Tag Archives: The Forge

Down with the kids

While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.

Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.

Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.

From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.

George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.

Ackley Bridge targeted a ‘broad, multigenerational audience’

“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”

Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”

Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”

Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.

You Me Her has a strong social media following

Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”

You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”

While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.

Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”

Clique was made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment

The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”

In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”

Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”

Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”

Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”

NRK Norway’s Skam (Shame)

While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.

Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.

All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”

This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”

Freeform teen success Pretty Little Liars

This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”

The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”

While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).

Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”

Stranger Things’ second season landed on Netflix last week

Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”

Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”

On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”


Riverdale Rundown
The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.

Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”

Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”

Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”

The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.

In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”

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Channel 4 tackles tough subject in National Treasure

Operation Yewtree, the investigation led by British police into historical sexual abuse carried out by Jimmy Savile and other high-profile personalities, is now the subject of four-part drama National Treasure. DQ hears from writer Jack Thorne and stars Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters.

It was a 2012 documentary that first lifted the veil over the late British entertainer Jimmy Savile’s trail of sexual abuse across many decades. The revelations kickstarted a police investigation, coded Operation Yewtree, that examined allegations of abuse made against Savile and others, and went on to uncover similar crimes committed by other celebrities including Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall.

Four years later, a four-part television drama is exploring the fallout when a beloved entertainer is suspected of historical sex crimes.

National Treasure, which debuts tonight on the UK’s Channel 4, sees Paul Finchley, a much-loved, ageing comedian find his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. As he is taken for questioning, his wife Marie must decide whether to stand by him, while their troubled daughter, Dee, begins to question her relationship with her father.

Jack Thorne
Jack Thorne

Robbie Coltrane stars as Finchley, with Julie Walters playing Marie, his deeply religious wife of 40 years who has stuck by him through thick and thin. Andrea Riseborough completes the stellar cast as Dee, a recovering addict who is struggling to stay sober and be a good mum to her kids.

The project comes from writer Jack Thorne, director Marc Munden and production company The Forge, with executive producers George Ormond and George Faber.

Thorne recalls: “George Faber took me for lunch and suggested the idea. It’s an overwhelming idea in lots of ways because the responsibility of it is so massive and the idea that we might get it wrong felt very dangerous because so many people have been damaged by this stuff.

“But the idea of telling a story about it, particularly where our country is now and the fact that we let not just an evil man but a monster [Savile] onto our television sets for that amount of time. So the opportunity to examine these cases felt important. We just immersed ourselves in research and tried to tell it as well as we possibly could.”

Thorne, whose credits include The Last Panthers and the This is England franchise, met with abuse victims, police officers and barristers, among others, to try to get as much insight into their experiences as possible.

“It was sometimes incredibly hard to hear,” he says, “people telling me they were pretty sure they were abused on such a date but they were aware their memory wasn’t strong and they didn’t know they would be able to stand it up. [There were] transcripts of trials where you see someone being torn apart really gently as the geography of a house undermines them. Then amazing police officers who have devoted their lives to catching these people and who have all got different ways of helping.

Robbie Coltrane stars as
Robbie Coltrane stars as Paul Finchley, a much-loved comedian accused of historical abuse

“One of the most extraordinary insights was the fact that an officer we worked with said she would watch YouTube clips of the person she was interviewing before she interviewed them in order that she could flatter them on the way to the interview room. You kind of go, ‘That’s so brilliant that you would think to do that.’ And that, I think, is what drama can do better than any other form in terms of telling a story about this. Drama is about seeing behind the eyes of a case. It was a really daunting prospect but one that felt important to do.”

That sentiment holds true for Walters and Coltrane. The latter, the star of police series Cracker, says the quality of the script and the responsibility of the subject matter meant National Treasure was a project he was keen to join.

“Every day another stone gets lifted and somebody in the judiciary or parliament or a medic [is exposed]. It’s just appalling and I think it appalls all of us,” Coltrane says. “Importantly, at the risk of sounding pious, the power of drama is that you can deal with these things in a way that the judiciary, the police and parliament can’t, or seem unable to. I thought it was an important thing to do.”

While Coltrane faced countless scenes in a police interview room, Walters’ Marie is left at home to come to terms with what her husband has been accused of.

“It was just fascinating playing a woman like that,” the actress admits. “It was wonderfully written; written in a complicated, multi-faceted way and all of the reasons she stands by him were fascinating to go into. Her faith, because she’s a Catholic, is the thing that’s kept everything together. It’s just really interesting – her slightly buttoned-up way and how she could be with someone for that length of time despite whether he’s done this or not, the string of infidelities that have gone on throughout their life, the fact that she wants to keep the family together and the fact she loves him. He’d be out the door but she’s not like that and it’s just really interesting to do.

Julie Walters play's Finchley's faithful wife
Julie Walters play’s Finchley’s faithful wife Marie

“It’s a drama about family and that’s what’s fascinating. In the end, it’s how you respond to one another and emotionally how we deal with one another. That’s the most fascinating thing for me about drama and I think it is for most people. You do look at these cases and for me it’s the wife [of the person accused] – I think, ‘I want to know about her.’”

Coltrane, Walters and Riseborough were able to explore the complexities of their characters in full during what Coltrane calls “an almost unparalleled joy” of two weeks of rehearsal before the cameras started rolling.

“It was fantastic because we had a chance to talk through our characters, what their relationship was and how they made a go of their lives together,” he says. “And Jack, the amount of research he did, we asked him questions non-stop for two weeks and he always knew the answer.

“The crucial thing about it is, at some time or other, [the accused is] going to have to stand in front of 12 ordinary people who are going to decide whether it happened or not. So it doesn’t matter how technical or convincing your arguments are to a policeman or a lawyer, they’re not going to be making the judgment. It’s going to be you and me – a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker – and that’s absolutely crucial. It was fascinating from that point of view.

“Episode one is not about whether he did it or didn’t do it. That’s hardly mentioned. What it’s about is what it would be like for any one of us if someone came to the door and said you’d raped somebody 20 years ago and your life literally falls off a cliff. Whether you did it or not, that’s what episode one is. It’s not until episodes two and three where there’s a shift.”

Director Munden credits Thorne with leaving viewers in the dark about whether Finchley is guilty: “The writing’s very clear about this man being neither innocent or guilty,” he adds. “We’re kept on a knife-edge and my job really was to try and preserve that and invite the audience in with their own prejudices to bring to bear on that and just keep people throughout four hours of a drama guessing and because they’re guessing and bringing something to the debate.”

That guessing will continue over the next four weeks as viewers will be left wondering whether Paul Finchley retains his status as a national treasure.

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