Tag Archives: The Man in the High Castle

Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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Classic sci-fi novels – TV’s new frontier

Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.

As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.

This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.

To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle’s second season launches on Amazon next month

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.

The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.

11.22.63
11.22.63 is based on a story by Stephen King

11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.

The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End aired on Syfy last year

Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).

The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.

The Expanse
The Expanse centres on Earth’s response to overpopulation

The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.

With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.

Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.

In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.

Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.

Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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Hornby’s Love lost on BBC1

Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1
Nick Hornby’s Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1

There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).

It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.

Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”

In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”

As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”

Toby Jones in BBC1's Capital
Toby Jones in BBC1’s Capital

It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”

Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.

As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.

The Secret stars James Nesbitt
ITV’s The Secret stars James Nesbitt

Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.

Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.

The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.

Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle
Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle

Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.

Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”

Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.

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Appetite for disruption: Amazon Studios’ Morgan Wandell

With a reputed US$2bn annual content budget, Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell is enjoying his position as prime disruptor of traditional TV.

Having built a career in US network television with series like ABC’s Ugly Betty and CBS’s Criminal Minds, it must have felt strange to segue from Hollywood to heading drama development at the world’s largest online retailer.

Morgan Wandell admits he was apprehensive about joining Amazon Studios just over two years ago, having spent seven at ABC Studios, but says the reaction couldn’t have been more positive.

Bosch
Bosch was one of Amazon’s first drama pilots

“The reality was people were dying to move away from broadcast television, they were desperate to get away from industrial-grade shows,” he says. “There were a lot of creators with passion projects that they hadn’t been able to find homes for or who wanted to do something different.”

Wandell joined a few weeks before Amazon confirmed its first two drama pilots. Bosch, an adaptation of Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch crime novels, went ahead and has since been renewed for a second season. The After, a sci-fi drama that marked The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s return to series, never made it off the starting blocks.

But it was Transparent that really put Amazon on the map. Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender became the first online-only show to win Golden Globes in 2015. It was also nominated for three gongs at this year’s ceremony, though it failed to take home any awards.

“Transparent was an unbelievable asset for the company to have out of the gate. It really helped define the brand and what people should expect from us,” says Wandell.

Transparent
2015 saw Transparent become the first online-only show to win a Golden Globe

Next came Ron Perlman thriller Hand of God, about a corrupt judge who has a breakdown and starts hearing the voice of the Almighty. Bigger still was The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel imagining an alternative outcome to the Second World War. Exec produced by Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz, it was released in November.

The latter came about in much the same way as other Amazon dramas. “I started to call producers who I’d previously worked with,” says Wandell. “I knew Frank from a show called Night Stalker we did at ABC. My question to him was simple: ‘What do you have that you’re dying to make that keeps you up at night that you haven’t been able to get made at any other place?’ He said, ‘The answer’s simple – The Man in the High Castle.’”

This begs the question why no one else was prepared to make it. “It’s challenging material,” says Wandell. “It’s Nazis, fascism – a lot of uncomfortable moments.”

Amazon’s own High Castle advertising did create worries in the US, however, where Nazi and imperial Japanese flags plastered on the New York subway had to be removed.

The Man in the High Castle
Alternate future drama The Man in the High Castle has received critical acclaim

Wandell is more comfortable discussing the liberation of TV from the shackles of tradition. When he began at Amazon, he was surprised to realise there was “a whole generation of creators who’ve spent their lives building up very specific narrative muscles” as a response to network requirements.

When he started out as a development exec, a four-act structure for TV shows was prevalent. During his time at ABC this evolved to five, then six. But at Amazon the rulebook is thrown out of the window.

“There were a lot of producers or writers who, once they moved into this environment and were liberated from that kind of structure, had a difficult time creating the sorts of scenes you really need in premium TV because we’d stripped away the narrative tropes they relied on,” he says.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘traditional TV’ and what Amazon is doing. “Broadcast networks have schedules, they need programming,” Wandell says. “They’re in the business of being a lot of people’s third-favourite show. We’re in the business of being somebody’s absolute favourite.”

He admits the company might not achieve this every time but believes its open online pilot process offers improved chances of success. “Hopefully you make better decisions when you have hundreds of thousands of people watching versus testing centres in north Hollywood where 50 people who have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon will, for cold pizza and 40 bucks, come in and tell you why your pilot stinks.”

Wandell may owe his present position to a career in broadcast, but he doesn’t hold high hopes for the future of the networks he came from. “It’s very challenging for them,” he says. “I have no crystal ball but it’s a lot more fun to be the disruptor than the disrupted.”

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Netflix and Amazon blast into 2016

mindhunter
Mind Hunter is being adapted for TV

Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.

Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.

House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.

Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.

The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).

Good Girls Revolt
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, written by Made in Jersey’s Dana Calvo

The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.

All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.

Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.

“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.

Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse
Syfy has greenlit a second season of The Expanse

Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.

In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.

While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.

BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies
BBC is treading the anthology path with the second run of Ordinary Lies

In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.

A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.

One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.

The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.

Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson
Ralph Fiennes is set to portray pop legend Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon

In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.

Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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US networks go easy with the axe

Minority Report has been cut to 10 episodes
Fox has cut sci-fi drama Minority Report to 10 episodes

The big four US networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are playing a strange game this year. Usually by now they would have axed their underperforming new shows.

But instead they have adopted a policy of reducing the number of episodes they initially ordered then letting the shows in question quietly crawl away to die.

A case in point is Fox’s Minority Report, which was initially meant to have 13 episodes. But after failing to impress in the ratings, its order was cut to 10. The same has happened to ABC’s Blood and Oil and NBC’s Truth Be Told, also reduced to 10. NBC also cut Wesley Snipes drama The Player to nine episodes after poor ratings.

Various theories have been put forward to explain this emerging trend. One is that the networks have decided to give scripted shows more time because of the complex nature of audience behaviour these days. With so much time-shifting going on, they don’t want to kill a show off before they know for sure it is a dud.

This thesis takes on added weight now that subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon have started picking up and reviving a few axed shows. The last thing the networks want to do is produce a show and then hand the benefit to their fast-growing rivals.

Another possibility, mooted by E! News, is that networks don’t want to face flak from fans by axing a show early. By giving these shows a reasonable run out, it’s a way of reducing the size of the social media backlash that invariably follows cancellation.

Alternatively, there may be a commercial agenda here. Possibly the networks have decided there’s more value in having nine or 10 episodes of a show with closure than four or five without a satisfactory end. Such is the international demand for drama content that maybe there is an opportunity to recoup some of the cost of production via the distribution side of the business.

Wicked City is struggling on ABC
Wicked City is struggling on ABC

Some international channels would rather have a single series of a big-budget American series (complete with star) than none at all.

Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see what it takes to finally push one of the big four networks over the edge into cancelling a scripted show. There is, for example, a particularly badly performing anthology show on ABC right now called Wicked City.

Three episodes in, the show has seen its ratings fall from 3.3 million to 2.4 million to 1.7 million, making it the joint lowest-rated non-Saturday drama original on the major four broadcast networks in Nielsen People Meter history. If that isn’t a good enough reason to axe a series then we may never see a cancellation again.

While Minority Report has failed to live up to expectations, another Philip K Dick-based project is receiving plenty of plaudits ahead of its appearance on Amazon. The Man in the High Castle, a 10-parter that will launch on November 20, is an alternative-history drama that imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japan each control half of the US (having won the Second World War).

Adapted for TV by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), a recent screening of the show received a swathe of positive reviews. While we are unlike to ever see any ratings for The Man in the High Castle, Amazon is confident it could be a game-changer for the platform.

Buzz is building around Amazon's The Man in the High Castle
Buzz is building around Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Russell Morris, marketing and merchandising director of Amazon Video in the UK, says: “All the data points to this being our out-and-out success.” It’s unusual for Amazon to be so openly enthusiastic, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the series is already starting to build up some decent momentum.

There are also positive noises for Crackle’s The Art of More, which debuts on November 19. Starring Dennis Quaid as a ruthless real-estate billionaire, the 10-episode first season is set in a high-octane version of the art world, where rival auction houses battle to secure the best clients and works of art are smuggled into the US from exotic locations.

Deadline – particularly impressed with Quaid’s performance – has declared itself a fan of the show, which has already managed to rack up quite a few international sales.

While The Man in the High Castle and The Art of More are yet to launch, one show that has already established itself as a huge franchise is FX’s anthology drama American Horror Story (AHS), created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.

Now in its fifth season, AHS: Hotel, the show is averaging 3.8 million viewers, which makes it the channel’s highest-rated scripted series. As a reward for its strong showing, FX this week announced that there will be a sixth season.

John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, says: “American Horror Story has unquestionably joined the ranks of television’s landmark series. From Murder House to Hotel, AHS has pioneered a new TV form as well becoming FX’s highest-rated show – while also pushing every conceivable boundary of creative excellence and audacity.

The Art of More begins on Crackle next week
The Art of More begins on Crackle next week

“This is even more remarkable because Ryan and Brad tear up the playbook every year, challenging the entire creative team to come up with something even more spectacular, frightful and entertaining. You could not ask more of an artist, their team or a series.”

The icing on the cake for FX is that AHS is not just a ratings success, but also an award winner. The first four seasons received 71 Emmy nominations and 13 Emmy wins, including five awards for its fourth instalment, AHS: Freak Show.

Finally, this week, it’s interesting to note that there is another trend in the market right now – the ‘falling off a cliff’ phenomenon. This is where shows start incredibly strongly then see their ratings collapse almost immediately. ABC’s The Muppets is a case in point, with its ratings dropping from nine million to 5.8 million viewers between episodes one and two and then continuing to slide, so that they are now below the four million mark at episode seven.

CBS’s Supergirl is now experiencing something similar, with ratings for the first three episodes going from 12.9 million to 8.9 million to eight million. Although some ground will be clawed back once the time-shifted numbers are in, that’s still a pretty precipitous drop. NBC’s Heroes Reborn and ABC’s Quantico are showing similar fragility.

The latest American Horror Story series, Hotel, continues to deliver for FX
The latest American Horror Story series, Hotel, continues to deliver for FX

What’s behind this? It seems to be a combination of two factors. First, networks are getting very good at generating a movie-style buzz around their new series so that audiences feel compelled to be in at the start. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a rebooted idea, because large swathes of the TV population are lured in by the promise of a nostalgia fix.

Having grabbed the audience’s attention, however, the slightest misbeat on the part of the show and viewers lose interest – creating the mass migration effect seen with programmes like The Muppets.

Like the apocryphal script reader who knows 10 ten pages whether he or she is in the presence of a great script or another addition to the recycling pile, a significant part of the audience will cut its losses before the first ad break has occurred – turning to rival channels or second-screen entertainment.

An interesting premise or unusual setup may hold the audience in for a little longer, but in the end the only thing that will get them to come back for a second helping is genuinely compelling work. And even in this ‘golden age’ of drama, that is still quite rare.

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