Tag Archives: NBCUniversal

Remade Abroad: Sisters/Almost Family

Almost Family executive producer Annie Weisman reveals how the Fox drama was inspired by an Australian series about a woman who discovers she has hundreds of secret siblings.

Annie Weisman

For several years, Annie Weisman had wanted to write a series about the relationships between sisters. Projects at US networks CBS and NBC didn’t move forward. But when Universal TV, the studio where she has an overall deal, said they were looking at adapting Australian drama Sisters, her chance finally arrived.

Sisters tells the story of a woman whose life is turned upside-down when her father reveals that during his career as a fertility specialist, he used his own sperm to impregnate his patients, meaning he may have fathered hundreds of other children.

Produced by Endemol Shine Australia, it aired on Australia’s Network Ten in 2017 and the following year debuted worldwide on Netflix.

“The premise is so eye-catchingly shocking and heightened,” Weisman says of Sisters. “It’s so much of the moment and in the zeitgeist and can only happen today because of new DNA testing technology. It’s just a new way into telling that story and a new look at sister relationships and so I leapt on it. It was a confluence of the studio having this property and me having an interest in the subject matter.”

A remake was then pitched to Fox last year, before the network ordered a pilot from Weisman and subsequently commissioned a full series, called Almost Family, in May. It debuted in October.

Australian drama Sisters centres on the daughter of a fertility specialist

Starring Brittany Snow, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Emily Osment, it similarly follows one woman who discovers her father may have conceived hundreds of children, including two new sisters. Universal produces in association with Endemol Shine North America and Fox Entertainment, with NBCUniversal distributing.

Owing to the fact that Sisters was already an English-language series, with Australian culture not too dissimilar to that of the US, Weisman says adapting Sisters for US audiences largely came down to the pace of the storytelling.

“The Australian show had a laid-back ease to the way the story unfolds, which was really pleasurable for me to watch on Netflix. But in the gladiator battle of US broadcast television, the shape of the advertising-driven six-act structure changes the pace big time,” the writer explains. “So there’s a need to amp up the pace and in doing that, you compress the storytelling and tell stories quicker.

“The big challenge of broadcast television is trying to tell a fast-paced story to a broad audience. If you get it right, it’s exciting because you can bring a lot of different people together.”

Annie Weisman adapted the Aussie show as Almost Family

Weisman chose to keep the same basic dynamics between the main characters, with one woman discovering her father’s actions and building a close bond with two new sisters. But the main change to the US series refers to the doctor at the centre of the fertility scandal.

In Sisters, he faces a civil action lawsuit. However, for Almost Family, Weisman elevated that to a criminal trial, upping the stakes against him so he is the subject of sexual assault charges against the women he unlawfully inseminated.

“Even in the six months after the pilot was made, we’re in such a different moment [in society] in terms of the perception of abuse of power among men and doctors so it really felt important for me to focus on that,” she says. “Interestingly, in doing that I’ve opened myself up to a lot of scrutiny and attack, but it was important for me to add it. It’s not in the original. I didn’t feel anyone was held accountable [in Sisters] but somehow it seemed to put more life and attention on him.”

As Weisman notes, the series has drawn criticism from those who have experienced these circumstances first hand and are upset at how the series presents itself as a quirky family drama about sisters who come together amid extraordinary circumstances, in effect making light of the doctor’s horrendous crimes — the very DNA tests that bring the siblings together also prove his guilt — at the root of their new relationship.

Sisters first aired on Australia’s Network 10

Weisman says that although she has strengthened the criminal case against the doctor in question, “for some people, that’s not enough. You hit the zeitgeist in a particular moment and there’s an attitude and perspective you collide with. That’s part of making things and putting them out there. That’s what happens. But that was an element I had very deliberately added because I thought it was irresponsible not to.

“It’s been the plan from the start that there is this criminal trial and that his crimes would be perceived as sexual assault. That was part of my pitch, part of my adaptation. That’s always been the spine of it all. But the thing I haven’t let up on and don’t apologise for is, it’s not the only thing we do in the show. It’s not the only note we hit. There’s also his point of view. There’s humanity in him, there is humour and lightness and I believe in that. The people who watch the show and stay with it will understand the show reflects life lived by us in families and how tragedy and comedy and absurdity, and the sublime and the ridiculous are very close to one another.

“Sometimes there’s an impatient appetite for the story to be told immediately but it’s a TV show. We’re unfolding that over time. That was always the plan: to see him come to terms with what he’d done and have remorse and accountability and the way that happens is dramatic and there are lots of twists. It’s a TV show, not an earnest documentary. That’s the journey we’re on with him.”

In writing Almost Family, Weisman says she has borrowed “liberally” from the original, describing Sisters as a buffet she has taken the best bits from. She also praises Sisters creators Imogen Banks and Jonathan Gavin for giving her the freedom to take the show in her own direction.

Almost Family debuted on Fox in October

While television is known as a collaborative medium, with all the opinions and notes that can be levelled at a showrunner from numerous interested parties, she says an adaptation can bypass that creative interference. “One of the nice things about any kind of adaptation is having a set of ‘givens’ to work from, so there’s less up for grabs in terms of just getting traction and moving forward,” she says.

“There are some proven elements you can work with and I think that’s really helpful. The trap is just not to be overly loyal to things, to use what’s helpful and be willing to leave behind what isn’t. It’s really important because at the end of the day, you have to make it your own and have to believe in it and be organic and intuitive and go where the story wants to go and not get in its way.”

Weisman adds: “Hopefully you’re lucky enough to work with people who aren’t overly precious with their material and aren’t overly protective. That would be tough and you can feel very hamstrung by that. The culture change is everything so you have to be nimble. You have to be responsive to what’s going on. You can’t be overly loyal to things. We hope we’ve been loyal and kind to it. I think the spirit of the core character relationships are very much intact. That’s what drew me in initially.”

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Missing treasure

The trend for television dramas about missing children continues with The Disappearance, a French Canadian drama about a family’s grief when a young boy vanishes. DQ chats with writer Geneviève Simard and the production team behind the six-part limited series.

When French-language drama The Disappearance was dropped by its Quebec broadcaster while still in development, it could have been an early end for the six-part series about the struggle facing a family when a young boy goes missing.

CTV ordered a full series of The Disappearance when it was decided to make it in English

It’s to Productions Casablanca’s credit, however, that it persevered with the project and found a way to get it on screen – by translating it into English. Producer Joanne Forgues had the idea to switch languages and the drama was successfully resuscitated when Bell Media-owned CTV commissioned the full series.

Created and written by Normand Daneau and Geneviève Simard, The Disappearance opens on Anthony’s 10th birthday. Every year, his grandfather creates a treasure hunt for him to mark the special day, but this time he doesn’t return. Two years after the police investigation went cold, a strange event leads to the case being reopened.

The cast includes Peter Coyote (Sphere), Joanne Kelly (Warehouse 13), Neil Napier (Helix), Kevin Parent (The Calling), Judith Baribeau (21 Thunder) and Camille Sullivan (The Man in the High Castle).

By exploring the intimate relationships of a family torn apart by a missing child, Charles Ohayon, head of international sales at Productions Casablanca, says this series goes beyond other shows with a similar concept. “It’s a very human story,” he says.

Simard adds: “We’re not following the cops like in other shows. It’s really the family that we’re following. There are family secrets that bring the investigation forward.”

The Disappearance follows the reopening of the case of a missing 10-year-old boy

Simard wrote the series with Daneau, her former real-life partner, after the birth of their child. They were thinking of writing something together and began questioning what a parent’s worst nightmare would be.

“Having a child who is dead is a tragedy but not knowing where they are must create so much anguish,” she explains. “We wrote one episode and went to see Joanne. She took the project but we developed it with a French channel in Quebec, it was supposed to be in French, but after we developed three episodes with them, they changed direction [and dropped the series], so we looked elsewhere in Quebec. Then Joanne had the brilliant idea to translate it.”

Ohayon describes that decision as a “gamble,” but one that certainly paid off after NBCUniversal came on board the series, boosting its shooting budget and handling sales in France (13ème rue), the UK (Universal), the US (WGN America) and, ironically, Quebec, where it aired on Super Écran. It was also screened part of the International Panorama competition at Series Mania 2018.

“The idea was really to translate it and see if it had a chance through English Canada in terms of finding a network,” he says. “So it was a gamble to have them translate it.”

The producers cold-called CTV, who came back within a week with a positive decision. “It went very fast,” Ohayon continues. “Within a matter of weeks we signed a development deal for the next three episodes. Three months later, which is very unusual, Joanne had the green light to go into production, before the scripts were finished.”

After NBCUniversal came onboard, the show’s budget was boosted significantly

At this point, Simard admits she and Daneau had the ending in place but weren’t sure how to get there. “It’s a really complex story with a lot of twists,” she notes. “It has to be very tight so there was a lot of brainstorming. For Normand, this was his first series. I have written on others. We almost did everything together. We started writing the scripts before we knew how it would end. We wrote one episode and took it to Joanne but we never expected it to go very far. Our dream was it would air in French in Quebec.”

It was CTV that introduced The Disappearance to production giant NBCUniversal (NBCU), with Michael Edelstein, former president of NBCU International Studios calling to admit his team was in love with the project. “Then he said, ‘I have one problem – your budget is not high enough,’” OHayon recalls. “That’s the first time in 30 years I have ever heard that one. They came onboard based on scripts, the series was not even shot yet. For us in Quebec, that’s the first time this has ever happened, that a major US network would take on distribution based on scripts and not on shooting.”

Filming took place in Montreal, where the series used an original backdrop why retaining its original French flavour.

“We had cultural differences between French Canada and English Canada and also between Canada and the US, so we had to try and put that all in a melting pot and come up with something that pleases the three cultures,” Ohayon says. “I would say we won most of the battles. Once we explained and discussed it, we were able to agree on most things. Sometimes they had very good points and we went along with their suggestions and vice versa. It worked very well in the end.”

In Quebec, OHaylon says there is a constant creative struggle to produce content for eight million French-speaking people surrounded by 300 million English speakers.

“The only way for us to survive is to be strong, creative and innovative and that’s what happens – and we do it with very little amounts of money,” he notes, comparing budgets of between C$500,000 [US$378,000] and C$700,000 per hour in French Canada compared with C$2.2m and C$2.6m in English Canada.

“Why? Because English-language productions can be sold and exported around the world. The French language we have cannot be exported as easily, even in France, because it’s not the same French. It’s a very limited market. The revenues for broadcasters are decreasing so there’s a limited amount of money, yet they want more. So budgets are going down but everything within the budget is increasing because of union agreements, whether it’s writers, directors or crew. So we struggle to survive.”

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Billions attracts millions, Midwife delivers

Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening
Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening

Pan-European pay TV broadcaster Sky has just announced that its Sky Atlantic channel will now be the exclusive home to programming from CBS’s premium US cable network Showtime in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Previously, Sky licensed select Showtime content on a case-by-case basis – one example being the excellent scripted series The Affair.

The deal is an important one for Sky, which is facing increased competition for content rights (and not just for drama) from the likes of BT, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (owner of Channel 5). It’s also significant for Showtime, which is keen to see its brand better known around the world. This deal gives it access to 21 million European pay TV households at a single stroke.

One of the titles included in the new deal is Billions, an ambitious drama set in the world of New York high finance. The show, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, has just debuted to strong audiences in the US.

David Nevins
David Nevins

According to Showtime, Billions is its best-ever launch, attracting 2.99 million viewers to its premiere. This is marginally more than Showtime’s previous best, which was Ray Donovan in 2013 with 2.91 million viewers.

Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “It’s a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter, the power of its stars and the brilliance of the show creators that Billions has had such a big start.”

The way Showtime derives its 2.99 million figure is an interesting snapshot of how viewing in the digital era is measured. Around 1.6 million of the viewing total was generated by a preview of the show that was offered to Showtime subscribers in advance. The other 1.4 million was the cumulative total for multiple broadcasts of the show on its premiere night (last Sunday). The first of these contributed around 900,000 to the evening’s 1.4 million total.

Notwithstanding this fragmented viewing pattern, the 2.99 million total is a very impressive launch for Billions. The show also got an 8.4 rating on IMDb, which suggests it is in good shape on the audience appreciation front. If it continues in the same vein across its first season of 12 episodes, it will fit in well among other strong Showtime series such as Shameless, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair and Penny Dreadful.

That would also be good news for Sky, which generally does well with Showtime titles – in fact, the two are coproducers on Penny Dreadful.

Call the Midwife's new season pulled in eight million viewers
Call the Midwife’s new season pulled in eight million viewers, two million more than its slot’s average

In recent weeks, we’ve flagged up a number of BBC UK dramas that have done well in the post-Christmas period. Today we can add another one following the successful return of Call the Midwife on Sunday evenings at 20.00.

Now in its fifth season, the show attracted an impressive eight million viewers. Although this is down a bit on the last couple of seasons, it is still well ahead of the slot average of six million. The show also does extremely well internationally, with BBC Worldwide having sold it to around 100 territories including the US, France and Australia.

The show is a classic example of how hyper-local subjects (midwives London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s) can appeal to global audiences if they contain strong stories and universal characters. It’s interesting to note as an aside that both Penny Dreadful and Call the Midwife are made by the same production company, Neal Street (now part of All3Media, which itself is owned by Discovery and Liberty Global).

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Still with the BBC, we took the view last week that anything above 4.5 million viewers for episode three of War & Peace would be a solid result. So the 5.1 million that tuned in represents a strong endorsement for the show.

The Andrew Davies adaptation also won numerous plaudits from the British press, with the Daily Telegraph giving it five stars and calling it “utterly captivating.” There’s no question that Davies’ writing is also benefiting from some terrific performances by the likes of Paul Dano, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton and everyone’s favourite fairytale princess Lily James. Being able to call on the likes of Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Ade Edmondson as supporting cast reinforces the credentials of the show yet further.

ITV, by contrast, has been having a more mixed time with its drama recently. After Jekyll & Hyde’s cancellation, the broadcaster’s latest fantasy epic, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, is also struggling to find its footing. The latest episode attracted two million viewers, which isn’t really enough for a mid-evening slot. The performance of the two shows raises questions about whether there is really room for fantasy drama in the heartland of free-to-air commercial primetime. Maybe fantasy works better when it is tucked away slightly out of sight on pay TV (the way it is in most mainstream bookshops).

Beowulf has started disappointingly
Beowulf has started disappointingly

ITV is, however, on much firmer ground with Victoria, its upcoming eight-part period drama written by novelist and erstwhile TV executive Daisy Goodwin. This week, PBS in the US announced it has acquired the show, which it will schedule in the slot formerly occupied by fellow ITV acquisition Downton Abbey.

The eight-part series, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Colema, follows Victoria from when she first becomes Queen in 1837 at the age of 18 through to her marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece strand, said: “Downton Abbey has proved that millions of viewers will turn up year after year for a beautifully crafted period drama. Victoria has it all: a riveting script, brilliant cast and spectacular locations. And it’s a true story. This is exactly the programming Masterpiece fans will love.”

Finally, an interesting story in the US regarding Netflix and Amazon ratings. The SVoD platforms are notorious for not releasing data on the performance of their shows. But Alan Wurtzel, head of research at rival NBCUniversal, provided some insight at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.

Krysten Ritter as the titular character in Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter plays the titular character in Netflix hit Jessica Jones

Using data from a company called Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel said that Netflix series Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million 18-49 viewers per episode in the 35 days after its November launch. By a similar count, Narcos attracted 3.2 million and Master of None attracted three million. Amazon’s critically acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle drew 2.1 million 18-49 viewers.

If these numbers are accurate, then all of the above shows would compare favourably with most US cable shows. No real surprise, then, that Jessica Jones has been given a second season.

That said, NBCU’s analysis must be handled carefully. In response to Wurtzel’s findings, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he hoped NBC didn’t “spend any money” on the Symphony research since it was “really remarkably inaccurate data.” However, people will keep speculating until Netflix finally decides to reveals some numbers itself.

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