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Measuring success

As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?

When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.

Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.

Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.

Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.

Wynona Earp gained ‘momentum’ via social media

Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”

The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.

Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”

Christophe Riandee

In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?

Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.

In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?

“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”

CBS’s Doubt was was cancelled after just two episodes

Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.

Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.

The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.

That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.

David Ozer

“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”

These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.

“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.

“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”

At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”

That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.

Netflix’s Pablo Escobar series Narcos is a social media sensation

For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.

“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”

Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”

MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”

Swedish Dicks broke viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay

Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.

Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”

He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.

“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”

Avingerne – an example of a DR drama with ‘a complex story told through relatable characters’

Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”

Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.

“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.

“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”

In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.

“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”

For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”

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Chain reaction

Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.

For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.

A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.

Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.

BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.

An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.

BBC1’s Jamaica Inn led to the so-called ‘Mumblegate’ inquiry

But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.

The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.

Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.

Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.

Some viewers complained of being unable to comprehend Tom Hardy’s dialogue in Taboo

Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”

After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).

Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.

Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.

Many fans were appalled when the The Walking Dead killed off two beloved characters in this scene

SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.

After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”

And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.

That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.

The Good Wife’s showrunners changed a storyline in response to audience disapproval

Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).

Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.

On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.

The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.

Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.

Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat regularly responds to fan reaction

In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.

Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”

Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.

Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.

Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.

Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.

Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.

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Ladies first

Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter
Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter

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.

Texas Rising's premiere pulled in five million viewers
Texas Rising’s premiere pulled in five million viewers

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.

No Offence's ratings have dipped below 1.3 million
No Offence’s ratings have dipped below 1.3 million

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.

Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14
Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14

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.

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