With Debra Messing in the lead role, The Mysteries of Laura ran for two seasons on US network NBC. Here, executive producer Jeff Rake looks back on how the show was brought to life from its origins in a Spanish-language drama, reveals why he believes procedural series are not likely to disappear from the small screen and discusses his next project, Firewall.
CBS’s new legal drama Doubt will star Katherine Heigl. But it is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox in the show that is capturing the headlines.
US network CBS has given a series order to Doubt, a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl as a smart and successful defence lawyer who begins to get romantically involved with her client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal murder.
The show is significant because it also includes transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. Assuming Cox’s role is one that doesn’t propagate the usual stereotypes that surround transgender acting talent, it will be a major breakthrough for the community, which usually finds it difficult to get meaningful roles outside niche cable channels and streaming services.
Doubt’s selection seems to have killed off another show’s chances of progressing to a full series – at least for now. Drew, which is a contemporary take on the Nancy Drew books, was in the running for a series commission from CBS until Doubt was chosen ahead of it. There is a chance it will pop up at another network, though, as CBS Studios is still shopping it around.
Another interesting CBS story, as predicted by the US press, is that superhero series Supergirl is moving to The CW for its second season. In doing so, production will relocate to Vancouver from LA.
The move makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite a very promising pilot episode, the show wasn’t really hitting the mark in the very exposed world of frontline network TV. Secondly, The CW (a 50/50 joint venture from CBS and Time Warner) already has a strong slate of superhero shows including Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so it will be right at home.
The CBS announcements are part of a busy time of year for the US networks, which generally announce new series for their 2016/17 season in May. Another title in the news this week, for example, is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption, a spin-off from the well-established James Spader series The Blacklist.
NBC is a big fan of brand extensions, having also recently announced the launch of legal series Chicago Justice to go alongside scheduling stalwarts Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago PD.
A bolder move by NBC is the decision to take Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan’s time travel series Timeless from pilot to series. Bizarrely, that means there are now three time travel shows coming through the US networks system, with ABC’s Time After Time and Fox’s Making History also greenlit as series (and remember, we’ve also just seen Hulu’s 11.22.63 air in the US).
Of course, for every new show there’s usually a cancellation to free up space in the schedule. This week’s unlucky victim on NBC is The Mysteries of Laura, axed after two moderate seasons. Other cancellations include ABC’s Castle, which is coming to an end after eight seasons on air. Create by Andrew W Marlowe, the show focused on a best-selling mystery novelist and an NYPD homicide detective who solved crimes together. When it started it secured an audience of nine to 10 million an episode, but as it comes to a close it is in the five to six million range.
ABC has also cancelled Nashville, Agent Carter and The Muppets. One other show it might have cancelled on the basis of its season one ratings was Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch, but instead it has decided to give the show a second chance in 2016/17.
This isn’t a massive surprise given Rhimes’ fabulous contribution to the network – but it has to go down as a bit of a risk. ABC’s faith in Rhimes has, however, been further underlined with the decision to order another new series called Still Star-Crossed, described as a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Interestingly, ABC also had the option of going forward with a Shondaland comedy called Toast, but decided to call it quits on that one after a pilot.
Another project in the news this week is Paradime. This one is interesting because it has been optioned from a novel that hasn’t even got to publication yet, showing just how competitive the market for book rights has become. The novel, by Alan Glynn, is a psychological thriller about a man who returns to New York after a spell in Afghanistan and becomes obsessed with a businessman.
The show is being developed by ITV and One-Two Punch Productions, with Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium) onboard to write and direct the series. The appeal of the project is partly down to Glynn’s track record. His previous novel, The Dark Fields, was turned into the movie Limitless in 2011 and then a TV series.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the latest French thriller to be causing a stir is The Disappearance (Disparue), which has been compared to UK hits like Broadchurch and The Missing.
The show has been rating well on France 2, with an audience in excess of five million, and has now been picked up for broadcast by BBC4 in the UK. The Disappearance, written by Marie Deshaires and Catherine Touzet, is set in Lyon and tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. As the police investigate the disappearance, a number of people close to the girl’s family are discovered to have secrets of their own that they wish to keep concealed.
Although Disparue is a French scripted series, it actually owes a fair amount to other parts of Europe. It is, for example, based on a Spanish series called Desaparecida that first aired in 2007/08. And it was directed by Franco-Swedish filmmaker Charlotte Brändström, who has worked on Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, thus adding a bit of Nordic Noir to the show’s DNA.
Still in France, Newen Distribution has sold its detective series Candice Renoir to Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. The show, which is one of the top-rated dramas on France 2, has previously been sold to ZDFneo in Germany, CBC in Canada, RTP2 in Portugal, Kanal 11 in Estonia and Fox Crime Italy, among other broadcasters.
tagged in: ABC, Candice Renoir, Castle, CBS, Chicago Justice, Disparue, Doubt, Drew, Fox, France 2, Glenn Gordon Caron, ITV, Katherine Heigl, Laverne Cox, Making History, NBC, Newen Distribution, One-Two Punch Productions, Paradime, Shonda Rhimes, Still Star-Crossed, Supergirl, The Blacklist: Redemption, The Catch, The CW, The Disappearance, The Mysteries of Laura, Time After Time, Timeless, Toast
With so much time-shifted viewing taking place these days, you can understand why TV executives get frustrated when scripted shows are judged on the basis on their same-day audience.
Same-day ratings are a good indicator of a show’s social currency but have little value as the basis of a renewal decision.
This point is well illustrated by US cable data for the week of February 8 to 14, which makes it clear some shows are being saved up for later viewing.
A good example is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which is expected to earn the greenlight for a second season soon. For the week in question, its same-day audience was 801,000. But after seven days this had risen 164% to 2.1 million.
Similarly impressive were USA Network’s Colony, which recorded a 129% rise from 1.07 million to 2.46 million; Showtime’s Billions, which rose 115% from 1.01 million to 2.17 million; American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson, up 112% from 3.88 million (same day) to 8.26 million (live+7); and USA Networks hit Suits, up 99% from 1.7 million to 3.4 million.
The one criticism you can make of seven-day ratings is that they suggest a lack of urgency on the part of the audience to watch a show. Compare the above results with The Walking Dead, for example, which recorded a 45% rise from 13.7 million to 19.98 million over the course of the first week. A key reason why the time-shifted viewing figure is lower here is that audiences can’t wait to discover who is next to succumb to the dreaded ‘walkers’ – and perhaps avoid dreaded spoilers. Still, the best advice is to avoid immediate judgement of a show.
Elsewhere in the US, the big story of the week is that CBS has just renewed its hugely popular procedural NCIS for two more seasons (taking the show up to 15 seasons). Echoing the point made above, a salutary lesson from this show is that the first few seasons, while not bad, weren’t massive ratings winners. The show only really started to pick up momentum in season three and four before going into overdrive in season six.
These days NCIS continues to deliver huge ratings and has also spawned a spin-off – NCIS: New Orleans. Given that NBC is also having a lot of success with Dick Wolf’s Chicago procedurals, you can’t help thinking that US networks might start putting a bit more effort into finding the next big police/lawyer/hospital show.
One programme whose future is completely in the balance is The Mysteries of Laura, an NBC drama about a policewoman trying to juggle her home life with her work responsibilities. The show has just finished its second season with modest ratings and there is no word yet on whether it will be renewed by the network. The general consensus is that it could go either way.
There are two reasons why this matters. The first is that it is a female-led show, so renewal on modest ratings might give us a clue as to NBC’s intentions regarding gender-balance. The other is that the show is actually a format, based on a Spain’s Los Misterios de Laura (TVE 2009-2014).
European drama formats don’t often manage to survive for very long in the US so it would be nice to see this one get renewed. That might persuade other networks to keep the faith with format-based shows. Too many early cancellations of scripted formats isn’t great news for anyone trying to crack the US.
Still on the subject of international formats, one of the week’s big stories is that Indian entertainment channel Star Plus has ordered a local version of Keshet International (KI) format Prisoners of War (aka Hatufim), which was famously remade as Homeland in the US. The Indian version will be produced by Emmay Entertainment and directed by Nikkhil Advani, a Bollywood director whose credits include Kal Ho Na Ho, D-Day, Delhi Safari and Katti Batti.
Created, written and directed by Gideon Raff, Prisoners of War follows two soldiers as they attempt to re-adjust to their lives after returning home from 17 years in captivity. Aside from the US deal, it has already been licensed for adaptation in South Korea (Star J Entertainment), Russia (Weit Media) and Turkey (Medyapim). In the context of India, you could easily imagine a plot involving soldiers who have been imprisoned in Pakistan.
KI distribution MD Keren Shahar said: “The versatility of the format is evident, since it has attracted a dedicated following anywhere it has aired in the world. Securing this deal with a highly esteemed partner is indicative of KI’s future ambitions in India.”
Still looking overseas, we’re now just a month away from MipTV. The international programme market, held in Cannes, has always played a big role in whether scripted shows manage to attract the attention of buyers. And now it is building on that position by increasing the number of drama screenings it hosts.
At this year’s MipTV, titles given screenings include Bodo (TVP Poland), Bordertown (Fox US), Ku’Damm 56 – Rebel With a Cause (ZDF Enterprises), Medici: Masters of Florence (Wild Bunch), Roots (A&E US), Section Zero (Studiocanal), The A Word (Keshet) and Victoria (ITV). A solid performance for any of these shows down in Cannes could provide a useful boost to their international sales prospects.
One other series that rates a mention is the Canadian half-hour comedy Schitt’s Creek, which has just been renewed for a third season by CBC Canada. The decision comes despite the fact that the second season is only four episodes in. More good news for Schitt’s Creek is that the third season has also been picked up by US cable network Pop (a JV between CBS and Lionsgate).
Pop is yet to air the second season of the show, which centres on a wealthy family that suddenly finds itself broke and forced to live in Schitt’s Creek, a small town they once bought as a joke. Eugene and Daniel Levy co-created and star in the comedy. The third season renewal will also be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which distributes.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
tagged in: Adam Fratto, BBC1, Death in Paradise, Digital, Distribution, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Netflix, New Media Vision, Pukeko Pictures, Red Planet Pictures, Simon Winstone, SVoD, The Mysteries of Laura, Todd Litucy, Tony Jordan, US
The US is the centre of attention again this week, with scripted shows being launched, renewed or cancelled on a daily basis.
If there’s one interesting trend emerging it’s the desire among US networks to find a kickass female lead – someone who can combine the allure of Xena: Warrior Princess with the moral rectitude of Wonder Woman and the brainpower of Borgen.
CBS, for example, has given the go-ahead for Supergirl, a new series from Warner Brothers TV to be executive produced by Greg Berlanti. Starring Melissa Benoist (Glee), it tells the story of Superman’s cousin and her decision to embrace her superpowers (which unfortunately don’t extend to enhanced fashion sense). Clearly intended to attract a female audience, it is also part of the network’s strategy to reach out to much younger viewers.
Over at ABC, meanwhile, the decision has just been taken to give a second season to Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Captain America movie franchise that centres on formidable female agent Peggy Carter. There were serious doubts about whether the show would be renewed due to its modest ratings, high cost (it’s a period drama) and the fact that sister series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming back after a season’s break. However, the fact that Agent Carter has received a positive critical response, coupled with the fem factor, has proved decisive.
ABC Family has another female-centred fantasy coming through in the shape of Shadowhunters, based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Vaguely reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shadowhunters follows 18-year-old Clary Fray, a human-angel hybrid who hunts down demons. This week, ABC announced that the lead will be played by Katherine McNamara (New Year’s Eve).
The emphasis on female-led shows isn’t only evident in the realm of fantasy. An NBC renewal attracting attention this year is The Mysteries of Laura, a police procedural comedy drama in which a female detective attempts to juggle her day job with single motherhood. The first series was panned by critics but rated well enough during 2014/2015 to secure a 13-episode renewal.
Leaving the female-led issue to one side, there are a number of interesting aspects to Laura’s renewal. Firstly, it is based on a Spanish show, proving that foreign formats can work on US network TV. Secondly, it was the only one of NBC’s 2014/2015 drama launches that got renewed, underlining what a ruthless market the US is (and how off the mark NBC was with its commissions last year).
It’s also interesting to note that two of the show’s executive producers are Greg Berlanti and Aaron Kaplan. Why does this matter? Because Berlanti will have six shows on TV next season and Kaplan seven. The clear message is that both know what it takes to make network drama tick.
After the recent revival of interest in sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick (The Man in the High Castle. Minority Report and much more), it’s the turn of Aldous Huxley’s iconic novel Brave New World to be dusted down and reimagined for the TV screen. Set in a world where mind-altering drugs, free sex and rampant consumerism are the order of the day (no, not 21st century LA), and people are genetically engineered in hatcheries, the TV version of the book will be produced by Syfy and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television.
Announcing the project, Dave Howe, president of Syfy & Chiller, said: “Brave New World is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.” Les Bohem (Dante’s Peak) will write the screenplay and executive produce.
Sci-fi fans will also be delirious to learn that BBC America and Canadian network Space have renewed Orphan Black for a fourth season. Produced by Temple Street Productions, the show stars Tatiana Maslany as a woman with several cloned identities. The show has proved to be something of a cult hit, generating high levels of social engagement and time-shifted viewing. With a total of 40 episodes (including the new run), it’s also becoming a key property for BBC Worldwide’s international distribution efforts.
In terms of the new dynamics of the TV business, there’s a lot of interest this week in the fate of The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy that has aired for three seasons on Fox in the US. Fox cancelled the show on May 6, but there are reports that Hulu is interested in reviving it with a two-season order from coproducers Universal Television and 3 Arts Entertainment. Reminiscent of the Amazon deal that saved Ripper Street, it’s an indication of the growing significance of SVoD platforms.
There are also a few indications that channel chiefs are seeking to manage the cost of drama more carefully. A+E’s decision to simulcast Roots and War & Peace across three of its networks is an example of this. So is Discovery’s desire to spread the cost of drama across its global family of channels. We’re also seeing more mid-sized US cable channels jumping on board European dramas as partners, rather than taking a commissioning position.
Sundance, for example, picked up Deutschland 1983, while Pivot took a position in Fortitude. This week, building on this point, Esquire US acquired Tandem Productions’ thriller Spotless (an English-language series that has aired in France on Canal+).
Esquire is calling the Spotless acquisition an original series, adopting a form of language Netflix has been using to great effect. This is a model we’re likely to see more of as broadcasters try to make sense of the high cost of marquee scripted programming.
In a week dominated by the US, one international story stands out – the BBC’s decision to cancel Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. Commenting, the BBC said: “There are no current plans for Banished to return. We are very proud of the series and hugely grateful to all those who worked so hard on it. However, the BBC2 drama budget only allows for a limited number of returning dramas a year, which means we have to make hard choices.”