Tag Archives: SVoD

On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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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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Binge viewing standard-bearer’s next move

It was the service that changed the rules. But with subscriber numbers continuing to soar and questions being asked about higher prices, what comes next for Netflix?

Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as Sense8
Netflix put down its viewer growth to originals such as sci-fi series Sense8

You might not remember what you were doing on Sunday Feburary 5, 2012, but Netflix’s early adopters might remember sitting back and watching the first episode of a Norwegian comedy-drama called Lilyhammer.

Starring Steven Van Zandt, it follows a New York mobster who, after testifying in court against a mob boss, is placed in a witness protection programme and relocated to Lillehammer in Norway.

The fish-out-of-water premise might not sound particularly revolutionary in terms of TV storylines, but looking back at the words used by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, to announce the launch of the series, it’s amazing to consider how far the industry has come in little more than three years.

“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favourite shows on Netflix?” he asked. “Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV? Well, starting today, you can enjoy as many episodes as you please of the brand new Netflix original series Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt.”

The phrase ‘binge-viewing’ had not yet become synonymous with Netflix and the way its viewers would use the service, but the foundations were being laid for a major shift in viewing habits.

After describing the series further, Sarandos ended: “Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time, today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want: choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.

Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing
Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing just three years ago

“This will be the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix. We will have more news on those shows as they get ready to premiere. Enjoy the show and tell your friends – but no spoilers! They may not be on the same episode as you are on.”

With these few sentences, Sarandos outlined not only Netflix’s own strategy but one that the rest of the industry would soon follow, with an increasing number of online services commissioning original content and traditional broadcasters widening the opportunity to catch up online. NBC has already gone one step further than other US broadcasters to “push new boundaries” by releasing all 13 episodes of its David Duchovny-starring 1960s drama Aquarius at once. ZDF in Germany also blurred the lines of linear and digital TV with its pan-European crime drama The Team.

Fast forward from that Lilyhammer announcement to this week, when Netflix unveiled its results for the second quarter of 2015.

The service added 3.3 million new subscribers worldwide during that period, bringing the total to 65.6 million. It has 42 million members in the US alone.

Global numbers were boosted by the platform’s international expansion, with moves into Australia and New Zealand in March. It will land in Spain, Italy and Portugal in October this year, and aims to open in Japan in the fall. There are also plans to roll into India, China and South Korea.

These new international outlets will only help to swell subscriber numbers further, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings under no illusion about what is drawing viewers both in the US and around the world to the service.

He told shareholders that subscriber growth was “fuelled by the growing strength of our original programming slate,” which in Q2 included the first seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and season three of Orange is the New Black.

Daredevil is already in production for its second season, he notes, adding: “Our global expansion extends to our content strategy as well. Sense8, the mind-bending cinematic thriller from the Wachowski siblings and J Michael Straczynski that debuted June 5, is an ambitious, truly international show with talent behind and in front of the camera from multiple countries.”

Another international drama, Narcos – “a gripping account of the roots of the cocaine trade, shot in Colombia and starring the great Brazilian star Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar” – launches on August 28.

“They are the perfect example of what we strive for in our original programming: an elevated version of popular genres that reach a large audience globally,” Hastings says.

“We closed the quarter with season three of Orange is the New Black, which went live on June 11 and set off a social media shockwave around the world. On the following Sunday, Netflix members globally watched a record number of hours in a single day, led by Orange, despite the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones and game five of the NBA finals also falling on that Sunday.

“Global enthusiasm for the third season of Orange underlines our ability to create franchise properties that bring new members to Netflix as well as delighting current ones. Nearly 90% of Netflix members have engaged with Netflix original content, another indicator that we are on the right path.”

To that end, Netflix said it would continue to invest in original series (and now movies) as its original content spending is predicted to hit US$5bn in 2016.

The downside, however, is that this spending, coupled with a marketing bill nearing US$1bn in 2016, has led to a 63% fall in net income, according to the results.

If viewers want great content, ultimately they will have to pay for it, and on a subscriber-funded service like Netflix, that means subscriptions will rise.

Hastings alluded to as much when he said subscribers should brace themselves for higher-priced plans in the future, though no details have yet been released.

At a time when the television drama space is becoming increasingly congested, particularly in the US, where cable networks continue to move into original scripted programming to build their brands alongside VoD platforms, viewers will be asked to pay more and more for the high-cost shows they love so much or see them book-ended by advertisements.

But as cord-cutting has shown, viewers’ loyalty to their favourite service provider can, and often does, have a limit. Will Netflix test that loyalty when it unveils its new pricing plan?

The service broke the mould in 2012 when it launched its first original series, Lilyhammer, for viewers to watch in one go. Its attempts to balance spending and subscriber numbers could also be another watershed moment for the industry.

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Time to play the game of Emmys

Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy

After a year of amazing ratings success in the US and internationally, HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones has now emerged as the frontrunner at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards.

Nominations were revealed yesterday (July 16) and the show racked up 24, including one for outstanding drama series. The next strongest showing came from FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, with 19 nominations. HBO’s Olive Kitteridge also did well.

Ranked by network, HBO secured the most nominations, a total of 124. Next highest was ABC with 42, just ahead of NBC and CBS (41 apiece). One of the most interesting stats was Netflix’s 34 nominations, which put it ahead of PBS and AMC. This, combined with numerous nods for Amazon’s Transparent, underlines the growing importance of SVoD platforms in the scripted space.

Games of Thrones’ huge nominations haul is, of course, no guarantee it will win any of the key categories. In the drama series section, it faces tough competition from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, AMC’s Mad Men and Better Call Saul, Showtime’s Homeland and PBS’s Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, in the outstanding limited series category, the competitors are
 American Crime, American Horror Story: Freak Show, The Honourable Woman, Olive Kitteridge and Wolf Hall.

Olive_Kitteridge_Still
Frances McDormand has an Emmy nomination for her part in Olive Kitteridge

Among the many categories up for grabs, a particularly interesting one is best lead actress in a drama series, which includes two African-Americans, Taraji Henson for Empire and Viola Davis for How To Get Away With Murder. No black actress has ever won the category, so this is a moment when history could be made. Queen Latifah was also nominated for best lead actress in a limited series of movie (Bessie). However, she’ll have to see off tough competition such as Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honourable Woman) and Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge).

There were, of course, scripted series that didn’t feature as much as might have been expected. Initial reaction suggests that shows to have been snubbed include Empire (notwithstanding Henson’s nomination for best actress), Outlander (one nomination in a music category), The Americans, Justified and Jane The Virgin. Interestingly, The Affair received no nominations despite winning Best Television Series Drama at the 2014 Golden Globes.

Still in the US, it’s getting to that point when Fox will have to decide whether to cancel or renew M Night Shyamalan’s thriller series Wayward Pines. With eight episodes down, there are only two left in the first season. It’s hard to second guess what Fox will do, because the ratings picture is complicated by high levels of time-shifted viewing. Currently, for example, the show is getting a live-plus-same-day rating of 3.3-3.4 million. But time-shifted viewing is virtually doubling that number every week. Latest reports suggest that Fox is considering a second season, set in the same world but with a new cast and characters.

Extant
CBS’s Extant, starring Halle Berry, has continued to shed viewers in its second season

 

Another US network summer series that looks less likely to survive is Extant, a sci-fi show that stars Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from a 13-month solo space mission to find she is inexplicably pregnant. The first season of the show in 2014 rated worse than expected but was saved by the fact that CBS had secured a good streaming rights deal with Amazon. Now in its second season, the show’s ratings have slid still further – despite significant efforts to revitalise it. Even after time-shifted viewing is factored in it still looks like a prime candidate for cancellation. As Deadline says: “It was the lowest premiere live-plus-same-day rating for any scripted series – new or returning – so far this summer. It was also tied with a couple of ABC comedy repeats for the lowest rating for a show on the Big Four networks – original or repeat.”

The main reason for dwelling on Extant is that it is a good indication of how factors beyond ratings performance increasingly play into commissioning decisions. In this case, the involvement of Halle Berry and a secondary rights deal with Amazon were enough to save a show that would otherwise have been axed after its first run. The downside for CBS now is that it is stuck with an underperforming show for another 10 episodes. It is attempting to address Extant’s issues by moving it to a new timeslot, bringing it forward from 22.00 to 21.00 on Wednesdays.

Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue
Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue

UK broadcaster Channel 5, owned by Viacom, has just picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue from distributor Entertainment One for use on its digital channel 5USA. Due to launch on July 28, this could prove to be a neat piece of business, given the fact that Rookie Blue is still going strong in North America after six seasons. The show is produced in Canada and airs on Global there and on ABC in the US. For ABC, the show works well because it delivers solid ratings at acquisition rather than production prices. Season six started this month, bringing the total episode count to 72. So if 5USA does well with the earlier episodes it can look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with the show.

The show will also fit the profile of 5USA very well. Currently, the channel’s top-rated shows are Chicago PD, Longmire, Law & Order, NCIS and Body of Proof, all US crime procedurals, delivering audiences of 260,000-420,000 in 21.00 and 22.00 slots.

In terms of industry-wide trends affecting scripted, this week’s big story is that Netflix has increased its global subscriber count to 65 million, up 3.3 million on the last quarter. The US subscriber base, now 42 million, was up by 900,000 while international grew by 2.4 million to 23 million. CEO Reed Hastings called the growth “higher-than-expected” and said it was “fuelled by the strength of our original programming slate.” Dramas to have featured on the platform during the past quarter include Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and the third season of Orange is the New Black.

For all its success, Netflix is moving into a challenging phase, characterised by high costs and increased competition. The company expects to spend US$5bn on content in 2016 while expenses for marketing will be nearly US$1bn. With rising costs, Hastings also said the price of subscription may increase soon.

AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con
AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con

Finally, AMC has reason to be optimistic about the prospects for its upcoming shows. According to the channel, three trailers unveiled at Comic-Con had managed to attract 24 million views on digital platforms within four days. The season six trailer for The Walking Dead drew 13.8 million, while the trailer for Fear the Walking Dead took 8.2 million.

There was also pretty strong interest in AMC’s upcoming martial arts drama Into the Badlands, which will premiere in November. This attracted 1.95 million views within three days of its release. The Walking Dead was by far the biggest winner at Comic-Con in terms of social media, securing 53% of the Share of Voice on Facebook last weekend, more than double the next highest show.

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New-age models: How the dramatic landscape is shifting

With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?

It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.

As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.

Simon Winstone: Bidding for a 'big sci-fi show'
Simon Winstone: Bidding for a ‘big sci-fi show’

It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.

As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.

Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.

“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.

Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.

Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.

AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men
AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men

“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”

Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.

“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”

Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.

Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.

“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”

The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.

 Adam Fratto: Focusing on 'epic, world-beating fantasy'
Adam Fratto: Focusing on ‘epic, world-beating fantasy’

Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.

“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”

Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.

“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”

Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.

Sean Bean in HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones
Sean Bean in HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones

“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.

“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.

“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”

For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.

It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.

In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.

“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”

New Media Vision's Todd Lituchy: 'We’re an execution company'
New Media Vision’s Todd Lituchy: ‘We’re an execution company’

Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.

“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”

And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.

Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.

“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.

Debra Messing in The Mysteries of Laura
Debra Messing in The Mysteries of Laura

“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”

A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.

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Let’s ask the audience

Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit
Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit

Subscription VoD platforms Netflix and Amazon have emerged as two of the most important players in the scripted TV business. But they are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest. While they are happy to make carefully choreographed appearances at TV industry events and provide subscriber information during their quarterly results presentations, they are not easy to interview and refuse to provide data about the audiences their shows attract.

This, of course, is their prerogative – but it does make it difficult to judge how original commissions are doing. How do we know, for example, that Netflix flagship House of Cards is the hit show that we all seem to assume it is? And what evidence is there that Amazon’s critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent is anything other than a global media village talking point?

Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal
Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal

In the absence of ratings data, the most obvious measurement of success on SVoD is whether a show gets recommissioned. Viewed from this perspective, House of Cards is clearly doing a good job, because Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season for 2014. We also have to assume that Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove are algorithmically acceptable because they both have third seasons coming up. (Orange’s debuts on June 12, and it actually also has a fourth lined up.) By a similar token, Amazon’s decision to recommission both Bosch and Transparent suggests it is also happy with the impact these shows are having on its business.

Using recommissions as a benchmark for ratings success has its limitations however. For a start, it’s possible that the decision to renew these shows is more about creating a positive PR bubble than rewarding strong ratings. If the SVoD platforms can secure positive notices among critics and reviewers for their shows – plus the occasional Emmy or Golden Globe – they can drive new subscriptions without necessarily winning big audiences.

In other words, raw audience size isn’t an issue for the SVoD platforms as long as they feel like they are achieving ROI with their dramas. But it’s more of a concern for traditional broadcasters thinking of acquiring the rights to a show, because they need metrics to work out a show’s appeal to advertisers.

Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted
Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted

Furthermore, international channel buyers often have to make decisions about whether to acquire a show before the decision to recommission has taken place. So they may find themselves having to acquire a show without any ratings or audience demographic data. In this scenario, they won’t know whether the decision to recommission was for PR purposes or due to a commercial commitment to the producer or distributor of the show, which may only have signed up with the SVoD platforms on the understanding that it would get at least a second/third run.

The TV industry has tried to get round the ratings issues in various away. Variety magazine, for example, recently published some insights from Luth Research, a San Diego-based company that surveyed 2,500 Netflix subscribers to analyse their viewing habits. Although there were some methodological limitations to the research, it showed that Marvel show Daredevil has been the platform’s most popular series of the year so far, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in the first 11 days. With Netflix’s US subscriber base currently at around 41 million, this means the show drew around 4.5 million viewers. The same research showed a more modest audience for House of Cards season three (6.5% over the first 30 days) and a pretty lacklustre performance for Bloodline (2.4% over 30 days – around one million).

Research suggests Daredevil has been  Netflix’s most popular series of 2015
Research suggests Daredevil has been Netflix’s most popular series of 2015

Aside from this kind of bespoke research study, the industry is forced to fall back on audience feedback as a gauge for how a show is performing. So if we stick with Daredevil for a moment, Goscoop.tv was quick to spot the fact that the show secured 4.6 out of five stars on Netflix’s audience review chart, higher than House of Cards. Daredevil also scores well on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb is particularly useful because you get to see a rating (9.1/10) and the number of users who have voted (79,169 at last count). This is important, because high volume hints at high ratings – and also allows us to build a picture of how the mainstream audience has responded to a show. A low volume of reviews will inevitably skew more towards fanboys or haters.

IMDb gets pretty interesting when you start exploring how other dramas stack up against these scores. We can see, for example, that House of Cards has a 9.1 rating from 212,263 users, Orange is the New Black has 8.4 from 129,964 users, Bloodline has 8.4 from 8,833 users, Bosch has 8.4 from 8,745 users, Marco Polo has 8.2 from 21,666 users, Transparent has 8.1 from 7,256 users and Hemlock Grove is trailing the pack with 7.3 from 24,091 users.

This isn’t an ideal way to analyse shows but it does throw up some interesting points. Firstly, it underlines how strong Daredevil is. Not only are its rating high, but it has stimulated high levels of audience engagement in a very short time. With season two already commissioned this is a hit for Netflix and will undoubtedly prove a popular pick up when it moves into distribution.

Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits
Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits

Hemlock Grove’s performance also suggests that the audience’s assessment of a show is broadly in line with the critics, who have not liked the show. Variety’s comment coming into series two was: “While a loyal contingent was inclined to give Hemlock Grove the benefit of the doubt in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way, watching the opening of the second go-round still tips the scales toward so bad — and boring — that it’s just plain bad. Efforts to improve the show, or just make sense out of it, have largely foundered.”

Continuing with this deeply unscientific but mildly entertaining analysis, what happens when we compare the above IMDb ratings with high-profile shows on cable TV (I’ve limited it to cable because these shows are most similar to what is on offer from Netflix and Amazon)? Well, Game of Thrones has a 9.5 rating from 772, 837 users, Breaking Bad has 9.5 from 680,964, The Sopranos has 9.3 from 153,972, Better Call Saul has 9.1 from 69,893, The Walking Dead has 8.7 from 511,536, Mad Men has 8.7 from 121,003, Vikings has 8.6 from 126,260, Wayward Pines has 8.4 from 3,497 and The Returned has 7.3 from 3,473.

If you look at these results through squinty eyes, this isn’t actually a bad reflection of the quality and popularity of these shows (Game of Thrones – notwithstanding recent controversy – and Breaking Bad spectacular, The Returned a disappointment). There’s even a kind of correlation to US platform penetration figures. With cable in 100 million-plus homes and Netflix in 41 million, there’s a proportionality in Breaking Bad and House of Cards user totals.

Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success
Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success

There are all kinds of health warnings you could apply to these numbers, connected to the time they’ve been on air, who their core audience is, whether they are the kind of shows that polarise people and whether the shows’ creators have tried to artificially hype positive reviews. But the overall scorecard seems to suggest that Netflix has had two slam dunk hits (Daredevil and House of Cards) and one that is dividing audiences a bit (Orange Is The New Black). If Daredevil keeps up its momentum, then you’d have to say that Netflix’s four-series deal with Marvel is a masterstroke.

Amazon has had a reasonable start with detective series Bosch, though its numbers are probably skewed upwards by pent-up demand from fans of the book series. This ‘jury’s out’ feel would align with The Guardian’s assessment that Bosch is a paint-by-numbers cop show that leaves “no cop-show cliché unturned.” Arguably, Transparent’s 8.1 rating is one of the most interesting scores. In an era obsessed with transgender TV, Transparent is of its time. And it did win a Golden Globe for best comedy. But if we take 8.7 as a benchmark of high quality (see above), a rating of 8.1 suggests the show is polarising audiences to some extent.

The overall assessment has to be that Amazon is yet to get its scripted strategy quite right. So a lot will be riding on upcoming projects like The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs and Hand of God. Amazon, of course, is still playing catch-up to Netflix – but at some point it will probably need its own Marvel moment.

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