything about Mr Robot has been a dream. We look forward to creating other shows with him.”

And then there is Wolf Hall, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novel by Peter Straughan, which took home Best TV Limited Series at the Globes.

Before Wolf Hall, Straughan was best known as a movie writer, with credits including the superb Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (written with his late wife Bridget O’ Connor). Wolf Hall is his first major TV work but it’s unlikely to be his last if he can fit it in around his movie work. The latest reports suggest he is working on an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning novel The Goldfinch for Warner Bros.

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Leaving the comfort zone: NBCU Cable Entertainment’s Jeff Wachtel

NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment content boss Jeff Wachtel tells DQ that his channels are delving into new genres and production approaches as they seek to stand out from the crowd.

As the competition for viewers continues to heat up among US cable networks, broadcasters are facing a choice. Do they go back to their roots with the niche genre programming they once stood for, or do they break new boundaries in search of the dramatic storytelling that will make a buzz around the water cooler and on social media?

As chief content officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, Jeff Wachtel (pictured above) helps to develop new series for networks that are heading down both roads.

Mr Robot
Christian Slater in USA Network’s Mr Robot

NBCU’s cable portfolio includes Syfy, USA Network and Bravo, among others, with USA perhaps the best example of a channel going beyond what people thought it could offer with a show that became the talk of the summer.

Home to Royal Pains, Graceland and Covert Affairs, USA made viewers sit up and take notice with Mr Robot, a thriller created by Sam Esmail about a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. Season two will air in 2016.

“Mr Robot is a great example of a successful network looking to regenerate and find things outside its perceived brand, not wanting to live in the past and creating a new future.” says Wachtel. “Most people were surprised Mr Robot was a show on USA. We were really happy about it and it has helped USA attract people who might not previously have come to the network, as now they see a network that’s trying new things.

“We were lucky that it’s been very successful, but even if it wasn’t, it would have been a great effort because it was from a brilliant writer/director, it was phenomenal material and it was really something worth trying. It’s a happy accident of success when an audience and critics come.”

USA sits in contrast to Syfy, with the latter rediscovering its roots in the science-fiction genre via series including Defiance and feature-film adaptation 12 Monkeys.

12 Monkeys
Syfy’s TV version of the 12 Monkeys movie

“Syfy is making a major play towards classic material and shows that reflect the best of the genre,” says Wachtel. “We just adapted Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke’s seminal work. It was written in 1953, the first time a work of fiction envisioned an alien invasion where space ships would be stationed over major metropolitan areas around the globe to take over the world.

“We also have a great show called 12 Monkeys – a reimagining of Terry Gilliam’s cool and trippy movie – and two smart young writers (Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett) figured out how to recreate that as an ongoing series.

“So on one side you have USA, which is stretching past what anybody thought of that blue-sky network, and on the other you have Syfy looking to reclaim its primacy as the number-one venue for that genre.”

Then there’s Bravo, the network known for reality fare such as its Real Housewives franchise, which has now stepped out into scripted drama for the first time with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. The series, based on the Girlfriends’ Guides books by Vicki Iovine and developed for television by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL), follows a self-help author who finds support in new friends and adventures as she goes through a divorce. Season two premiered on December 1.

“That’s a network that’s saying you know us for one thing, we are more expansive and we are going to reach out and do other stuff,” Wachtel says of Bravo. “That’s happening everywhere; networks are trying to establish themselves or show they can reach past the expected.”

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce
Bravo scripted series Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce

Wachtel, who has a joint role as president of NBCU studio Universal Cable Productions, also identifies a trend that places the success of a long-running show ahead of its immediate impact on linear television. Instead of an instant advertising win, he says broadcasters are now looking at series that can sit in their library and continue to generate revenue long after they have left traditional television schedules.

“They’re also more flexible in the way they look at financing and we’re being a lot more creative in terms of windowing, coproductions and general financing,” he adds. “We’re also looking at whether it makes more sense creatively and financially to go straight to series on some projects because then we can offer it at a lower cost point. Even the word ‘network’ has changed. Twenty years ago it meant four places; now it means 40 or 50. As a supplier, one has a much wider field but each individual place has its own challenges.”

The straight-to-series model has become more common in recent years as networks breaking into original drama bypass the traditional pilot process still largely enforced by the major broadcast networks. Wachtel’s own preference is for pilots, with recent examples including Mr Robot and Syfy’s Magicians – “a grown-up Harry Potter” that will debut on January 25, 2016.

“I like doing pilots. I think you learn a lot and there’s not the commercial pressure of satisfying an external audience – you’re really just trying to get it right,” Wachtel says. That’s not to say he hasn’t ever gone straight-to-series, citing Syfy’s forthcoming series Hunters as an example. It’s also due in 2016.

“Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) is the executive producer and Natalie Chaidez (12 Monkeys) is the writer. Syfy was looking at its resources and didn’t quite have the budget to order Hunters as a pilot and then as a series at their traditional licence fee. I sat with (Syfy president) Dave Howe and (executive VP of original content) Bill McGoldrick and said, ‘Do you love the show?’ They said, ‘Yes we love the show, we just don’t have the money in the budget to make it right now.’

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End, adapted from the Arthur C Clarke novel of the same name

“In the case of Hunters, it’s Homeland with aliens – it’s about a man whose wife goes missing; he doesn’t know if she’s dead, has abandoned him or is one of them. We asked ourselves, ‘If we do more of a psychological thriller with fewer big and expensive action sequences, is there a way to conceive this going straight to series with a lower price point?’”

It was a risk – but one Syfy was willing to take. “We’re figuring things out as we go along,” Wachtel adds. “We don’t have the grace period after a pilot where you concede some things, maybe cast some new people. We’re locked in and rolling, but it’s a great opportunity to do a series we would not have otherwise been able to do. It’s about being flexible.”

Another series in development under UCP’s new financing model is The Wilding, which will begin life as a two-hour backdoor-pilot for a potential season order on USA Network. Starring Jordana Spiro and executive produced by Tim Kring (Heroes), it follows a group of disparate people who realise they belong to a subset of people with supersensory abilities – Wildings.

Ultimately, networks are being forced to honour their existing audience while trying to attract new viewers. But being pushed out of your comfort zone is a good thing, Wachtel argues, because the alternative means becoming too formulaic.

“Mr Robot was a big risk,” he says. “It wasn’t the only pilot we were shooting and it wasn’t the only risk we’ve taken. The thing about the USA experience when I was head of programming and co-president is that we kept doing things we thought were pushing the boundaries for our network. I remember being criticised for doing Monk on the network that does Walker, Texas Ranger reruns.

“When we did Burn Notice, our central character was very edgy. It wasn’t like anything we’d done at that point. When we did Suits, I wondered whether we should enter this world of moral ambiguity. But it was fun and there was something winning about the characters and dialogue. We were surprised no one from outside thought it was risky; everyone said, ‘Here’s another hit show from USA.’ I wondered what we had to do to really shake things up. Mr Robot was absolutely a step outside the comfort zone and the network was very brave to take that step.”

The changing financial structure of US series means Wachtel is also keeping an eye on the international market. He says some of the first original series produced for US cable were made with the global market in mind – dramas including Psych, Royal Pains and Covert Affairs – and he now wants new partners to join him in the development process.

“The notion of coproduction has been complicated. There have been a few recent examples that worked very well, Hannibal being one, but more and more smart people are finding ways to do it,” he notes.

“It’s an openness to new ideas that you would never previously have considered. Who’d have done a show about the Salem witch trials or Vikings until recently? Right now, USA is shooting a big, wonderful pilot called Paradise Pictures, which is about 1940s Hollywood. We would never have thought to do that 10 years ago but the market is open enough right now that you can reach for those unexpected shows, and that also creates an opportunity to find new partners.”

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GLAAD shines spotlight on LGBT progress

Orange is the New Black 'boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme'
Orange is the New Black ‘boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme’

In the US, an organisation called GLAAD – formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – has spent the last 20 years tracking the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on television.

Each year it uses the data generated to create a comprehensive report entitled Where We Are On TV. The 2015/2016 edition of the report came out this week and shows that the TV industry is moving in the right direction – but still has a lot of work to do.

As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis points out, fair representation of the LGBT community on TV isn’t just about the number of LGBT characters in TV dramas, but also how they are portrayed: “As each of us lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that TV characters reflect the diversity of the LGBT community,” she says. “

It’s not enough to include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

So this week we’re taking a look at which shows and writers are making the most headway towards LGBT equality.

jamal-lyon
Empire’s Jamal Lyon is played by Jussie Smollett

US broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, NBC)
GLAAD’s figures show that out of 881 regular characters on 118 primetime scripted series, 35 were LGBT. This is up from 32 characters last year. GLAAD counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters in the same pool of shows.

Gay men make up a slight majority, though lesbian representation is up 5% year-on-year to 33%. Perhaps surprisingly given the prominence of the transgender agenda, “there are currently no regular or recurring transgender characters expected on broadcast networks’ primetime scripted programming.”

The organisation singles out Fox hit Empire as one of the best performers in terms of its LGBT character credentials. With a writing team headed by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, season two sees gay musician Jamal Lyon “taking on more of a business role as the head of the family music label, Empire,” says GLAAD. “Tianna, a bisexual artist signed to the label, was upped to a series regular this year. Several other gay, lesbian and bisexual characters will recur (during season two).”

There are also plaudits for Fox’s new show Rosewood, with a writing team headed by creator Todd Harthan: “While crime procedurals have long been a place where LGBT characters were most often included as villains or victims, this season introduces lesbian couple/pathology experts Pippy and TMI.”

GLAAD also singles out CBS sci-fi drama Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between hacker Root and assassin Shaw. It also finds encouragement in the superhero genre, at least on TV – film is a disappointment by comparison.

“Arrow (developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg for The CW) will resurrect bisexual heroine Sara Lance before moving her over to mid-season series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as a lead character, the White Canary. Her former girlfriend Nyssa will continue to recur on Arrow, and the series will add the recurring gay character Curtis Holt. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell) will introduce recurring gay character Joey Gutierrez, who has the power to melt metal.”

Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character
Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character

US cable networks
The number of LGBT characters on scripted cable programmes continues to rise, says GLAAD, with 84 regular characters, up from 64 last year. This trend will presumably continue with the growing number of scripted shows being commissioned and the industry’s increasing awareness of the diversity debate.

Recurring characters were also on the rise, up to 58 from 41 previously. Echoing the situation in broadcast TV, gay men dominate, though in this universe lesbian representation dropped 3% to 22%. “Three characters are transgender,” says GLAAD. “Unfortunately one of these is the now-deceased Angelique on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (created/written by John Logan).”

According to GLAAD, “the teen- and young adult-skewing ABC Family and premium channel Showtime are set to be the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular or recurring characters (including all of the transgender characters counted on cable).

“The returning drama The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, is ABC Family’s most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters including trans teen Cole – played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.” The Fosters was created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, who continue to be directly involved in the writing of the series.

GLAAD praises ABC Family for upcoming series Shadowhunters (which has Ed Decter as showrunner) and Recovery Road, in which gay actor Daniel Franzese will play a gay man struggling to combat an addiction. There is also a positive report for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has a gay couple and a lesbian in its extended pool of characters. “The new season will also introduce Paul ‘Jesus’ Monroe, a gay character from the comic books series that provides the show’s source material.”

Toby Stephens as Black Sails' Captain Flint
Toby Stephens as Black Sails’ Captain Flint

Other shows to get the GLAAD stamp of approval include Starz pirate drama Black Sails, where it is revealed that lead character James Flint has previously been involved with a man. Created by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, the show also features a number of other bisexual characters.

USA Networks’ critically acclaimed new series Mr Robot, created by Sam Esmail, boasts “several LGBT characters,” says GLAAD, “including cybersecurity firm CEO Gideon, Evil Corp’s VP Tyrell, and hacker/activist Trenton.” It’s a similar case with BBC America’s Orphan Black (created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett), which depicts a lesbian romance between Cosima and Shay, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Lady Gaga does her bit for the LGBT community by playing a character engaged in a same-sex relationship.

In terms of where the sector could do better, GLAAD wants to see “more racially diverse characters.” Of 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters analysed, 71% are white, which is a bit high for a country with the USA’s multiracial profile.

Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon's Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon’s Transparent

Streaming content providers
This is the first year GLAAD has analysed Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Due to the lack of defined seasons on such platforms, it looked at shows that premiered or are expected to premiere between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. Across 23 series, GLAAD found “43 regular LGBT characters and an additional 16 recurring characters.” Lesbians had a higher representation than on broadcast and cable, while the transgender community is represented by four characters.

“Notably, two of these four characters are leads: Maura in Transparent and Nomi in Sense8,” says GLAAD. “Transparent show creator Jill Soloway also paid special attention to ensuring diversity both in front of and behind the camera by employing trans writers, crew members and several trans actors in recurring roles.”

Other LGBT-inclusive Amazon series include Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks, while Hulu’s most LGBT-inclusive series, interestingly, are imported British soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. “The two series include 10 LGBT characters between them, with Hollyoaks, notably, including a gay character who is HIV-positive. Hulu also airs Australian series Neighbours in the US, which includes two gay characters.”

Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks
Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks

Hollyoaks works with the Terence Higgins Trust charity on its HIV storyline. The show’s executive producer Bryan Kirkwood says: “We have wanted to tell this story for a long time and while HIV can affect anyone, infection rates in young gay men remain too high and to ignore that is to do the gay audience a disservice. Hollyoaks is in a unique position to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, we can help with that on screen and through multiplatform support.”

According to GLAAD, Netflix series Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) “boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme.” Other LGBT-inclusive Netflix shows cited include Sense8, Grace and Frankie, Degrassi: The Next Class, The Fall, Bojack Horseman, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: “We’ll also be keeping an eye on upcoming series Jessica Jones,” says GLAAD.

Aside from the lack of racial diversity in LGBT portrayal, GLAAD noted that people with a disability are underserved. It also called for better representation of the HIV issue (keeping in mind the only HIV-positive character in the report is from a UK show).

GLAAD’s Ellis concludes: “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling (LGBT) stories – and hold their feet to the fire when they don’t.”

Footnote: There isn’t anything like the GLAAD report internationally. But there are good examples of LGBT-inclusive shows. A classic case from the UK is the Russell T Davies 2015 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Also worth noting is the Norwegian drama Eyewitness, distributed internationally by DRG, and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek – a mainstream show that includes a pansexual character. Another standout example (mentioned briefly above) is Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson portrays bisexual detective Stella Gibson.

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Hot or not?

It’s a truism in the TV business that audiences prefer domestically produced dramas over acquired series. But for many territories, the next best thing after homegrown shows is US scripted content. That’s why, on the eve of programme market Mipcom, international TV channel buyers will be watching US schedules closely.

Right now is an important juncture in the year because US broadcast and cable networks have just launched their latest batch of new shows. While some international networks have already acquired these series (basing their decisions on scripts or pilots), many prefer to wait and see how well shows rate before committing their cash.

From this perspective, Mipcom comes at the perfect time, providing a great opportunity for buyers and sellers to discuss a show’s performance face to face in Cannes.

In this week’s column, we take a look at some of the new drama series that have just hit the US market, providing a few pointers as to how they are shaping up during their debut seasons. The shows are listed according to how well they have started out.

blindspotBlindspot
NBC’s Blindspot is one of the top performers among this year’s new US dramas. Last week, we reported that its first episode attracted 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Since then, delayed viewing has pushed the show’s total viewership up to 15.9 million (Live+3 ratings). The show, which centres on a tattooed woman found in a duffel bag in Times Square, has been given the go-ahead by NBC to deliver nine more scripts — an encouraging sign. Buyers that pick up this series can be confident it will come back for a second season. The show is distributed by Warner Brothers International Distribution, which has already licensed it to TVNZ New Zealand, CTV Canada and Sky Living in the UK.

quantico-abcQuantico
We took a close look at ABC’s Quantico in this week’s Writers Room. The story of a group of FBI trainees attempting to foil a terrorist plot attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49 in its Sunday 22.00 slot. This is a good opening, and the reviews have also been generally positive. Distributed by Disney, the show has already been sold to CTV Canada and UKTV in the UK. Quantico doesn’t look as much like a dead cert as Blindspot to return, but it is better positioned than most shows to get a renewal.

Brian-Finch-in-Limitless-seriesLimitless
A spin-off from the Bradley Cooper-starring movie of the same name, Limitless is about a man who takes a super drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain’s potential. He then uses his newfound ability to work with the FBI. Airing on CBS, Limitless was one of the strongest performers among the new shows, attracting 9.8 million viewers for its first episode. The show then attracted 9.6 million for its second episode, which is a pretty good audience retention level. Also positive is that the show stayed strong among the 18-49 demo (1.9 rating). Limitless stands a pretty good chance of renewal, though it is too early to call. It is distributed internationally by CBS Studios International, which has already licensed the show to the likes of Fox TV in Sweden and RTL CBS Entertainment – a pan-regional pay TV channel in Asia.

MrRobotMr Robot
USA Network was so pleased with the first episode of this hacking drama that it immediately ordered a second season. With the first run now over, Mr Robot seems to have found a cult audience and a decent level of critical acclaim (an IMDb rating of 9.0 makes it one of the best-received of this year’s new shows). One buyer impressed by the series is Amazon, which swooped in and secured streaming rights to the first season. However, Amazon is not yet in many territories, so there is still plenty of scope for international networks to buy Mr Robot. It would probably suit a pay TV or subscription VoD platform – though an edgy terrestrial channel might also find a post-22.00 slot for it.

UnREALUnREAL
UnREAL aired on Lifetime this summer. Set against the backdrop of a fictional dating show, it focuses on flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by her executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). UnREAL didn’t debut very strongly but Lifetime’s decision to stream a number of episodes online gave the show a boost. The series finished its run as Lifetime’s most successful ever among younger viewers (part of the channel’s plan) and has already secured a second season. The show is distributed by A+E Studios International, which is bringing Appleby and Zimmer to Mipcom. It airs on Lifetime in the UK and has been licensed to streaming services such as Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). Some networks will be put off by the fact it parodies the TV entertainment business, but others will embrace its slick humour.

heroesrebornHeroes Reborn
This revival of the Heroes franchise did moderately well on its return. Having scored a 2.0 rating among 18-49s on its opening night, time-shifted viewing took it up to a 3.1 rating (Live+3). Nielsen’s figures have Heroes Reborn ranking as the fourth best launch out of 11 on the big four US networks last week. A 7.9 rating on IMDb is not spectacular, but it’s okay to start with. The show was simulcast in Canada on Global and started airing on Seven Network Australia on September 30. The original series is currently on Netflix.

fearwalkingdeadFear The Walking Dead
You can understand the editorial and commercial reasons behind AMC’s decision to extend the world of The Walking Dead, but Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) is not quite living up to the hype.  After a massive 10.1 million audience for episode one, it has since slumped significantly. The audience for episodes four and five was around the 6.5 million mark, which is good compared with other shows but not compared with its parent show. Season five of The Walking Dead averaged around 14.8 million. An IMDb rating of 7.8 suggests that the audience hasn’t really bought into FTWD – though there is time for that to change because AMC has already committed to a second season. Internationally, the show is airing on AMC Global where that channel is available (including territories in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In Australia it is on FX. Hulu has picked up US streaming rights while Amazon streams FTWD in Germany and Austria. One interesting development is that AMC has also created a 16-part web series, Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, for its website (amc.com). One of the characters in the web series will be introduced in FTWD’s second season, which is a pretty cool piece of transmedia storytelling.

scream-queensScream Queens
There was a lot of prelaunch hype around Fox’s Scream Queens, an anthology comedy-horror series from Ryan Murphy (Glee) that makes heavy use of guest appearances by big stars (such as singer Ariana Grande). But the show hasn’t got off to a particularly strong start. Episodes one and two were shown as a two-hour special and attracted a modest 4.04 million viewers (1.7 rating among 18-49s). There was some improvement once time-shifted viewing for episode one was included, but the second episode’s audience of 3.76 million suggests Scream Queens hasn’t really managed to grip America’s imagination. Review site Rotten Tomatoes sums up the show: “Too tasteless for mainstream viewers and too silly for horror enthusiasts, Scream Queens fails to satisfy.” The series is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has so far sold it to E4 in the UK, which is probably the right kind of home for it. Murphy’s involvement makes renewal a possibility, but Fox will want to see an upturn in the ratings to justify a new run.

MuppetsThe Muppets
A week ago, we would have been lauding the performance of the latest Muppets revamp. But a disastrous ratings decline for episode two changes the picture somewhat. For episode one on ABC, The Muppets attracted nine million viewers. But for episode two the show was down 35% to 5.8 million. There was also a drop-off in 18-49 viewers. The decline is so significant that we’re going to need a few weeks to see where the show settles down. Nevertheless, The Muppets has a sufficiently strong following globally that international sales are bound to follow for Disney. Early buyers of the show include Sky1 in the UK.

ThePlayerThe Player
The Player, another new drama from NBC, got off to a slow start. The main problem seems to be an over-complicated premise, which involves a secret amoral organisation that bets on crimes before they are committed. The first episode attracted a modest 1.2 rating among 18-49s on its first night and a total viewership of 4.68 million (rising to seven million after three days). Nevertheless, Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which distributes The Player internationally, has been very quick to secure some deals for the show. Broadcasters that have signed up include TF1 France, RTL Germany, AXN Spain, Seven Australia, D-Smart Turkey and OSN in the Middle East. All told, SPT has sold the show to broadcasters operating in 105 territories (some deals are pan-regional). Sales have probably been helped by the fact that the The Player features Wesley Snipes, but the chances of a renewal already look slim.

1443172256_minority-report-tv-show-meagan-good-stark-sandsMinority Report
A spin-off from the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, Minority Report hasn’t started very well. Episode one attracted an underwhelming 3.1 million viewers (1.1 rating among 18-49s). Fox fought a rearguard action by pointing to episode one’s increase as a result of time-shifted viewing. But episode two’s audience of 2.56 million (0.9 rating among 18-49s) shows a downward trend that is not encouraging. With IMDb giving the show a low 6.1 rating, it will be a major surprise if Minority Report makes it to season two. That will clearly impact on the distribution strategy for the series.

Finally, a brief mention for the BBC in the UK, which has been running a superb series of feature-length dramas based on classic British literary works. While the dramas in questions didn’t always rate highly, they were excellently produced and provided a great showcase for why public service broadcasting matters.

The top-rating production was An Inspector Calls (5.8 million), which has a particularly high profile in the UK. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover (4.9 million), then Cider with Rosie (3.9 million) and finally The Go-Between (2.6 million). The latter, based on a novel by LP Hartley, is the least well known of the four works, so its lower ratings aren’t too much of a surprise. But it was a well-made drama. Overall, these four films were a job well done by the BBC.

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Amazon ups the ante

Christina Ricci will play Zelda Fitzgerald (pictured) in Z
Christina Ricci will play Zelda Fitzgerald (pictured) in Z

After a strong showing at the Emmys, Amazon is in buoyant mood. It’s now hoping to keep up the momentum with six new drama and comedy pilots that will launch on Amazon Video later this year in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. As with previous pilots, Amazon will use audience feedback to decide whether to take any of the new scripted shows to series.

The pilots include Good Girls Revolt, a story set in 1969 that follows a group of young women seeking to be treated fairly and ultimately sparking changes that upend marriages, careers, love and friendships. Created and written by Dana Calvo, the show is based on landmark sexual discrimination cases chronicled in a book by Lynn Povich. Amazon is coproducing with Tristar TV.

Another female-protagonist drama is Z, a bio-series about Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written by Dawn Prestwich (The Killing), Z will star Christina Ricci as the beautiful and talented southern belle who became the original flapper and icon of the flamboyant Jazz Age in the 1920s. The story will follow Zelda’s social successes and her descent into mental illness.

Amazon will also reinforce the recent revival of the western genre with Edge, based on George G. Gilman’s best-selling book series of the same name. Set in 1868, the story centres on Josiah ‘Edge’ Hedges – a Union officer turned cowboy who prowls the post-Civil War American West doling out his own savage brand of justice. Edge was developed by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) and Fred Dekker (Tales from the Crypt, Star Trek: Enterprise). The pair also wrote the screenplay.

Amazon has ordered a pilot based on George G. Gilman book series Edge
Amazon has ordered a pilot based on George G. Gilman book series Edge

The other three Amazon pilots are Highston, One Mississippi and Patriot, a political thriller about an intelligence officer assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear. Patriot is written and directed by Steven Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Weather Man), who executive produces alongside Gil Bellows, Glen Ficarra, Charlie Gogolak and John Requa.

Amazon Studios VP Roy Price said: “Our latest pilot season brings together diverse shows that we think customers will really enjoy. We have something for everyone in this season and I am excited to see which shows spark conversation among our customers and what they want to be made into series.”

Amazon’s continued drive into scripted TV was further reinforced this week with the acquisition of exclusive rights to USA Network’s critically acclaimed drama Mr Robot. The first series (10 episodes) of the show will be available to Amazon subscribers in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan from spring 2016.

Meanwhile, reports have been bubbling under for a couple of weeks that Netflix might be about to commission Charlie Brooker to make some new episodes of his dystopian anthology series Black Mirror. This story has now been confirmed, with Netflix greenlighting 12 episodes. Brooker described the SVoD giant as “the most fitting platform imaginable” for the series, which until now has been produced for Channel 4 in the UK. Explaining the appeal, he said: “Netflix connects us with a global audience so that we can create bigger, stranger, more international and diverse stories than before, while maintaining that Black Mirror feel.”

Black Mirror's National Anthem episode made headlines in the UK last week due to allegations about prime minister David Cameron
Black Mirror’s National Anthem episode (pictured) made headlines in the UK last week following allegations about prime minister David Cameron

Netflix will premiere the show exclusively worldwide, except in the UK and Ireland where plans are still being determined. This hesitation over the UK is unlike Netflix, but is probably due to Channel 4’s involvement in the franchise to date. Possibly, Netflix and Brooker are looking for a way to include C4 in the deal so that it can benefit from the expansion of a show it helped to build.

Netflix VP of original content Cindy Holland said: “Charlie has created a one-of-a-kind series with an uncanny voice and prescient, darkly comedic vision. We’re tremendously proud to bring Black Mirror to our members as a Netflix original series.”

In terms of other renewals, there is good news for Mistresses, which has been awarded a fourth season by ABC. Another female ensemble series, Lifetime’s Devious Maids, is also returning for a fourth season next year. Announcing the recommission, Liz Gateley, EVP of programming for Lifetime, said: “Devious Maids is a steady hit that continues to deliver for us. It has found a loyal audience that is socially engaged with the show. The entire writing and production team worked hard to up the storytelling this year and the cast delivered great performances, so the show just gets better and better.”

Inspired by the hit telenovela, Ellas son… la alegría del hogar, Devious Maids is produced by ABC Studios. Last season it drove Lifetime to rank as the number-two cable network with scripted programming in the Monday 21.00-22.00 slot among women aged 25-54 and 18-49, while its August 24 season finale reached season highs among total viewers, adults aged 25-54 and women aged 25-54.

Devious Maids has been given a fourth run
Devious Maids has been given a fourth run on Lifetime

This week also saw an announcement by Italian public broadcaster Rai that it has commissioned an eight-part drama. Medici: Masters of Florence will chronicle the rise of the Medici family, with Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) playing Cosimo de’ Medici and Hoffman portraying family patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici.

The series, which will be produced by Lux Vide and Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, has been created by Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), with Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (The Pillars of the Earth) directing. Germany’s Wild Bunch TV is a co-financier and will oversee international sales, starting at Mipcom next month.

Spotnitz, a US writer who has carved out a strong niche for himself writing European coproductions in English, called the tale of the Medicis a “powerful story that resonates even now.”

Medici: Masters of Florence is a major step forward for Rai at a time when Italian producers and broadcasters are starting to have a much bigger impact on the international drama market. RAI Fiction director Tinny Andreatta said the show “has great international appeal and we hope it will open up a new era of creative coproductions.”

Finally, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa responsible for English-language programming, and Lantica Media have announced they are developing a new version of Gran Hotel, based on hit Spanish series from Bambu Producciones. The show will be shot at Lantica’s Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios and is based on an original script by Stephen Kronish (24, Kennedys).

The original Gran Hotel
The original Gran Hotel

The new version of the format, which is distributed internationally by Beta Film, will be set in 1950s Cuba. “It was a time when mobsters, politicians and celebrities flocked to Havana, the world’s most exotic and permissive playground,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Setting Gran Hotel in a sexy, sinful atmosphere offers up a rich fusion of glamour and intrigue deeply rooted in an exceptional murder-mystery format with a proven global footprint.

Antonio Gennari, CEO of Lantica Media, added: “Since the introduction of (a new) film law and incentives, the Dominican Republic has seen substantial growth in film and TV production. The country offers mesmerising scenery and world-class production capabilities that will serve as the ideal backdrop for Havana’s Gran Hotel.” As part of the announcement, Gennari said Lantica and Televisa USA were also planning other projects.

The original Gran Hotel aired for three seasons on Antena 3 in Spain. During its first season, it reached an 18.5% share of viewers in Spain and was also sold to broadcasters in France, the UK and Russia, as well as being reversioned in Italy.

Beta Film SVP Christian Gockel said: “Gran Hotel is one of Beta’s biggest sales hits and franchises of recent years, as proven currently on Rai’s primetime. As coproducers of the Italian adaptation, we are thrilled to see Gran Hotel opening its doors in Cuba’s 1950s.”

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AMC’s Dead cert

Fear the Walking Dead - the most successful series premier in US cable history
Fear the Walking Dead provided AMC with the most successful series premiere in US cable history

With all the hype and heritage, it’s no surprise that The Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) started so strongly last week.

Debuting on August 23 on AMC, it delivered 10.1 million live/same-day viewers “becoming the number-one series premiere in US cable television history for total viewers and all key demos.”

That’s according to AMC, which added that the cable network is now home to “three of the top five cable series premieres of all time in live/same-day viewing – Fear the Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead – a remarkable accomplishment so far into the post-DVR era.” It’s interesting to note that two of these series are spin-offs.

AMC and SundanceTV president Charlie Collier said: “It is increasingly difficult to evaluate a show’s success on night one. However, we are releasing these live/same-day ratings because Fear the Walking Dead delivered record-breaking numbers that are all the more special in this era of time-shifted viewing and audience fragmentation.

“To have a companion series to the number-one show on television driving communal, urgent viewing, social activity and pop-cultural relevance of this magnitude is truly differentiating. Of course, none of it is possible without the fans, whose passion leads to these results.”

AMC is airing six episodes of FTWD this autumn, before taking a break until 2016. The key figures to watch out for now are how many time-shifted viewers it picks up in the run-up to episode two, how well it sustains audience for episode two, and what kind of response it gets internationally.

The series premiered simultaneously on AMC Global in more than 125 countries so some figures might start trickling in over the next few weeks.

Omari Hardwick in Starz' Power
Omari Hardwick in Starz’ Power

Meanwhile, our only clues regarding FTWD’s prospects are reviews and ratings. IMDb gives the show a rating of 8 at the moment, which is something of an amber alert, suggesting that the audience was not especially gripped by episode one.

Variety was also disparaging, calling the 90-minute debut “too much like a snore, narrowly following a single, not-terribly-interesting family, and leaning heavily on musical cues to stoke a sense of suspense. A second episode begins to propel the story forward, thankfully, but for starters, anyway, it’s more a snack than a feast.”

Forbes’ assessment was that episode one was “not bad” but it did have a gripe with what it called “disposable black men syndrome. Not one, but two, fairly important black male characters die off in the first episode. This after tons of criticism of The Walking Dead for doing the exact same thing. I struggle to find what AMC and showrunners David Erickson and Robert Kirkman can possibly be thinking here. No major white character dies in this episode.”

One show that doesn’t have this problem is Starz’ Power, which is also a strong performer in the US cable market. On August 15, the second-season finale set a Starz series record in Live+3 ratings with 2.39 million viewers, outperforming the previous week’s record of 2.29 million and up 51% compared with the first run’s finale, which pulled in 1.59 million.

With such strong ratings, Starz will feel vindicated in having ordered a third season of Power just as it was launching season two. For those not familiar with the show, Power tells the story of a wealthy New York nightclub owner living a double life as a drug kingpin. It was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh and counts Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson among its executive producers.

Witnesses has achieved disappointing figures on Channel 4
Witnesses has achieved disappointing figures on Channel 4

Also of interest to number-crunchers is that Power is consistently one of the most requested shows on Comcast’s Xfinity On Demand, which delivers three billion hours of time-shifted TV a year.

In the UK, French-language drama Witnesses limped to the end of its run with an audience of just 290,000 on Channel 4 (C4). Over six episodes, it averaged 359,000 viewers at 22.00. This is a disappointing figure when you consider that another French drama, The Returned, achieved an audience of 1.2 million on C4 last year at 21.00.

Witnesses is a good show that rated well in France and was reviewed positively in the UK. So the only real conclusion that can be drawn is that the audience for foreign-language drama doesn’t want to watch at 21.00. Perhaps this is borne out by the fact that BBC4 is currently picking up an audience of 600,000 an episode for Italian drama Young Montelbano, which it airs in a 21.00 slot. C4 may have felt that Witnesses was too gruesome to air at 21.00, but it’s a point to keep in mind next time it acquires foreign-language fare.

On the drama distribution front, All3media International has secured a number of sales for Eleventh Hour Films’ “returnable miniseries” Safe House, including France 3 and Germany’s ZDF Neo.

Safe House has secured international sales
Safe House has secured international sales

The four-hour thriller debuted on the UK’s ITV in April this year, securing a decent 25% share in primetime. Peter Grant, the senior VP of sales who concluded the deals for France and Germany, said: “Safe House sees Christopher Eccleston lead a cast of internationally renowned talent in this fresh and contemporary take on the investigative crime genre. We knew this sophisticated ‘event’ thriller would play out well with our international broadcasters and are delighted to announce such a strong line-up of deals. The drama made its UK debut to great reviews and 5.6 million primetime viewers, which has only fuelled global demand.”

Returning to the US, a mid-season check suggests USA Networks’ decision to renew Suits for a sixth season was the right one. After nine episodes, the show’s ratings are actually ahead of where they were at the start of the season (circa 2.3 million viewers).

Meanwhile, the channel has postponed the finale of season one of Mr Robot until September 2, following the on-air murder of two journalists in Virginia this week. The network said: “The previously filmed season finale of Mr Robot contains a graphic scene similar in nature to today’s tragic events in Virginia. Out of respect to the victims, their families and colleagues, and our viewers, we are postponing tonight’s episode. Our thoughts go out to all those affected during this difficult time.”

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Repackaging Hollywood

CBS has ordered a pilot  based on 2001's Training Day
CBS has ordered a pilot based on the 2001 movie Training Day

It’s a regular cause for discussion that feature film studios and talent are moving into the scripted TV business. But there’s an equally significant trend involving archive movies being reinvented as TV series.

Already out in the market, and doing pretty well, are classic titles including Fargo, Sleepy Hollow, Transporter, Hannibal, 12 Monkeys, Teen Wolf and Parenthood. And this autumn will see the floodgates open still further, with TV spin-offs launching across a wide range of US channels.

Examples include Limitless, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Supergirl, Scream, Ash vs Evil Dead and Uncle Buck, all of which are just weeks away from launch. Coming down the line soon after will be a TV version of Shooter, the 2007 film starring Mark Wahlberg.

The main reason for this spate of remakes is the need to cut through the clutter of competition. With around 400 TV dramas a year vying for attention in the US market alone, any kind of in-built brand awareness is extremely valuable at launch. While a movie’s heritage can’t, in itself, make an audience like a TV show, it can at least encourage viewers to sample it – especially if some aspect of the originating film crosses over (thus adding authenticity).

MGM, for example, made much of the fact that the Coen brothers had a hand in the scripts for the Fargo reboot. And Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper is lined up to appear in some episodes of Limitless, having starred in the movie.

Fargo returns for a second season in October
Fargo returns for a second season in October

The future prospects for this film-to-TV business model may well depend on the hit rate of this year’s batch of remakes. But it’s worth noting that all of the existing film-to-TV productions mentioned in the opening paragraph made it to season two at least. Teen Wolf, for example, is at season five. This hit rate compares pretty favourably with shows based on foreign scripted formats, where successes are few and far between.

Ironically, one issue that may affect film-to-TV adaptations is the current shift in the TV industry’s favour. With the film industry polarising between blockbuster and low-budget independent productions, the mid-market where many of the above film titles lived is under pressure. In other words, films capable of adaptation may prove a precious resource that gets over-mined by the industry.

For now, though, there is no sign that the future pipeline is drying up, with confirmation coming this week that Denzel Washington movie Training Day is being lined up for a remake at CBS (initially as a pilot from Warners Bros TV and Jerry Bruckheimer).

CBS, it should be noted, is a fan of this approach, having already greenlit Supergirl, Limitless and Rush Hour – which has also been picked up by E4 in the UK.

Meanwhile, it was revealed last week that NBC is backing a TV adaptation of RED, a cult film series starring Bruce Willis that was itself based on a comic book franchise. There is also talk of a third movie in the RED franchise, so we may be seeing an era of parallel development emerge.

Baywatch is being converted into a movie starring Zac Efron
Baywatch is being converted into a movie starring Zac Efron (High School Musical)

As a footnote, last week also saw the announcement that cult TV show Baywatch is being brought back as a movie with Zac Efron. That is sure to revive interest in the library rights of the TV show – NBC-owned Cozi TV and Telemundo’s TeleXitos both recently relaunched the series – and could even stimulate a TV reboot down the line.

Other TV-to-film stories this week centred on Downton Abbey. With the iconic period drama having just wrapped production on its final season, producer Carnival is now considering continuing the franchise on the big screen –possibly taking the show into the pre-Second World War financial crash.

All of the recent talk about there being too much scripted TV doesn’t seem to have unsettled Viacom-owned channel Spike. Having recently finished airing ancient Egyptian miniseries Tut, Spike has just ordered its first one-hour drama series in nine years – a 10-parter from Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Horizon Television called Harvest.

The show is being written by Ian Sobel and Matt Morgan (12 Monkeys) and tells the story of a cemetery caretaker who finds his quiet life in jeopardy when his estranged criminal father tracks him down. To protect his daughter, he works with his father in the illegal trade in body tissue.

This week also saw Australian subscription VoD platform Presto pick up rights to USA Network thriller Mr Robot, which has Christian Slater among its cast. Presto, which acquired the show from NBCUniversal, will show the first seven episodes of Mr Robot immediately before adding the last three after they air stateside on USA.

The show follows a young programmer who suffers from a debilitating anti-social disorder. He finds himself caught between working for a cybersecurity firm and the murky world of mysterious anarchist Mr Robot, played by Slater. In the US, the show is averaging an audience of around 1.42 million viewers, though recent episodes are nearer the 1.2 million mark. The show was recommissioned for a second season very early on the basis of a digital preview.

Presto has picked up the rights to Mr Robot
Presto has picked up the rights to Mr Robot

Finally, a week after Showtime Networks president David Nevins criticised some of the current risky investments in scripted TV, Showtime announced it is producing I’m Dying Up Here, a new one-hour pilot being executive produced by Jim Carrey.

Based on the non-fiction novel by William Knoedelseder, the pilot will be directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies) and produced by Endemol Shine Studios and Assembly Entertainment. Written and executive produced by former stand-up comedian Dave Flebotte (Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, The Bernie Mac Show) and set among the famous Hollywood comedy clubs of the 1970s, the dark comedy pilot “will delve into the inspired and damaged psyches that inhabit the hilarious but complex business of making an audience laugh”.

Nevins said: “The 1970s LA comedy scene gave rise to some of the biggest and most influential performers of the last half-century. Who better than Jim Carrey and Dave Flebotte, who were both there, to tell the story of that special era?”

When asked last week about the current situation with scripted programming, Nevins said Showtime is in expansion mode, but he questioned networks that were rushing into new shows – giving two-season commitments on the basis on pitches, for example. He said brands like Showtime that “stand for something” will survive.

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Can Humans survive in the US?

Humans' US ratings have seen a more dramatic drop compared with its UK figures
Humans’ US ratings have seen a more dramatic drop compared with its UK figures

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.

Rectify has been given a fourth season
Rectify has been given a fourth season

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.

Lifetime has used UnREAL to attract younger viewers
Lifetime has used UnREAL to attract younger viewers

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.

Tut stars Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (right)
Tut stars Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (right)

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.

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USA Networks reboots Mr Robot

Mr Robot: Already renewed for a second run
Mr Robot: USA Network has already renewed the show for a second run

NBC Universal cable channel USA Networks did a strange thing this week. It commissioned a second season of cyber-hacker drama Mr Robot before the first season has even begun.

It’s not unusual for channels to renew dramas after a few episodes of the first season have aired, when they have had a chance to crunch the audience data, but why did USA Networks act so precipitously?

The answer is that it had already released a sneak preview of the pilot online. Since May 27, it has been available via Xfinity On Demand, USANetwork.com, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox Video, PlayStation Video, IMDb and Telemundo.com, to name just a few.

The result was a very impressive 2.7 million views and a positive critical response. It was on this basis that USA decided to greenlight an additional 10 episodes for 2016.

“We knew from the moment we read Sam Esmail’s provocative script, and witnessed the brilliant performances of Rami Malek and Christian Slater, that Mr Robot is a stand-out series that is unlike anything currently on television,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, announcing the renewal.

“The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to the pilot and the broad sampling of it reaffirms our confidence in the series, and we’re excited to see where this drama will take us for season two.”

The show, for those yet to view it, sees Malek play a computer programmer who is a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads when the leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect.

“Sam Esmail has captured and distilled our ongoing cultural conversation about identity, privacy, value and self-worth,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all talking about the central themes of Mr Robot – Sam has just done it in a completely original and uniquely compelling way.”

Elsewhere in the NBC Universal family, flagship free-to-air network NBC announced this week that it had cancelled Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs spin-off that is currently in its third, and now final, season.

Hannibal has been cancelled, but is it really the end for the popular drama?
Hannibal has been cancelled, but is this really the end for the popular drama?

In a statement, NBC said: “We have been tremendously proud of Hannibal over its three seasons. (Showrunner) Bryan Fuller and his team of writers and producers, as well as our incredible actors, have brought a visual palette of storytelling that has been second to none in all of TV – broadcast or cable. We thank (producer) Gaumont and everyone involved in the show for their tireless efforts that have made Hannibal an incredible experience for audiences around the world.”

By and large, the show has been well received by critics, but its cancellation is the result of low ratings. For an ad-funded channel like NBC, no amount of glowing reviews can justify persisting with a show if it isn’t delivering enough 18-49 adult impacts.

However, the fact NBC is pulling out does not necessarily mean this is the end for Hannibal. The show was initially picked up by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for its international cable channel AXN, with NBC coming in as a US acquisition. So if SPT and AXN decide Hannibal is worth preserving, they and producer Gaumont could go in search of a new US partner for season four.

While the show is unlikely to attract the other major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), it might appeal to a US cable net or streaming service. Not only does it have a high quotient of murder and mayhem, it also has the kind of in-built brand equity that would help it stand out from the crowd.

Fans of the series are already campaigning for Hannibal to find a new home, with the hashtag #SaveHannibal trending on Twitter.

The obvious partner would be SVoD platform Amazon, which already holds the rights to air the first two seasons of Hannibal and has a track record in reviving axed shows – such as Ripper Street, for example.

Fuller (who is also commencing work on American Gods for Starz) would welcome a reprieve and has suggested there is a chance it might happen. He told Deadline: “I would say 50/50. Because I’ve been down this road before and there’s that brief wave of ‘Oh it could be possible’ and then it just doesn’t happen. But it feels like the way this particular show is set up there is potential for a deal to be done. I know conversations are being had. It’s just a matter if they can come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to the studio and the distributor.”

This week also saw the long-awaited launch of True Detective season two on premium cable network HBO in the US. In ratings terms, it started well – with its audience of 3.17 million making it the top cable show on Sunday night.

The show also had a good launch on Sky Atlantic in the UK. To capitalise on pre-launch buzz, the channel elected to air the show at the same time it was on in the US – which in the UK meant a 02.00 transmission time. This gave it an audience of 131,000. It then replayed the episode at 2100 on Monday, securing a further 251,000 viewers. While the latter figure is only marginally ahead of the channel’s 2100 slot average, the combination of the above two figures is a decent 382,000.

No Offence has done enough to earn a second season
No Offence has done enough to earn a second season

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the prospects of Paul Abbott’s offbeat police procedural series No Offence, which airs on the UK’s Channel 4. While the ratings declined quite quickly after a strong opening, our view was that there was enough of a spark in the set-up for it to justify a second series.

This week, C4 confirmed that the show will return for another eight-episode run in 2016 – with a story involving warring crime families. Despite the audience dropping from around 2.5 million to just over one million, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said: “No Offence is not just unlike any other cop show on TV, it’s unlike any other show on TV. Paul and the cast have set the bar high in terms of thrills, spills and belly laughs this year.”

The renewal is good news for FremantleMedia International, which holds the distribution rights and has already sold the first season to the likes of the ABC in Australia and Denmark’s DR. However, Abbott is going to have to find a way to breathe life back into the ratings if No Offence is to last as long as Shameless.

Sticking with C4, the strong performance of the show’s new futuristic drama Humans was confirmed this week with the release of consolidated ratings data. After the initial wave of results showed the Kudos-produced robot thriller achieved a record-breaking four million viewers for its debut episode, that figure has now been recalculated to take account of time-shifted viewing. The result is an aggregate audience of approximately 6.1 million, making Humans the biggest original drama on C4 for 20 years.

The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4
The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4

As we have mentioned in previous columns, the UK’s niche channels have become a useful testing ground for non-English language drama seeking to get a foothold in the international market. C4’s sister channel More4, for example, has started airing The Saboteurs (aka The Heavy Water War), a six-part World War Two drama about Allied attempts to foil the Nazis’ plans to build an atomic bomb.

The series attracted an impressive 1.7 million viewers when it debuted on NRK in Norway. On More4, the debut episode attracted 336,000. This was well ahead of the slot average, though the fact that a third of the audience was aged over 65 probably dampened More4’s enthusiasm.

While there is an understandable temptation to focus on the ratings performance of new shows, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how schedule stalwarts are holding up. It’s interesting, for example, that the top-rated US cable show of the last week was Rizzoli & Isles, a TNT detective series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.

Starring Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles, the show started its sixth season on June 16 with an audience of 4.4 million. Judging by its past performance, the show’s ratings are likely to tail off slightly after a few episodes but, with 18 episodes in the upcoming series, it’s a very reliable part of the TNT schedule.

Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years
Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years

Looking back over historical ratings, Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years. In 2014, it was actually the top-rating basic cable series, with an average of 7.6 million viewers in Live+7. With its strong ratings record and an episode count just shy of 100, it’s no surprise the show also does well in international distribution. Networks that have aired it include Net 5 in Netherlands, Vox in Germany, UK network Alibi and Rete 4 in Italy.

Away from the drama scene, another noteworthy international story is the news that US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is being remade in Hindi for Indian entertainment channel Star Plus. Raymond is a global phenomenon, spawning local versions in Russia, Egypt, Israel and the Netherlands, and selling to numerous other territories in its original form. Steve Skrovan, a writer on the US series, is working with the show’s Indian scribes to help get the adaptation right.

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