Ever since finding success with Shameless, Paul Abbott has felt like he’s been “getting away with murder.”
Despite Abbott gaining numerous credits beforehand, the Channel 4 comedy-drama about the working-class Gallagher family allowed the writer to find his feet with a show that would run for 11 seasons in the UK, while its US remake is still going strong after 10 years.
In this DQTV interview, Abbott talks about the vital balance between comedy and drama in the series, and why a growing reputation as the ‘Laureate of white sliced bread’ led him to write political thriller State of Play.
He also talks about turning the crime genre on its head with police procedural No Offence, reveals the secrets of his writing process and explains why the television industry should do more to bring through new writers.
As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.
For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.
But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.
Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.
It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.
Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.
Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.
The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.
The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.
Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”
Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.
The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.
Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.
“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”
Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”
Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.
Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.
But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.
Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.
Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.
Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”
As Channel 4’s genre-defying cop show No Offence returns for its second season, DQ hears from the cast and creator about the strength of its female characters and striking the show’s unique tone.
It’s hard to imagine there are many laughs to be found in a show centring on the hunt for a deranged killer who targets young girls with Down’s syndrome.
Yet somehow the team behind No Offence managed to pepper the first season of the Channel 4 series with comedy moments. That they did so without detracting from or trivialising the hard-hitting subject matter, or creating an awkwardly mishmash tone, was all the more impressive.
The police procedural comedy drama, whose debut outing was a major ratings hit for C4 in 2015, returns to UK screens tonight, with DI Deering (Joanna Scanlan) and her team of detectives back to tackle criminals on the streets of Manchester.
This time around, a pair of warring crime families take centre stage, with the first episode beginning with a bang – quite literally, thanks to a huge explosion in the opening minutes.
Creator and writer Paul Abbott, perhaps best known as the man behind the original UK version of Shameless, which also ran on C4 and has since spawned a hit US version, admits getting No Offence’s unique tone right is a continuous challenge.
“It’s a very tight bandwidth to try to pin down, but when we did, we fired. It was great,” says Abbott, who assembled a writers’ room for the show. “You’ve no idea until you hit it – and it’s very hard to describe what that moment is.”
With No Offence’s first run tackling topics including honour killings, racism and drugs, one could forgive executives at C4 for feeling a bit shaky about some of its storylines – especially when comedy is being added to such a hefty mix. But Abbott praises the channel’s flexibility.
“We’ve had to calibrate certain storylines where Channel 4 didn’t like the way we’d approached the story, and that wasn’t rude to say – it was a very sensitive story,” he explains.
This season, controversial subjects include female genital mutilation, and Abbott says no topic was off-limits. “You have to negotiate your way through. We went round it all and we basically found a very grown-up, intelligent way through it. We didn’t have to back down on anything.”
Will Mellor, who plays DC Spike Tanner, picks up: “That’s the show, though. We don’t pull punches. There are certain shops that put this box set in the comedy section!
“I was thinking, could you imagine going to the wife and saying, ‘Let’s watch something really funny tonight – season one of No Offence.’ Then one minute you’re [seeing someone] dragging a Down’s syndrome girl out of a river and the next there’s someone getting sucked off in a bush.
“Where can you put this show? There’s no genre for it. I don’t think it’s a comedy, but what is it? That’s why I think it’s genius.”
Scanlan admits to having trouble finding the right balance in her performance. “Tone is the hardest thing to nail on the show. When we were shooting, I didn’t really know what the character was until I saw what was done in the edit. I was never certain who she was, because that tone is so very particular, and it was nerve wracking,” says the actor, adding she felt much more comfortable the second time around.
“It’s got a flavour unlike anything else,” she continues. “You’re taking the story seriously and the characters’ set of coordinates really seriously, but there is also some levity in it and some lightness. It’s an odd confection.”
Scanlan’s no-nonsense, authoritative Deering is just one of several terrifically written leading female characters in No Offence – another thing that makes the show stand out.
The most notable addition to this season’s cast is Rakie Ayola as the fearsome Nora Attah, matriarch of the Attah crime family, while Elaine Cassidy (DC Dinah Kowalski) and Alexandra Roach (DS Joy Freers) both reprise their leading roles from season one.
Asked how he manages to write such compelling female parts, Abbott’s response is typically wry. “People ask me why I write women so well, but they don’t ask other writers why they’re such lazy fuckers,” he says.
“As women get older in this industry, I realised really early on as a writer that, if you write really good parts for women, you get the best available, because they all think there’s nothing left for them.
“All the females in the show, whatever axis they come from, they’re all defined as people you’d take out for a pint. The whole point is to attract the male viewers as well, and not by changing the politics of the show, just by making unmissable females.”
Scanlan believes Abbott is “just reflecting reality” in terms of the female presence in police forces. And, reinforcing the writer’s comment about parts for older women, she says: “I feel lucky in that I’m part of the generation who, in the eighties, might have thought we’d run out of road by now.
“I’m not sure we’re making a programme about gender politics, we’re making a programme about a family. Deering plays this matriarchal role but she also plays a sort of patriarchal role. She’s mum and dad in one.”
It’s not just in front of the camera where women have a strong presence in No Offence, with no fewer than three females among those who took to the directors’ chair in season two.
In addition to Catherine Morshead (Doctor Who), who directed several episodes of the first season, Deutschland 83 director Samira Radsi and Sara O’Gorman (New Tricks) have helmed new episodes.
Meanwhile, although the cast believe No Offence is a realistic depiction of police work, what do real-life police officers – like Abbott’s son, Tom – think?
“They love it, and I love phoning Tom because he’s a writer as well. When I phone him, I don’t get the kind of research question back – he knows exactly how I’m trying to squeeze in something that really shouldn’t fit. He gives me an intelligent perspective on how we can make it fit for us. It’s very useful.”
Furthermore, Mellor’s brother-in-law acts as police advisor to the show. “He told me about the script before I was even in it!” the actor says. “He was like, ‘Ooh, it’s good, this. There’s some good stuff in here.’ I know he loved it as well. He’s in CID [Criminal Investigation Department] and he advises on all the scripts.”
But despite the help on offer from the real thing, Abbott reveals No Offence – produced by the writer’s own AbbottVision and distributed by FremantleMedia International – is one of the hardest shows he’s ever had to write.
“Every single episode had umpteen drafts beyond what I thought we would need,” he says. “You have to accurately and, with all dignity, write a procedural cop show at the same time as you’re trying to be subversive and witty and to occupy that yawning space that isn’t always there.
“You wring yourself mad in the mornings trying to climb back into a scene. But when you do, and it’s speaking for itself in its own overcoat, we can all fly.”
In honour of ITV’s Brit noir series Marcella, DQ looks at some of the women detectives who have helped reinvigorate a genre that used to be the preserve of cantankerous middle-aged men.
When ITV launched the excellent Prime Suspect in 1991, female coppers were still a novelty on UK television. But these days it seems as though the entire police system is in the hands of no-nonsense women taking on a world of desensitised or deranged male bastards.
When they aren’t dealing with criminals, they generally have to contend with the fact that their husbands and colleagues are also a) psychotic, b) philanderers or c) perversely obstructive.
For the most part, the female cop formula seems to be working, with little indication as yet that the UK audience is getting bored by it.
Despite its various structural flaws, ITV’s Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has just finished its eight-part run with a solid audience of around five million and looks like a decent bet for a season two renewal.
Other female cops who have secured a strong fanbase include DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) in Broadchurch, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley, DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty and Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall, which returns for a third season this year.
And it doesn’t end there. Other female crimefighters include the cast of Channel 4’s No Offence and Detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. The latter, which starred Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, finished this April.
Without exception, all of these shows have achieved good to great ratings. Sometimes this is down to the writing, but more often than not it feels as though the real secret of their success is the quality of the female leads. All of the above shows have been graced with exceptional acting performances that make you stay loyal even if the wider production starts to lose its direction.
Based on IMDb scores, Marcella doesn’t actually fare that well, scoring 7.1. This is probably a reflection of the gaps in the plot, which caused a lot of angst on social media platforms like Twitter. Much stronger are shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall and Line of Duty, which achieved scores in the 8.3 to 8.5 range.
With the general success of female cops, it’s no surprise that ITV is going back to its Prime Suspect franchise with Tennison. This show, from Lynda La Plante, imagines the central character, Jane Tennison, as a young woman starting out on her career. Set in Hackney in the 1970s, it recreates a world where women police constables are treated with suspicion by their male colleagues.
The female cop theme is not, of course, restricted to the UK. It has played a big part in the emergence of Nordic noir as a global force. Writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who gaves us Marcella, previously introduced us to Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in his acclaimed Danish/Swedish copro The Bridge. And this then gave rise to UK/France copro The Tunnel, where viewers have been beguiled by feisty French cop Elise Wassermann (Clemence Poesy).
Equally important has been Danish broadcaster DR’s The Killing, which saw Sofie Grabol playing DI Sarah Lund. This was adapted for the US, where Grabol’s role was played by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.
In France, meanwhile, audiences on public broadcaster France Télévisions have recently been introduced to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses (Les Temoins). More mainstream is Candice Renoir, about a French police commandant, played by Cecile Bois, who solves crimes in the South of France. The show has also secured a number of sales around Europe.
The US, of course, has never been afraid to place female cops on the frontline – think back to Cagney & Lacey or Angie Dickinson as Sergeant ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman. More recently the mantle of number one tough female cop has been taken up by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in NBC’s long-running procedural Law & Order: SVU. The character of Benson has appeared in 385 episodes of the show and risen to become commanding officer of the SVU division.
Angie Harmon, as Jane Rizzoli in TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, is another who deserves to be given a medal for services to the TV industry. Among the new female cops is Harlee Santos, a single-mother NYPD detective played by Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.
Countries where female cops are not so prominent include Germany and Italy, where the chaps still get to solve most crimes. But even here there are a few exceptions.
One is Charlotte Lindholm, a detective in the Hanover-set production of ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort. She has been played by Maria Furtwangler since 2002, making her something of a German TV icon. Italy, meanwhile, gave us Donna Detective, in which Detective Lisa Milani (played by Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere) requests a desk job in a small town outside of Rome in order to spend more time with her family. As luck would have it, she gets called back to assist with a major case and is placed in charge of an entire investigative squad in the capital.
The clear message from all of the above is that female cops have reinvigorated the detective genre, creating a new kind of character-based complexity around ideas like work-family balance, competing in what is perceived to be a man’s world, tackling problems from a female perspective and demonstrating skill sets that run counter to traditional assumptions.
What’s missing, perhaps, is a black or Asian female lead. There have been fleeting sightings (in US shows like Southland, The Wire, Rogue and Deception). But as yet there is nothing comparable to the breakthrough made by Idris Elba in BBC hit series Luther.
Given the recent strength of British broadcasters in the female cop genre, this is an area where they should really bite the bullet.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik attended the C21 Drama Summit in London last Autumn, he talked about wanting to grow his channel’s subscriber base by targeting underserved audiences. Citing an example, he explained how Starz would reach out to the female audience with Outlander, a historical time-travel scripted series based on the best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon.
The first 16-part series of Outlander concluded at the end of last month. And while its final two episodes focused on tough subjects such as brutality, torture and male rape, the series has achieved its objectives. With Zap2it referring to Outlander as “Game of Thrones for Soccer Moms,” the show has attracted an average of around 2.5 million women per episode. What’s more, Nielsen estimates 64% more women than men watch the show, which is an unusual profile for a fantasy-based project.
A number of factors explain Outlander’s female appeal. At a superficial level, it helps that the show has a hunky male lead in the shape of Sam Heughan (similar to Poldark in the UK). But more important is the fact the show is told from a female perspective, with a romantic narrative and solid moral values at its heart. Contrast that with Game of Thrones, which (brilliant though it is) is fundamentally a story about power and patriarchy, in which the women are either are either damsels in distress, psychotic megalomaniacs or exotic mystics. Even the women that run counter to gender stereotype (Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte) are all recognisable female subsets of the fantasy genre.
So Outlander has done its job, the reward for which is a second series that will have a minimum of 13 episodes. Should that also prove successful, it could run and run – because there are currently nine books in the series. Internationally, the show is distributed Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has sold the title to an estimated 87 territories across Latin America and Europe.
Quite a few of SPT’s deals are with SVoD players such as Clarovideo, Viaplay, Sohu and Lightbox, so it’s not easy to get a sense of how well the show has resonated with audiences outside the US. But there are a couple of indications that Outlander can travel in space as well as time. In Canada, for example, it attracted almost one million viewers per episode for specialty channel Showcase. Reinforcing the results from the US, it has been the number-one specialty programme among women aged 25 to 54 this year. In Australia, meanwhile, it debuted strongly for Foxtel’s drama channel Soho in autumn 2014, delivering the second highest audience of the year.
An interesting side story is that Outlander also generates a lot of social media traffic. For the first season, Starz ran eight episodes and then gave the show a break. It then brought the show back on April 4 (episode 9 – aka the mid-season premiere). When it did, the show trended on Facebook for more than 12 hours. It also ranked second in Nielsen Ratings for Twitter conversation volume among all television series on premiere day, and trended at number five on Twitter during Saturday’s 21.00 ET/PT premiere screening.
This fits a wider pattern. Most social media stats in the last couple of years have supported the thesis that women use Facebook and Twitter more than men to talk about TV shows (both before and during transmission). So there’s clearly the potential for an audience amplification effect if you can get women to take ownership of a scripted series – because they are then more likely to champion it via social media than men are.
Another show that demonstrates the cross-platform power of female-centric shows is ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which returned for a sixth season earlier this week. Although the new season kicked off with slightly lower ratings than in previous years, it remains one of the top shows in the US among females aged 12-49. It’s also a social media phenomenon, with new stats showing it has topped 110 million tweets, 2.6 million Instagram followers, one million Snapchat friends and 13 million Facebook fans.
Lest men should start to feel there’s no room for them in the living room with all this fem-centric drama, let’s turn to the History channel’s testosterone-fuelled Western Texas Rising, which secured five million and 4.1 million viewers for its first two episodes (May 25, May 26, Live+3 ratings) respectively. According to History, this is “the best cable miniseries start in Live+3 since The Bible.”
Directed by Roland Joffé and starring Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez, Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media. It is distributed outside the US by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. In terms of its editorial setup, History has clearly struck gold with Bill Paxton, an articulate and charming actor who was at MipTV to help promote the show. He previously starred in Hatfield & McCoys, another storming success for History. In terms of where History is going next with its dramas, try reading Clive Whittingham’s Q&A with Dirk Hoogstra, the general manager of History and H2.
A couple of weeks ago we expressed our concern that the BBC’s period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might not recover from a modest opening on May 17. Episode two on May 24 confirmed these fears, with the show sliding from 4.5 million to 2.6 million. Already lagging behind the average for its slot (Sunday 2100), the seven-part series will struggle to regain momentum.
Channel 4’s offbeat procedural No Offence, penned by Paul Abbott, is also drifting. Having started strongly with 2.5 million (way ahead of the slot average), episode four recorded the series’ lowest rating to date at just under 1.3 million (though there’s no information yet about any boost from time-shifted viewing).
Hopefully, the No Offence’s ratings have now bottomed out, because it would be good to see a second series. Abbot and his US-style writing team have created a distinctive piece of work, which centres on a strong group of female characters who are not constantly having to justify their status to male colleagues. The show, which has attracted positive reviews in the UK, has also introduced a superb cast of Down’s syndrome actors. All in all, it’s done enough to deserve a second bow.
In scripted terms, the next few weeks are important for Channel 4. Aside from the climax of No Offence, it has the launch of Humans to look forward to. Based on the acclaimed Swedish drama Real Humans, it imagines a world in which families own ‘synths,’ highly developed, artificially intelligent servants. Produced by Kudos, the eight-part series will air on C4 on June 14. It will then air on AMC in the US on June 28.
The original version ran on SVT in Sweden for two seasons (20 episodes total). The last episode aired in February 2014 and there has been no news since about whether a third series will be greenlit, though there is an outline and scripts should SVT decide to revive the production. Real Humans has sold to 50 countries worldwide, but has not hit English-language markets yet, presumably because of fears it will interfere with the launch of the English language spin-off.
Australia could really do with a domestic drama hit. While 2014 saw success for public broadcaster ABC with Playmaker Media’s six-part thriller The Code, 2015 has witnessed a disastrous outing for Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli and a lacklustre response to Hiding, another scripted series from the Playmaker/ABC alliance.
Gallipoli is a seven-part drama that ran on Nine Network in February and March. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the famous Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, it saw its ratings slide from 1.1 million for episode one to a meagre 0.35 million for episode seven.
An obvious assumption would be that the show wasn’t very good, but that view is rejected by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which called it a “benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values. This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding.”
The SMH, among others, suggested that a poor slot in the schedule (Mondays at 21.00) did Gallipoli no favours. But it went on to argue that there is perhaps a deeper problem. “Australians have been eager adopters of prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bows down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian programme, some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.”
Hiding, which also aired earlier this spring, followed a Gold Coast family forced to enter witness protection in Sydney. After Playmaker’s success with The Code, there were high expectations for the show, which – like Gallipoli – met good reviews from sections of the media. The Australian Newspaper said: “Creator Matt Ford’s show is imaginative, clever and mordantly funny, and the ABC deserves a round of applause for giving him the stage.”
Unfortunately, the audience didn’t bite. In February and March, Hiding was attracting around 330,000 viewers in Australian’s top five cities (a standard ratings measure from ratings panel OzTam) – having debuted with around 730,000 for its opening episode. While this was similar in scale to Fortitude (also airing on ABC), it was around half the audience pulled in by UK crime series Broadchurch (634,000 on ABC). Even further ahead were Grantchester and Downton Abbey (both ABC), underlining the fact that UK and US imports both tend to outperform domestic drama.
There’s another angle to this debate worth noting: ABC, the main investor in original Australian drama, has an ageing audience, with a median viewer age of 63. What it would like to do is use its drama budget to bring this age down (hence Hiding). But the existing audience is perfectly content with the likes of Downton Abbey.
This age issue created a conundrum for ABC regarding Mrs Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a beautifully crafted period drama that attracted audiences of around one million in its first two series. Despite the high ratings, the show attracts an older audience – so ABC decided not to commission a third series last year. However, viewer outcry forced a change of heart, and a third run begins this week.
For ABC it will be a mixed blessing if the show draws barnstorming ratings because it will run counter to the bigger ambition of bringing the network age down (though All3Media International will be happy because it sells the show to international markets).
It’s not obvious where the next Aussie hit will come from, but at least there is one quality drama to look forward to. Coming soon to ABC is The Secret River, a two-part series based on the novel by Kate Grenville. It follows the story of young couple, William and Sal Thornhill, who are transported to the new colony of New South Wales in 1805. The show will explore the colonisation of Australia and the escalating conflict between the Indigenous inhabitants and the newly arrived white convicts and settlers.
The Secret River is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for many Aussies, so don’t expect huge ratings. Ironically, however, it will probably do well if it travels as far as the UK, where Jimmy McGovern’s Aussie convict period drama Banished recently finished a successful run on BBC2. The show’s debut episode attracted 3.4 million, giving BBC2 an unlikely ratings victory over BBC1 and ITV. It then went on to average a respectable 2.9 million over seven weeks. The Guardian’s assessment of Banished was that it was “historically fascinating… romantic, sentimental. Funny too.”
Also in the UK, the big drama ratings story of the week was the launch of Paul Abbott’s provocative police procedural No Offence on Channel 4. With an opening episode rating of 2.5 million, the show was well ahead of the slot average (1.5 million) and marginally ahead of the debut audience for Shameless (2.3 million), Abbot’s biggest hit to date. Given the success of Shameless (which spawned 11 series in the UK and gave birth to a successful US remake on Showtime), C4 will be hoping No Offence has the same staying power.
No Offence’s strong opening is also good news for FremantleMedia International (FMI), which is selling it internationally. So far it has done deals with DR in Denmark and – wait for it – ABC in Australia. Perhaps this is the show (albeit British) that will help give the broadcaster the younger profile it is seeking. After No Offence’s opening, FMI will be confident of further sales, with CEO Jens Richter saying: “No Offence is crime on steroids – it’s gripping, daring and a great reflection of Paul Abbott’s remarkable talents.”
As we’ve noted in other columns, this time of year is also important for US networks in terms of renewals, cancellations and the decision to take shows from pilot to series. We’ll look at this subject again on Monday in our Greenlight column.
For now, though, congratulations to Nashville, which has just secured a fourth season on ABC. With consolidated ratings in the 6.5-7 million range, the show is not a standout performer, but it does have two things on its side: firstly, it’s extremely popular with women aged 18 to 49; secondly, it’s reached the tipping point in terms of appealing to the lucrative US syndication market.
The general rule is that scripted shows that get to four seasons have enough episodes (85-100) to be attractive to syndication. So it is virtually unheard of for shows to be cancelled after three seasons. However, the issue might not be so clear-cut next year – ABC’s Revenge has just been cancelled after four seasons. So May 2016 is more likely to be the moment of truth for Nashville.