Tag Archives: Scream Queens

Drama wades into class war

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

There’s a hint of a new editorial trend in scripted TV. It involves stories about crony capitalism’s worst excesses and the people trying to do something about it, whether through orthodox legal channels or some form of anarchic or vigilante subversion.

Earlier this year, for example, we saw the launch of Danmarks Radio (DR)’s Follow the Money, a story about “speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.” Then there was Mr Robot, USA Network’s exploration of the battle between anarchist hackers and corporate America.

At Mipcom, Showtime debuted Billions, its take on the face-off between Wall Street’s big money-makers and government regulators.

And now we have Watchdog, a drama from Jason Winer and Jon Caren about a team of vigilante activists who expose abuses of power while evading the FBI (The A-Team with a social conscience, maybe). A script has been picked up by US broadcast network Fox, with the resultant series intended to be a procedural.

It is the second major collaboration between Winer and Care, who also developed The System, a show about the criminal justice system, for Fox.

Other new dramas this week included Roadies, a one-hour comedy from Cameron Crowe (We Bought a Zoo, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire). Destined to air as a pilot in 2016 (with a view to becoming a series), the show is about a rock band’s team of roadies. Crowe will write and direct, while JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot is producing.

Billions is coming to Showtime
Billions is coming to Showtime

Winnie Holzman, who is executive producing alongside Crowe, said: “I’ve long wanted to work with JJ and Winnie, and coming together to tell these stories has been beyond a blast. Showtime has a great track record with music-based projects, and they’ve been wonderful partners.”

Meanwhile, ITV CEO Adam Crozier used a keynote speech at Mipcom earlier this month to explain how his company has invested heavily in increasing its drama output in both the European and US market – and this week the company’s US production division, ITV Studios America, underlined its ambition by optioning crime novel Bull Mountain.

Brian Panowich’s book centres on a small-town sheriff trying to distance himself from his family’s criminal empire. Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds, Crossing Lines) has been brought in as showrunner and will write the script for the pilot.

Sticking with the US, cable channel Syfy is in the midst of a huge creative revamp. Having axed Haven and Helix earlier in the year, it has now brought an end to Dominion and Defiance. Syfy said the latter was a “truly groundbreaking series, delivering an immersive, cross-platform experience that transcended the television screen in a way that viewers had never seen before.”

Unfortunately, not enough people were watching it, which is the same reason Dominion has been dropped.

In addition to this cancellation bloodbath, Continuum and Lost Girl are also coming to an end on the channel, all of which begs the question – what’s left?

Well, there have been renewals for 12 Monkeys, Killjoys, Dark Matter and Bitten – and there has also been a slew of new commissions. Among these is Childhood’s End, an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s iconic novel about the peaceful invasion of Earth by the alien Overlords, “who promise to eliminate poverty, war and sickness – ushering in a golden age of peace, health and security for all of humankind.” There is, of course, a catch, revealed over six hours across three nights.

The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as 'Harry Potter for adults'
The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as ‘Harry Potter for adults’

Childhood’s End is part of the recent trend towards promotable event miniseries aimed at building buzz around the channel. But it isn’t a long-term answer to Syfy’s wave of cancellations.

Instead, the new titles on which Syfy seems to be pinning its hopes are space opera/police thriller The Expanse, sci-fi/espionage hybrid Hunters and The Magicians, a 12-part series based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling fantasy trilogy. The books have described as Harry Potter for adults.

The latter, due in early 2016, joins the current trend towards fantasy adventure series (probably inspired by HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones). Other titles in the swords and/or sorcery subgenre include Sonar Entertainment’s The Shannara Chronicles (for MTV), ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, FX’s The Bastard Executioner, BBC2/BBC America’s The Last Kingdom, AMC’s Into The Badlands and Starz/FremantleMedia’s American Gods.

Elsewhere, there are reports that US showrunner Ryan Murphy (Glee, Scream Queens, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) is planning a new anthology series called One Hit Wonders that may star Gwyneth Paltrow.

The show would be a musical drama/comedy about a group of women who each had hit songs in the 1990s coming together to form a supergroup. One Hit Wonders has been knocking around for a while as a movie concept but now looks set to come to the small screen.

Murphy’s Scream Queens is not rating very well at the moment, with cancellation rumours in the air after just five episodes on Fox. But another first-time Fox show that is in pretty good shape is Rosewood. There’s no question the series has benefited from being scheduled after breakout hit Empire, but Fox has clearly seen enough already to be impressed. This week, it ordered an additional nine episodes, taking the total run for the first series to 22.

Sweden's Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US
Sweden’s Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US

“Rosewood has proven to be a real self-starter for us, which is a tremendous feat on this highly competitive night,” explained Fox entertainment president David Madden.

US network ABC is also remaking a Swedish comedy-drama Small Town Love, which was a big hit for TV4, following a deal with distributor Nordic World.

The series, set in the small town of Molkom in Värmland, begins when Anette, a dinner lady, is replaced by a coffee machine and plunged into unemployment. She decides to start a nail salon and hires her daughter as financial manager. Pretty soon, it turns out that both Anette and her daughter are pregnant and that their two deadbeat boyfriends are intending to move into Annette’s tiny townhouse. The show has been commissioned for a second season that will air sometime in 2016.

Finally, in the world of international distribution, an upcoming BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager is proving popular among buyers. Tele München Gruppe has acquired rights to the miniseries for German-speaking Europe, while Bonnier-owned TV4 and C More will air it in the continent’s Nordic territories. Elsewhere, DR in Denmark, Sky Italia, TV3 in New Zealand and BBC First and SBS in Australia will all air the miniseries. Starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, it follows a former British soldier as he uncovers a secret arms trade.

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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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Bringing the ratings picture into focus

Empire's season two debut brought in 16.2 million viewers
Empire’s season two debut brought in an unassailable 16.2 million viewers

Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.

As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.

The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.

Fox's pathology drama Rosewood
Fox’s pathology drama Rosewood

 

Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).

There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.

US network TNT is cancelling Proof
US network TNT is cancelling Proof

Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.

From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.

The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.

Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience
Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience

So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.

CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.

Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper's presence
Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper’s presence

The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.

After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).

Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.

Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever
Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever

Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots

As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.

Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.

The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”

Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.

Doctor Who's season debut rated well in the US
Doctor Who’s season debut rated well in the US

 

The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”

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Just like starting over: The growth of anthology series

From American Horror Story and Black Mirror to True Detective and The Missing, it’s clear anthology series are back in a big way. DQ examines the reasons behind the revival, and wonders whether anthologies are here for the long run.

There was a time when television channels were awash with drama anthologies, the most iconic of which was Rod Serling’s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone.

Broadcast on CBS in the US between 1959 and 1964, it featured a number of young actors who would later become global film and TV stars, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and William Shatner.

There were two revivals for The Twilight Zone, in the late 1980s and in 2002/2003. But the TV industry had largely turned its back on anthologies by the 1980s in favour of movies, miniseries/serials and returning series.

The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS
The Twilight Zone led the way for the anthology format as early as 1959 on CBS

By the 1990s and 2000s, miniseries and serials were also on the back foot, with both the US and the international TV business increasingly focused on long-running episodic or procedural drama franchises such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy and House.

Episodic dramas still occupy primetime slots on many free-to-air channels in the US and Europe. But the last few years have seen another shift in the scripted TV industry’s centre of gravity.

With cable channels and subscription VoD platforms now major investors in drama, a parallel system – also involving public broadcasters like the BBC – has emerged that has reinvigorated the miniseries/serials format. Unlike episodic drama, the emphasis here is on single story arcs that stretch across a number of episodes.

A number of intertwined factors explain this revival of the miniseries/serial, including the heightened competition between broadcasters, says MGM president of international TV distribution Chris Ottinger.

“US cable channels see scripted shows as a way to stand out from their rivals, but there are now so many of them greenlighting shows that they need to go after the very best in terms of acting, writing and producing talent,” he says. “That talent is willing to work on TV but can’t commit to huge volumes of episodes or lots of seasons because of their busy schedules. That’s why we’re seeing projects with a specified end point, or with fewer numbers of episodes per season.”

At the same time, the fear of missing episodes that often underpins the episodic series format has receded, Ottinger notes. With more people time-shifting shows or binge-watching online, the notion of a drama series with a season-long story arc has come back into vogue.

Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters 'a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding'
Mowbray: Anthologies offer broadcasters ‘a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding’

SVT head of programme acquisitions Stephen Mowbray says audiences, like on-screen talent, enjoy the fact they do not have to commit vast chunks of their life to a single show.

“There is so much good stuff out there that audiences welcome the fact that some dramas finish after eight or 10 episodes, instead of demanding a five-year commitment,” he explains.

“For the audience, anthologies promise a well-written show with a great cast and a finite end. And for the broadcaster, they can also develop into a recognisable, returnable franchise with strong branding.”

Mowbray cites the example of True Detective (main image), the HBO series created by Nic Pizzolatto. “We aired it on SVT and it did very well, so we have acquired season two,” he says. “In season one, the audience saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in an excellent piece of TV. In season two, they then get to see Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in a new story. But even though the characters and the locations change, they kind of know what to expect, which is of benefit to the broadcaster’s schedule.”

Mowbray’s assessment is echoed by All3Media International head of acquisitions Maartje Horchner, whose company distributes The Missing, one of the few non-US anthologies on the market. It is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC One and US premium cable network Starz.

“In story terms, the main connection between the two series is that someone goes missing,” says Horchner. “But a lot of broadcasters that acquired season one have pre-bought season two, because they know they will get something similar. They know the writers and producers, so they are comfortable.”

Horchner also believes anthologies can make things easier for creative teams: “They have more freedom. Sometimes if the first season of a drama has been a success, the audience expectation is so high it is hard for writers to deliver with the same cast and situation. The anthology approach can take some of that pressure off the creative talent.”

Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, dates the revival of the anthology series to 2011 – and sees it as part of the trend towards serials/limited series.

American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style
American Horror Story has been credited with reigniting the anthology style

“The modern-day anthology series was invented by Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story,” he asserts. “Traditionally we were very scared of that sort of show. As a programmer, we want long-running series. The miniseries died 20 years ago and never returned, but now it has as limited series. They enable you to tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.”

Season one of American Horror Story, subtitled Murder House, was a big hit for FX. And it quickly became clear that Murphy had hit on something significant. In 2012, FX CEO John Landgraf said: “The notion of doing an anthological series of miniseries with a repertory cast has proven groundbreaking, wildly successful and will be trendsetting.”

American Horror Story is still running, with season four’s Freak Show among this year’s Emmy nominees. Season five, Hotel, will include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell in its cast, underlining the flexibility of anthology drama casting.

As predicted by Landgraf, American Horror Story has set a trend. FX is lining up American Crime Story, another Ryan Murphy franchise. Its first season is called The People v OJ Simpson and will star Cuba Gooding Jr (as Simpson), John Travolta and David Schwimmer.

FX also airs Fargo, an MGM-produced drama serial that uses the same bleak, icy backdrop for seasons one and two “but tells different stories, set in distinct time periods,” explains Ottinger. “While season one starred Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, season two features Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.”

Other cable channels are also getting interested in this trend. Heading to Syfy is Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which Dawn Olmstead, exec VP of development at Universal Cable Productions, calls a “season-long imaginative and chilling horror anthology.”

Starz is also anthologising. Having previously acquired The Missing and The White Queen, its big project for the autumn is The Girlfriend Experience, based on the movie by Steven Soderbergh.

The network has given a 13-episode order to the project, which explores the world of high-end escorts. Written by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, it will take the form of an anthology.

Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik says: “We were captivated by the idea of two people attempting to control intimacy. It seemed to fit the modern age with the way social media has created a disconnect around direct human contact.

“Stephen proposed a season-long story arc and that made sense for us, with the prospect of a new season and a different cast and story. It’s great for optionality and great for storytelling.”

Zlotnik also shares Mowbray’s view that the anthology approach “suits audiences that like to know the length of the commitment they are going to have to make to a show.”

The first wave of anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, for obvious reasons, on free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters rather than cable broadcasters. So would it be possible for these new scripted anthologies to work on mainstream networks?

That depends on the show, says Mowbray. For example, US cable anthologies have limited potential for distribution on international FTA networks because of their adult-oriented content.

“Notwithstanding our success with True Detective, the sex and violence in US cable shows means they can’t usually play on FTA channels, especially in primetime. In our case we put US cable shows in 22.00 slots,” he says.

Ottinger agrees, explaining that it was clear from the outset that the critically acclaimed Fargo would be best suited to pay TV and subscription VoD. “We did deals with a few FTA broadcasters like Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia. But Fargo’s subject matter and format made it more appropriate for premium platforms,” he says.

By contrast, The Missing first aired on the BBC so its less graphic formula opened up a broader mix of homes internationally, says Horchner. These range from Starz and Spanish subscription VoD platform Movistar to FTA broadcasters such as TF1 France, TV2 Norway, DR in Denmark and TVNZ in New Zealand.

The prospect of scripted anthologies appearing on free networks may increase in 2016. After FX’s success with the format, for example, its FTA sister channel Fox has also ordered an anthology series from Ryan Murphy.

Called Scream Queens, it is a comedy-horror series that will debut this autumn. Once it is on air, it will give a better indication as to whether anthologies can work for mainstream audiences.

NBC is also getting into the anthology game with Manhunt, a 10-part series to be directed by Gavin Hood. The plan is that each season of Manhunt will dramatise the mounting tension of a city as the authorities hunt for a fugitive roaming the streets at large. There are high expectations regarding the casting on this show, something that will then play into its international marketability.

Currently the US is driving the anthology trend. Aside from The Missing, the most prominent international example is critically acclaimed Australian series Underbelly, which tackled gangland culture across five seasons, starting with the modern day before covering a range of eras including the Roaring Twenties.

Channel 4’s teen drama Skins also used the anthology approach, replacing its cast three times over the course of a six-season lifespan. And there is a quasi-anthology feel to the upcoming second season of Top of the Lake, which will keep star Elizabeth Moss but will move the action from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, for a new mystery.

Horchner hasn’t seen many non-US anthologies come across her desk. Her view is that “the market outside the US is more conservative. If we do see more anthologies it will probably be because season one worked well, so the broadcaster decides after the event to bring the show back – not planned anthologies like the US examples. But that may change if The Missing season two does well.”

Payne: 'Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore'
Payne: ‘Audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore’

It’s also worth noting that old-style anthologies were episode-to-episode, whereas the new wave is season-to-season. A rare attempt to recapture the golden era of episodic anthologies is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, described by Endemol (the owner of Black Mirror prodco Zeppotron) as “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.”

Comprising seven standalone stories, Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 and “has sold better than we anticipated,” says Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne. “The first episode has a plot about a prime minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, which gave us a few reservations. But it was picked up by SBS Australia, France 4 in France, TNT in Germany, SVT in Sweden, DirecTV and Netflix in the US and SkyTV in New Zealand, among others.”

Like her peers, Payne says anthologies allow for some amazing casting options. “Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was a fan of the show,” she reveals. “He got in touch and ended up in the Christmas special (the most recent of the seven episodes).”

While Payne doesn’t expect episodic anthologies to be in as much demand as seasonal anthologies, she says nothing can really be ruled out: “TV viewing habits have changed so much that audiences will watch anything that is good – they don’t care about format anymore.”

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NBC continues age of Aquarius

NBC took a 'unique approach' to delivering Aquarius
NBC is pleased with the results of its ‘unique approach’ to delivering Aquarius

NBC has greenlit a second season of its 1960s-set drama Aquarius, starring David Duchovny as an LAPD cop on the hunt for Charles Manson. The renewal follows an innovative launch strategy, which saw Aquarius become the first broadcast series to be streamed in its entirety following its debut, with NBC making all 12 episodes available online for the four weeks following the initial NBC telecast.

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “With its riveting drama and innovative release strategy, Aquarius has excited the critics, hooked millions of viewers and energised our summer. It’s no secret that the way people watch television is evolving, so we took a unique approach to how we delivered Aquarius. It has driven some record numbers for NBC Digital and helped us reach viewers who might have otherwise overlooked a great summer drama.”

Robert Hayes, exec VP of NBC Entertainment Digital, added: “Beyond generating impressive view totals, the network’s release strategy with Aquarius helped us gain new insights into viewership patterns, bingeing behaviour and social engagement, expanding our knowledge of how people are watching our shows online.”

At the time of writing, Aquarius is six episodes into its first run and doesn’t seem to have suffered from NBC’s novel release approach. Traditional broadcasts of Aquarius are averaging a 1.2 rating in adults aged 18 to 49 and 5.8 million viewers overall. The show is also indexing well in time-shifted viewing and has generated a steady stream of social media requests in support of renewal.

The success of the series owes a lot to Duchovny, who continues to be one of the most bankable TV series stars. After almost a decade as male lead in The X-Files, he fronted Showtime’s Californication for seven seasons until 2014. With Aquarius proving that Duchovny hasn’t lost his mojo, it will add to the excitement around the upcoming revival of The X-Files (which will also star the equally reliable Gillian Anderson).

The renewal is welcome news for ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which has invested heavily in the distribution rights to US scripted series over the last couple of years. It has already done a deal with Seven Network in Australia for Aquarius but will now be better placed to do business with more episodes.

Arthur Conan Doyle (left) and Houdini are heading to ITV Encore
Arthur Conan Doyle (left) and Houdini are heading to ITV Encore

The last week has also seen yet another commission rooted in the literary mythology surrounding Arthur Conan Doyle and his iconic creation Sherlock Holmes. With the character sufficiently mined via the BBC’s excellent TV series Sherlock, Guy Ritchie’s recent movies and the upcoming Ian McKellen film Mr. Holmes (all that’s left is Sherlock – Boy Detective, though even that is probably in development somewhere), attention has turned to Doyle himself.

First came ITV miniseries Arthur & George (adapted from the Julian Barnes novel) and now we have Houdini and Doyle, a 10-part crime series for ITV Encore that is being executive produced by House creator David Shore. It has been written and created by David Hoselton along with Canadian screenwriter David Titcher.

The notion of a link between Houdini and Doyle was explored in the 1997 movie FairyTale: A True Story, though the ITV Encore series will need to use a fair amount of poetic licence to fill out a 10-part crime series. The show is a coproduction between the UK’s Big Talk Productions and Canada’s Shaftesbury, with Sony Pictures Television handling international distribution. The series will air on Global in Canada and Fox in the US, as well as ITV Encore in the UK.

Meanwhile, Amazon has underlined its faith in critically acclaimed transgender comedy drama Transparent by greenlighting a third season before the second season goes to air. As part of the announcement, Amazon also said it has signed a deal with Transparent creator Jill Soloway to develop more projects.

Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as its transgender central character
Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as its transgender central character

“Jill is truly a creative force and I’m thrilled we will be collaborating with her on additional projects in the future and on a third season of Transparent,” said Amazon Studios VP Roy Price.

Soloway, whose other credits include Six Feet Under, added: “I am blown away by the creative freedom Amazon gives me and I can’t wait to reveal where this journey is going to take us.”

This week also saw US cable channel ABC Family greenlight a pilot called Guilt, a one-hour drama series about an American abroad in London who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her roommate. Reminiscent of the Amanda Knox case, Guilt focuses on the investigation that unfolds after a savage murder – exploring whether the central character is a naive, young girl whose poor decisions are magnified by the British tabloid press or a sociopath who actually killed her friend.

“Guilt is a sophisticated, sexy and suspenseful crime epic that will have audiences captivated week to week,” said Karey Burke, exec VP of programming and development at ABC Family.

Like many of its US cable counterparts, ABC Family is investing more in original scripted series. Other projects in the works include Beyond, from the creator of Heroes, Tim Kring.

While most of the major production announcements in the US are made in the spring, mid-summer is when networks start to give more detail about their autumn launch plans. One of the most talked-about projects coming up this year is Scream Queens, executive produced by Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. The series, which will meld comedy, mystery and horror, is debuting with a two-hour special on September 22.

Scream Queens, from Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan
Scream Queens, from Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan

Fox summarises the series: “All hell is about to break loose on the Wallace University campus when, 20 years after a mysterious tragedy, a devil-clad killer begins to target the sisters of Kappa House. With at least one casualty each week until the mystery is solved, anyone could be the next victim – or the murderer.”

Scream Queens is part of a growing trend towards anthology series, seen elsewhere with titles like American Horror Story (which was created by Murphy and Falchuk), True Detective and Fargo. Its strong cast includes Emma Roberts (Scream 4), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Lea Michele (Glee), Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Oliver Hudson (Nashville), Nick Jonas (Kingdom) and pop star Ariana Grande. Early social media buzz suggests Fox will have a hit on its hands.

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