There’s no exact science to creating a hit drama, but there are certainly plenty of things you can do to improve your odds. DQ hears from some of the best in the business.
As the old world of TV transitions to the new, the rules around what constitutes a hit have clearly changed.
Take Fox’s Empire as an example. The series, which made its debut only last year and has already been renewed for a third season, is an undeniable ‘hit’ in the traditional sense. However, for all that Fox may trumpet the show’s record-breaking viewing figures, overnight ratings are increasingly looking like a dying barometer of success in the age of video-on-demand.
“Everybody is holding on to the Bronze Age of television in America, so everybody wants to claim their show is a hit. But there isn’t a monitoring system yet that can say whether something is a hit,” says Simon Mirren, one of the UK’s most successful executive producers and writers.
“Amazon or Netflix can say one of their shows is a hit, but you don’t know if it really is because you don’t know how many people are watching it,” says Mirren, who recently oversaw the glossy period drama Versailles for Canal+ in France.
Of course, Netflix and Amazon’s tight lips have ensured their dramas aren’t burdened by talk of ratings. But with that has come perhaps an even bigger pressure for them to push their series into public conversation, lest they wallow unwatched in the streamers’ libraries.
The increasing irrelevance of overnights has meant producers, creators and showrunners are having to rely on other evidence to conclude whether they’ve created a hit, both in the real world and online.
“When I’m walking around and people tap on my shoulder and say that the show is great, then I can feel it,” says veteran television producer Peter Nadermann, a former exec at German public broadcaster ZDF who is famous for bringing Scandinavian coproductions The Killing and The Bridge to wider audiences.
Of course, every time a producer picks up a new script, it’s in the hope they might be about to read the next Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad. But the reality is that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they won’t. “As a producer, we’re shepherding 15 projects that could all be hits. So you live in this slightly naive world where they might all be successful but really you know they won’t, as a hit is so rare,” says Justin Thomson-Glover, founding director of UK coproduction specialist Far Moor Media.
But, in exceptional circumstances, the script might be so good that producers can afford to feel pretty confident. In the case of BBC detective series The Fall (pictured top), which Thomson-Glover executive produced and subsequently saw get picked up around the world the signs were there from the beginning.
“When the script for The Fall came in and the female script editors reading it were too scared to walk home and had to get cabs, you knew there was something special about it,” he says.
The producer’s suspicions were confirmed after the first episode aired on BBC2 in May 2013, when the series’ male lead Jamie Dornan, then a relatively unknown Northern Irish actor, became an overnight star. “There was such a huge amount of tweeting and such momentum that you knew it would carry on in the UK and go international,” Thomson-Glover recalls.
But Dornan was only cast at the insistence of show creator Allan Cubitt, who had to go out on a limb to make sure he got his man. This highlights the importance of putting trust in your creators, Thomson-Glover says.
Mirren says there are other reasons producers can feel quietly assured in the early stages that all the hard work will result in something bigger than the sum of its parts. “I don’t want say this with arrogance, but I’ve worked with some good people and on a number of hit shows. When I was on Criminal Minds, there was a feeling that it might be a hit,” reveals the showrunner, who worked on the crime drama for six years.
Although Mirren dismisses the notion that you can reverse-engineer a hit in any way, he insists your chances will greatly improve if you have the right people around you.
As a showrunner on Criminal Minds, writing a decent episode was only the start of the battle, remembers the former plasterer, who compares overseeing a series to being part of a highly dysfunctional family.
“You’re dealing with the outline, treatment, a first draft, a second draft, a problem with the network, an actor who doesn’t like his trailer, someone’s punched somebody, someone’s lost their thumb…” he says. “I’ve got a hundred horror stories. That’s the point when you find out if you’ve got the mettle to bring this train into the right station, because it is a train.
“The best you can be is determined by the people you have around you. So you have to find a great first director and people around you who can help you get through everything, because there’s so much to deal with.”
Having arrived on the CBS series after the departure of creator Jeff Davis and with a stint producing the Eye Network’s Without a Trace under his belt, Mirren applied his experience of using a formula to the fledgling crime drama.
“We were sitting there without a bible, no anything. So I said we’ve just got to come up with a formula that the other writers can stick their jacket onto,” Mirren remembers.
Out of that came Criminal Minds’ episode structure, which begins with someone meeting a grisly end, followed by the investigation unit coming in, someone else being targeted, red herrings being added here and there, and so on.
As someone who has an overall deal with a US studio (Universal), Mirren is well aware he might have to join a show that he doesn’t actually like, although he stresses this hasn’t yet been the case.
For Nadermann, who spent 13 years at ZDF before setting up NADCON with Constantin Film, one of Germany’s best-known production companies, being able to pick his projects is paramount: “I have this weakness that means I strictly only do what I personally like.”
Trusting his gut is key, so Nadermann takes a very simple approach to what he thinks will get a response from viewers: “I’m not atypical. The things I like, such as football and Netflix, other people like too. So if I like it, other people probably will as well. I have a very close relationship with certain TV executives who believe in my work and give me a certain freedom. I’ve chosen to work very internationally, because it gives me much more freedom.”
Nadermann isn’t joking when he says he has a taste for the international. His latest copro, The Team, was made with the participation of eight different public broadcasters across Europe.
Some would immediately label a project with that many different partners on board, all likely pitching in with different ideas, as a sure-fire ‘Europudding,’ which unfortunately is not as tasty as it sounds. But Nadermann used his experience to try to ensure the project was as uncomplicated editorially as possible, despite the number of different partners. The executive producer told each party it would not be possible to do a show with eight channels interfering and emphasised that he needed their trust to make the series a success.
The Team portrays a group of European police officers fighting international crime throughout Europe, and thus naturally features multiple languages, including French, Danish, German and English. Nadermann believes that, rather than act as a deterrent to the audience, this helped attract attention to the series in Germany.
“Programmes have to have an aura about them so that the audience gets a sense of a special energy. The industry is constantly underestimating viewers and I try not to do that. With The Team, there were a lot of things that were new, and people like that,” he says.
Another important factor in The Team’s local success, says the exec, was the way it was distributed, with every episode arriving on ZDF’s on-demand service prior to its linear broadcast, à la Netflix: “We added a lot of younger viewers who would not have seen it on ZDF. It was the first time the audience realised ZDF is like a Netflix for free. It will be crucial for all TV stations to develop their online platforms because in the future you will have a modern viewer who wants both.”
There’s also an element of serendipity in whether a show goes on to become a hit. Nadermann points to the forthcoming Havana Quartet (working title) series he has in development with US cable channel Starz based on Leonardo Padura’s Havana detective novels, a project that may have been aided by President Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the States and Cuba.
“I bought the rights to books by a Cuban crime writer as I was convinced that a crime series in Havana would be very interesting,” says Nadermann, describing it as “Wallander in the sun.”
He continues: “Then you have to sell it and find people who believe in your vision. It’s not all in the writing. It’s everything together, the talent, directors and cast. Then you need a little luck, which in this case was the Americans being interested in Cuba.”
For a director, there really is no other option but to trust gut instinct. “You never know,” says Anand Tucker, who launched London-based drama company Seven Stories alongside Jo McClellan, Sharon Maguire and Colleen Woodcock last year.
Tucker and Maguire’s credits include Hilary & Jackie, Shopgirl, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Red Riding 1983, while Tucker directed the opening episodes of last year’s first season of Channel 4 series Indian Summers.
“It begins the moment you read the script – you have to trust your voice,” Tucker says. “This has been my lesson. It doesn’t matter what you’re making, whether it’s a five-minute short or a commercial. If there’s one thing that doesn’t feel right and you ignore that voice, it’ll come back and it’ll fuck you so badly. You have to trust that.”
Indeed, it’s easier to list the don’ts than the do’s when it comes to trying to create a successful scripted series. “It’s a bit like marriage. If you marry the wrong wife, you can work hard on it, but it will never be a great relationship. It’s the same if you pick the wrong writer,” says Nadermann.
But although writer and producer may come first, the director should not be forgotten, says Tucker, who has fallen foul of over-zealous producers in the past. “At some point, you have to have the confidence and courage to trust the director. In my experience, the problems have always come when producers try to hold on to the bar of soap too hard.”
But imagine everything goes swimmingly, with the right talent both on and off screen and a first season that ticks all the boxes. How do you sustain that kind of success? That could be the hardest nut to crack of all.
Take HBO’s True Detective, which saw a substantial decline in both critical and audience response for its second season compared with its universally acclaimed first. Various reasons have been offered for its underwhelming sophomore run, from the change in cast to it being rushed to screen. But both Mirren and Nadermann agree the series suffered as a result of the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, being given too much freedom.
“There have been times where I’ve watched shows and thought the writer has too much power, that he’s fallen in love with his own ego and everybody is too frightened to stop him,” says Mirren.
Nadermann, meanwhile, believes the importance of director Cary Fukunaga, who oversaw all eight episodes of True Detective’s first season but played no part in the second, was “underestimated.”
“Every project is different. You can have extraordinary writing, but then you change director,” he adds. “Then you have other shows where you have miscast and it doesn’t work. There are always different doors you have to watch.”
Clearly, there’s an intricate dance that must be performed by all players involved in getting a scripted series to screen. And only when they are dancing in time can they properly avoid those trap doors.