US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.
Millennium/The X-Files Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.
Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.
By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.
But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.
Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.
Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.
I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.
Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.
24 Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).
The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.
What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.
The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.
This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.
We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.
The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”
“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”
Homeland Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.
With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.
The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.
To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.
Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.
We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.
So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.
But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.
When I read, in December, how RVK Studios’ Trapped had become the top-rating drama in Icelandic TV history, I must admit I didn’t bat an eyelid. While a 90% share sounded high, the fact that this only converts into 130,000 to 140,000 viewers made me question the scale of the show’s achievement.
Perhaps I should have been more attentive, because the show has now proved to be a big hit for BBC4 in the UK. Launched on February 14 with the first two episodes aired back to back, it came in around the 1.2 to 1.3 million mark. This compares to shows like The Bridge and Deutschland 83, which both rated strongly in the UK.
The critics also like Trapped, with The Guardian calling it “seriously, toe-tinglingly good.” The Telegraph added that Trapped is “so absorbing that within five minutes I’d forgotten it was subtitled, and tried turning the volume up.” The Daily Mail also approved, saying: “If you like crime stories set in tight-knit communities, from Broadchurch to Fargo, you won’t want to miss this.”
The reason why ratings on BBC4 matter is that international buyers pay close attention to what happens on the channel. Interviewed at the C21 Drama Summit last December, Danmarks Radio (DR) head of drama Piv Bernth was asked what the turning point was in terms of her own company’s rise to international prominence. Her response was that it was BBC4’s decision to air The Killing – “From then on, it did amazingly well.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that in the case of Trapped, a strong BBC4 performance is more of a validation of the show’s quality than a call to action for the international community.
This is because the series is based on an idea by Hollywood director Baltasar Kormakur, who is also one of the principals at RVK Studios. The involvement of Kormakur, who directed a couple of episodes of Trapped and serves as a producer, encouraged a number of leading broadcasters to jump on board at an early stage.
Aside from the BBC, for example, Trapped has been acquired by France Télévisions, ZDF in Germany, SVT Sweden, YLE Finland, NRK Norway and DR1 Denmark.
Like BBC4, France TV has already started airing the show and, if anything, is achieving even better ratings. The first episode on its France 2 channel drew more than five million viewers (18.5% share), making it the second most popular programme of the evening after the new drama Le Secret d’Elise on TF1.
Interestingly, Trapped has also been picked up by The Weinstein Company (TWC) in the US, in a deal brokered by Dynamic Television. There’s no word yet about where TWC will place the show in the US but, thanks to the initial buzz, it stands a good chance of following Deutschland 83 into the US cable market or being picked up by one of the big SVoD platforms.
So my somewhat belated New Year’s resolution is to watch more Icelandic TV, starting with Global Screen-distributed series Prisoners and Red Arrow International-distributed Case. Also keep an eye out for RVK’s next projects, which include a film called Oath, a psychological thriller about a father who plans to commit the perfect crime to save his drug-addicted daughter.
Elsewhere in the world of TV, Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files finished with a respectable average of 9.5 million viewers (same-day ratings, which means you can expect an uplift once time-shifted viewing is factored in). The show did drop quite considerably from its opening episode, ending with 7.6 million, but this was still strong enough for everyone to start speculating about whether there will be a follow-up.
Given that the show ended with a huge cliffhanger, there is clearly an intention on the part of show creator Chris Carter to make another season. And Fox would certainly like another instalment, given that the new X-Files is also rating well internationally.
In the UK, the show seems to be settling down at around the 2.5 million mark on Channel 5, which is a strong showing.
As discussed before, the big challenge with making another batch of The X-Files is co-ordinating the diaries of lead actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. So while everyone waits to see if that can be sorted out, there is also a debate around whether a spin-off might be the best approach.
This possibility has been fuelled by the fact that the last two episodes of the reboot introduced a new pair of agents that were very similar to Mulder and Scully at the start of the Fox series.
The question of a possible spin-off series was put to Carter by The Hollywood Reporter, but he played a straight bat, saying: “I really love those guys [the new characters]. They’re terrific actors, and excellent to work with. It would be nice to include them. But, at the same time, we didn’t make series deals with them. I can’t imagine they’re not going to be scooped up and be somewhat unavailable to us. It will just be practical about how we’re able to work with them in the future.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a no, however. More important than the actors’ intentions (who would say no to starring in an X-Files spin-off?) is whether Fox gets positive feedback on the Mulder and Scully mini-me’s.
Meanwhile, there’s no particular evidence that the audience is finding its way to Martin Scorsese’s new series Vinyl, which is set in the 1970s music business. The show, rumoured to have cost $100m to produce, has already been gifted a second season by HBO in the US – despite the fact that the first two episodes of its first series have come in at just 764,000 followed by 667,000. This is some way short of other HBO shows like True Detective, Silicon Valley, Ballers, The Brink and Veep.
The series hasn’t started especially well in the UK either, with 178,000 (seven-day rating) tuning into Sky Atlantic for the first episodes. HBO can console itself with the fact that Game of Thrones is poised to return – and that Vinyl may eventually find its fanbase.
Still, this hasn’t prevented observers from asking whether Vinyl’s under-performance is symptomatic of a bigger creative challenge for HBO.
Among the many different TV drama formats that exist on the international market, one that seems to work consistently well for the British TV audience is the feature-length story-of-the-week drama (circa 100 minutes) based around a recurring character. Examples over the years include Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Cracker, Prime Suspect and Sherlock.
UK broadcasters don’t commission these shows in very big numbers, usually in batches of three to five on an annual basis. But the successful ones are so durable that, before you know it, there’s a huge library of episodes that can be repeated ad infinitum and sold to broadcasters around the world. Midsomer Murders, would you believe, now runs to 109 episodes, while Morse – starring the unforgettable John Thaw – racked up 33 episodes.
ITV’s Morse, of course, has given birth to a dynasty of dramas. After the initial series (based on the novels by Colin Dexter), ITV launched a franchise around his sidekick Lewis. And then it turned its attention to the adventures of the young Morse in series called Endeavour – written by Russell Lewis, whose many credits include Kavanagh QC, Sharpe, Hornblower and Marple.
When ITV first announced it was making a pilot of Endeavour in 2012, it would have been easy to complain about broadcaster risk-aversion. But the combination of Morse folklore and 1960s Oxford seemed a dead cert to succeed. And so it has proved – after attracting around 8.2 million viewers for the pilot, the first batch of four films in 2013 pulled in an average audience of around seven million.
Ratings have dipped slightly since then, but not enough to damage the franchise. In 2015, for example, the fourth series attracted an average of 6.3 million viewers and a 22% audience share – which is better than most dramas on British TV. So it’s no real surprise that ITV has just announced a new series will go into production in Spring 2016.
Commenting on the decision, ITV director of drama Steve November said: “We’re delighted with the audience’s reaction to Endeavour. It was an easy decision to recommission due to the quality of the scripts from Russell Lewis and the excellent production values from (producer Mammoth Screen).”
While SVoD and pay TV platforms are currently in the golden age of drama experimentation, the success of Endeavour (when contrasted with ITV’s lacklustre ratings for Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands) is symptomatic of how difficult it is for mainstream commercial networks to be adventurous in their programming choices. This isn’t just an issue in the UK, but also in markets like the US, Germany and France, where there’s a clear difference in audience tastes between the established free networks and subscription TV.
Another positive point worth noting about Endeavour is that is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). This means the show is a revenue generator twice over for ITV (unlike Downton Abbey, for example, which was distributed by NBC Universal).
Mammoth Screen’s involvement is also interesting. An ITV-owned production company, Mammoth Screen has developed the kind of track record that would make it very tempting to back if it were a horse. Aside from Endeavour, it has also made Poldark, And Then There Were None and Black Work in recent times. All of that must make ITV feel pretty confident about the prospects for upcoming series Victoria – also produced by Mammoth Screen.
Still in the UK, this week saw the return of Happy Valley, from Red Production for BBC1 and written by Sally Wainwright. The first series is widely regarded as one of the best British dramas of the last few years – so there was some anxiety that the second series might prove to be a let down. However, the new run has started incredibly strongly, attracting 6.5 million viewers for its first episode, the highest for the show so far.
Not only that, the second series is drawing critical acclaim. IMDb’s rating of 9.2 puts the show right up among the best dramas in the business, while The Daily Telegraph was also effusive in its praise. In a five-star review, the paper said: “The plot is already full of suspense and possibilities. Performances were uniformly excellent. Sarah Lancashire was charismatic: fast-talking and teak-tough at work, bursting into tears of anguish when she got home. The cast additions were promisingly classy, too.”
Another strong performance in the UK came from the reboot of Fox US’s iconic series The X-Files, which is airing on Channel 5. The first episode of the six-part show attracted 3.35 million, the highest launch of any US drama on the channel since 2009. In the US, meanwhile, episode four of the new X-Files attracted 8.3 million viewers, very similar to the previous episode’s figure.
Another series that deserves some credit for its remarkable consistency is The CW’s highest-rated show, The Flash. Over the course of a 23-episode first season, the show averaged 3.84 million. Season two started slightly softer, around the 3.5 million mark, but has got stronger as the series has progressed. Now on episode 13, it has just recorded a season high of 3.96m viewers and its highest share of 18- to 49-year-olds to date.
The Flash is based on the DC Comics character and is part of a much broader alliance between The CW and DC that is working incredibly well. At the time of writing, The CW’s number-two show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (which launched in January), while number three is fellow DC-based show Arrow. The CW, it should be noted, is 50% owned by Warner Bros, which also owns DC.
Linking all three shows are writer/producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, who were also both involved in CBS’s reboot of DC’s Supergirl. CBS owns the other 50% of The CW, creating another nice link back into the extension of the DC franchise.
Finally, on the programme acquisition front, UK channel BBC4 has acquired Nordic Noir drama Modus from FremantleMedia International. Commenting on the Miso Films-produced drama, Cassian Harrison, editor of BBC Four, said: “BBC Four continues to bring the very best international drama to its audience. With its gripping storyline and rich, complex characters, Modus is a clever, entertaining Saturday night treat.”
Jamie Lynn, FMI exec VP of sales and distribution for EMEA, said the BBC4 pick-up would help boost his company’s international sales effort on the show: “BBC4 is recognised by the international broadcast community for its quality foreign drama and has landed and launched some of the industry’s biggest Scandi titles in its Saturday night slot, all which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim. This prestigious slot has become a beacon, and when searching for the next big non-English language hit, the international world looks here.”
Pre-transmission reviews suggested US cable network FX might be on to a winner with its new anthology series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and that hunch has now been borne out with episode one of the true-life crime drama attracting 5.1 million viewers.
That’s a huge figure for a cable drama and one that includes a high percentage of 18- to 49-year-olds. Possibly we can attribute some of that figure to heavyweight marketing by FX. But the fact the show also generated a 9.1 rating on IMDb suggests there is enough audience appreciation to help it keep up its momentum.
To put the show’s performance into perspective, it is the highest debut ever for FX – beating The Shield’s premiere in 2002. It’s also almost double the audience that tuned in for the premiere of Fargo in 2014. While it is a bit premature to talk about renewal, there are enough highly charged legal cases in recent US history to suggest American Crime Story could run for years.
One other network that will be happy is BBC2 in the UK, which has acquired the show for a mid-February transmission. If the series does as well in the UK as it is doing in the US, it will be another feather in the cap of Sue Deeks, BBC head of programme acquisitions, who has also played a large part in bringing Nordic Noir to the English-speaking world.
Deeks described the The People vs OJ Simpson “a fascinating and totally absorbing dramatisation of a case seared into the public consciousness. It is a case you might think you know all about – but believe me, you don’t know the half of it.”
The success of the FX show is the second good piece of news for the Fox family after a strong start for Fox’s reboot of Chris Carter’s The X-Files. Episode three of that six-part show has dropped a bit to 8.37 million viewers but this still represents a strong performance.
During the week, Fox also released figures showing that The X-Files has been a hit on the international market. Premiering within 24 hours of the US launch across 80 countries, the show attracted more than 50 million viewers, which Fox calls a “new ratings records in multiple markets.”
Among the highlights from that international performance, Fox says The X-Files matched or surpassed the season six premiere of The Walking Dead in several Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. Across 11 European Fox markets, the episode one premiere was seen by more than 2.5 million viewers, with an average audience of 1.7 million. In Canada, the show debuted as the most watched series premiere of the 2015/16 season with 2.4 million viewers on Sunday January 24. With premieres still to come in the UK, Germany, France, Australia and India, Fox expects the total worldwide audience to grow considerably from its current level.
Still in the US, NBC has this week decided to renew Law & Order: SVU for an 18th season and Chicago Med for a second. With Chicago Fire and Chicago PD already renewed, this means veteran showrunner Dick Wolf now has an incredible four scripted series up and running on the network.
At a time when the industry is supposed to be short of good procedurals, Wolf’s shows occupy four of the top five slots on NBC in terms of drama ratings for 2015/2016. With audiences ranging from 6.8 million to 8.2 million per episode across the four shows, only Blindspot is outperforming Wolf’s portfolio of dramas.
Sticking with NBC for a moment, one show that does seem to be on its way out is Grimm, which is now part way through its fifth season. For much of this season, the show has been pulling in an audience of around 3.6 million to 3.8 million, which is down on the last couple of seasons. With enough episodes in the bag for the show to succeed in syndication – and the Wolf dramas taking up a large piece of network real estate – NBC really needs to cancel Grimm in the name of creative renewal. Until now, NBC has hedged its bets – pointing out that Grimm sells well overseas and is also strong in terms of delayed viewing. But it would be a surprise if the show came back for season six.
Another show that must be a candidate for cancellation is ABC’s reboot of The Muppets, which has been in freefall since its debut last September. After starting with nine million viewers, it was down to 3.8 million by December 8, at which point it took a mid-season break. The show underwent a bit of a revamp over winter in order to take it closer to its fun-loving roots. But an audience of 2.75 million for its February 2 episode suggests viewers have given up on the series. Assume The Muppets will be cancelled and then revived as a movie in a few years.
In the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 got off to a very strong start with its new series Spike Lee’s Lucky Man, which stars James Nesbitt. BARB figures for the week of January 18 to 24 show that the production attracted 1.6 million viewers (seven-day figure). This puts Lucky Man up alongside popular US imports like The Flash. As always, the acid test will be how the show stands up over the next couple of weeks. To put it in context, Supergirl started at about the same level on Sky 1 but by mid-season had shed half its audience.
Still with Sky, there are reports this week that Dennis Quaid is joining the cast of Sky Atlantic drama Fortitude for season two. This is likely to give the show a ratings boost in its early episodes. Last year, the pre-launch marketing campaign for Fortitude made much of the fact that the show starred Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston. This undoubtedly encouraged new audiences to sample Sky Atlantic. The only thing Quaid needs to be wary of is that – spoiler alert – all the big-name stars ended up dead last season (Eccleston almost before he opened his mouth). So he’ll need to watch his back.
Fox’s reboot of The X-Files has, as expected, delivered superb ratings. The first episode of the show, which aired after an important NFL game last Sunday, attracted a massive 16.2 million viewers. Episode two, on Monday, fell to 9.2 million. But this is still a strong result that put CBS rival Supergirl in the shade.
In addition to its own high ratings, The X-Files also provided a great launchpad for Lucifer, a brand new Fox show that aired straight afterwards on Monday. Based on the somewhat bizarre notion that the Devil comes up from hell to help LA cops solve crimes, Lucifer attracted a healthy 7.15 million viewers and also achieved a pretty impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb.
With critics reporting that the next few episodes of The X-Files are strong, the show is likely to hold its ratings pretty well. However, the big issue with the show is that there are only six episodes.
Reports suggest that, having seen the early ratings, Fox would like to renew the show. Whether that happens will depend on the schedules of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, it’s hard to believe they won’t squeeze in six more if Fox opens its chequebook wide enough.
Aside from its importance on home turf, the show is also a key asset for the Fox family internationally. It was aired day-and-date across 60 territories on Fox platforms and was also picked up by Channel 5 in the UK and Network Ten in Australia – all of which is another good reason for Fox to pull out all the stops to secure a second season.
Still in the US, episode two of Showtime’s Billions dropped about 30% compared with its debut episode, down from 1.44 million to 950,000 (overnights). That still compares pretty favourably with other Showtime titles and was enough to convince the network to renew the show. It’s part of a portfolio of scripted series that also includes Homeland, The Affair and Ray Donovan.
As we’ve mentioned in previous columns, lack of ratings data means it’s pretty hard to know whether a Netflix show is a hit or a miss until it’s cancelled or renewed. However, the fact that Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards has just been renewed for a fifth season, before the fourth has even begun, means it’s obviously working pretty well for the SVoD platform.
That said, it is moving into more challenging territory. There was a feeling among critics that season three suffered from story fatigue. With Spacey’s character Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (played by the excellent Robin Wright) having achieved their goals, this line of argument concluded that the concept had gone about as far as it could go.
This may explain why the renewal announcement was accompanied by the news that House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon will not return for season five.
There’s no questioning the superb job Willimon has done so far, but in terms of keeping up the show’s (and his own) creative energy, it’s probably a smart move. Willimon appeared to acknowledge this when he said: “After five years, it’s time for me to move on to new endeavours, but I’m supremely proud of what we’ve built together, wish the show much continued success and leave it in the hands of a very capable team.”
Of course, the question now is who will pick up the showrunner mantle – and whether they will be able to sustain the high standards Willimon has established during his tenure. Season four of House of Cards debuts on March 4.
There is so much noise around the closing stages of the NFL season at the start of the year in the US that it is easy to overlook some of the new show debuts on cable. But a bit of digging around shows that Syfy channel has had a pretty good start with its fantasy series The Magicians, based on the book by Lev Grossman.
The first episode aired just before Christmas and achieved a decent 920,000-strong audience. Then the second episode, aired this Monday, posted a healthy 21% rise to 1.11 million. The critical response has been muted, but those figures mean The Magicians is the channel’s highest-rating show, and – barring some kind of calamity – a pretty strong contender for renewal.
MTV’s fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is hitting similar numbers. Although it had one under-performing episode in mid-January, it’s generally pulling in just over one million viewers per episode. This isn’t as good as long-running stalwart Teen Wolf but it is better than the recent revival of Scream, which has already been renewed. Again, this points towards renewal.
Finally, there’s a lot of talk in the market at the moment about the lack of drama procedurals. But one that has been doing great business for most of this decade is CBS police series Blue Bloods. For the first five seasons (2010-2014), the show regularly pulled in 12.5-13 million viewers.
It’s a bit down this year but it’s still doing a good job anchoring CBS’s schedule. It’s also a decent performer internationally. In January, it returned to Sky Atlantic in the UK, where it is rock solid at around the 375,000 mark. By contrast, Scandi-based drama 100 Code debuted on the same channel to 315,000 viewers, but dropped to 184,000 for episode two.
More worrying for CBS is slippage on its new show Limitless, based on the film of the same name. After the series started with around 9.8 million viewers, episode 13 hit a season low of 6.3 million, with the all-important 18-49 demo also in decline. There are nine more episodes in season one, so CBS will want to see a bit of a pickup in performance before it is tempted to renew the show.
In 2011, US programme market Natpe moved from Las Vegas to Miami to be closer to the Latin American TV community. So it’s fitting that Natpe 2016 (held between January 19 and 21 last week) provided a platform for so many Latin American scripted TV announcements.
Pick of the bunch was the news that Brazilian media giant Globo is moving into Spanish-language production with a thriller called Supermax. Although Globo has previously coproduced Spanish-language shows with the likes of Azteca in Mexico and Telemundo in the US, Supermax marks the first time it has fully funded a drama in Spanish.
The 10-part series, being produced in-house with Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman as showrunner, follows eight characters who travel to a remote prison to participate in a reality show. Although production doesn’t start until April, it has already been picked up by Azteca for broadcast in Mexico.
Commenting, Globo executive director of international business Raphael Corrêa Netto said: “We’ve taken a strategic look at the market and worked out how to leverage our creative capabilities. We wanted to develop and produce (this show) based on our thinking for the global market – from script development to production and design.”
In other Latino news, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa has revealed that it is to adapt four Keshet International Israeli dramas from the original Hebrew into Spanish. One of them is a title we discussed last week, Loaded, which is also being remade by Channel 4 in the UK. The other three are yet to be selected but will be produced over the course of the next three years.
Televisa is also involved in a coproduction with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) that will focus on the life of Alejandro Muñoz Moreno, a Mexican wrestler better known as the Blue Demon. The 65×60’drama, simply called Blue Demon, will air across Latin America on Televisa platforms and before being distributed worldwide jointly by SPT and Televisa.
The show is the latest title to come out of a coproduction alliance formed by the two partners in 2014. Angelica Guerra, senior VP and MD of production, Latin America and US Hispanic for SPT, said: “There is a growing demand in the region for stories about real people and events, a trend that started in Colombia and has made its way to Mexico. Blue Demon will offer audiences an intimate look at one of (freestyle wrestling’s) greatest legends, exploring a complex and turbulent world that few knew about.”
Also coming out of Miami was news that producer Ben Silverman is teaming up with Eric Newman, the showrunner behind Netflix hit Narcos, on a series about Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, the Colombian singing sensation better known as Juanes. The show, whose English title is Chasing the Sun, will follow Juanes’s early life in Colombia through to his arrival as an aspiring musician in Miami.
The goal is to produce an edgy series, with the press announcement saying it will “stylistically be in the vein of an Entourage-meets-Narcos bilingual drama.” No network is attached as yet, but Silverman has a good track record for bringing Latin American ideas to the world with series such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. Note that it is being set us as a bilingual series.
In other greenlight news this week, USA Network has given a straight-to-series, 10-episode order to Eyewitness, a drama based on Norwegian crime thriller Øyevitne. The US version will be created by Adi Hasak, whose credits include Shades of Blue. He will work alongside Norwegian series creator Jarl Emsell Larsen.
Øyevitne, which aired on NRK, was one of the most talked-about Scandinavian shows of 2015. It focuses on two gay teenage boys who secretly meet up in a forest. During one such liaison, they witness a shooting and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the perpetrator, they remain silent.
Commenting on the decision to pick up the show, Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming at USA, said: “Eyewitness takes a horrific crime and, in compelling fashion, uses it to examine a whole network of unique character relationships. We were immediately drawn to the source material, and Adi has found a very smart way to adapt it into a universal and engaging story.”
The dark tone of the show fits a broader agenda at USA, which is reinventing itself as a more exciting destination for young viewers. Alongside the Eyewitness project, it has Golden Globe-winning hacker drama Mr Robot and Carlton Cuse-produced series Colony. Earlier this week, it also announced another new drama called Falling Water. This series centres on three strangers who realise they are dreaming separate parts of the same dream that has major implications for problems in each of their lives.
“Today’s world demands shows that challenge and reward the audience in spectacular ways,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at USA Network’s parent company NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Falling Water is the type of show that can move the needle of popular culture with its thrilling exploration of the dark side of the mind.”
Meanwhile, Netflix, now up to 75 million subscribers worldwide, continues to commission new shows. Its latest addition is a 10-part sci-fi series based on Richard K Morgan’s book Altered Carbon. Set in the 25th century, Morgan’s novel imagines a world where the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. The series is being produced by Skydance Television and written by Laeta Kalogridis. Kalogridis’s previous credits include the screenplays for the movies Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys.
Elsewhere, there have been rumours circulating in the last few days that Fox in the US would love to commission a follow-up to its six-part X-Files reboot, which debuted last night in the US. However, the big obstacle to that appears to be scheduling the talent.
In an interview with Variety, male lead David Duchovny said: “Gillian (Anderson, co-star) and I have talked about (doing more episodes), and then we just stop because we get to 2023 and we still haven’t found a date we can do it. It’s like, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens after this,’ and then we can start to talk seriously about whether we can make it work again.” Possibly, if the ratings are good enough to justify it, there might be room to squeeze in another short run of six or eight episodes.
Finally, the big story on the drama acquisition front is that pay TV platform Sky has done a deal with CBS that means its Sky Atlantic channel will become the exclusive home to Showtime’s original drama series across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The agreement covers all new and future series including Billions, which premiered strongly in the US this week, and the forthcoming revival of cult drama Twin Peaks.
Commenting on the deal, Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “This is one of the most important content deals Sky has ever agreed, cementing Sky’s position as the market leader in Europe for world-class drama. The agreement means our customers can enjoy an incredible slate of upcoming new dramas and can also explore hundreds of hours of amazing series such as Dexter, Californication, The Affair and House of Lies on demand from the back catalogue.”
This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.
In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.
It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).
Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).
The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.
E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.
Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.
Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.
“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”
Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.
It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).
It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.
Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.
With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”
Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.
With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.
Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.
Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin). “Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk,” says the pre-production blurb.
Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”
Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.
Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.
Like office workers using up their holiday entitlement before the end of the year, TV channels are rushing to greenlight scripted shows before they shut up shop for the holiday season.
Among those celebrating this festive bounty is UK producer Neal Street Productions, which has just been given the greenlight by the BBC to produce a sixth season of period drama Call the Midwife. The new order comes despite the fact season five has yet to air.
Neal Street executive producer Pippa Harris said: “I am delighted the BBC has decided to commission season six of Call the Midwife even before we have gone on air with season five. It really demonstrates their commitment to and passion for the show. The success of Call the Midwife is down to the incredible writing skills of Heidi Thomas and the talent and dedication of our wonderful cast and crew. I hope the audience will enjoy watching season five, which I firmly believe is our strongest yet.”
In the US, meanwhile, protests in front of HBO’s offices seem to have paid off, with the premium pay TV channel announcing that it has ordered a third season of critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
Fans of the show were so desperate for a renewal that they took to the streets to make their feelings felt – and it seems the channel has listened: “It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome back Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta (the creators) and the extraordinary talent behind The Leftovers for its third and final season,” said HBO programming head Michael Lombardo. “This show has proven to be one of the most distinctive HBO series, and we are extremely proud of its originality, which has resulted in such a passionate following by our HBO viewers. We admire and fully support Damon’s artistic vision and respect his decision to bring the show to its conclusion next season.”
As Lombardo’s comments make clear, next year will be the final season of The Leftovers. This is a neat way of giving the fanbase what they want and allowing the show’s creators to achieve closure, while tacitly acknowledging the fact that the show has not done that well in the ratings.
“On behalf of our incredible crew and superb cast, we are all tremendously grateful that HBO is giving us an opportunity to conclude the show on our own terms,” said Lindelof in a statement. “An opportunity like this one rarely comes along, and we have every intention of living up to it.”
Over in Canada, public broadcaster CBC has greenlit a four-part miniseries from producer Shaftesbury and Sharon Mustos. Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall On Your Knees, the story follows four sisters in the early 1900s.
Moving from Nova Scotia via the battlefields of the First World War to the emerging jazz scene of Harlem in New York City, the show is described as the riveting tale of a family beset by hidden desires, terrible secrets, intolerance and repression.
Mustos said: “I am proud to bring this much-loved, acclaimed novel to the screen in partnership with Shaftesbury. Celebrating the quiet heroism of women in the face of heartbreak, adversity and the sweeping changes of the early 20th century, it is a remarkable story.”
Published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been translated into more than 20 languages and will be adapted by Adriana Maggs.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite a renewal but NBC in the US has given a hefty vote of confidence to freshman medical drama Chicago Med, which has been awarded five extra episodes. Part of a Chicago trilogy of TV shows from Dick Wolf, the first four episodes of Med’s first season have averaged 8.9 million viewers in live + same-day ratings. With the new instalments, the total order for season one is up to 18 episodes.
Still with the US networks, Fox has ordered Shots Fired, a drama that will be written and executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show, set to air in 2016, looks at the tensions that arise when a black police officer shoots an unarmed white teen in a small town in Tennessee.
David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company, said: “Gina and Reggie have crafted a profoundly moving portrayal of a timely and sensitive issue that pervades our culture at this very moment. This is not only an important story to tell, but also an explosive mystery-thriller, and we couldn’t be in better hands both with the creative team behind this and Sanaa Lathan leading the cast.” Lathan plays an expert investigator who digs into the case, alongside a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.
One of the most hotly anticipated series of the new year is Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files, which debuts on January 24. The show has now been picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
“Securing the UK premiere of the hugely anticipated return of The X-Files is a major coup for the channel and will create one of the TV events of 2016,” said Ben Frow, director of programmes at C5. “This acquisition underlines our ambition to deliver a diverse slate of brilliant, must-see programming on Channel 5.”
With Downton Abbey over, the key participants are now out there looking for their next job. Last week, we reported that season five and six producer Chris Croucher is now working on ITV drama The Halcyon, while creator Julian Fellowes has been crafting his version of Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne.
Meanwhile, US cable channel TNT has announced that it is going to series with Good Behaviour, the story of a thief and con artist that will star Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton). It’s not clear if Dockery will have to use an American accent in her new role, but if you’re wondering whether she can, watch this appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
With Downton done, there are reports that the show’s production company Carnival has won a second-season commission from BBC2 for The Last Kingdom, which has just finished its first season. There has been no official confirmation yet but executive producer Gareth Neame has already sketched out the plot and character development for a follow-up. The show is based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, whose work also gave rise to the long-running Sharpe franchise (set during the Napoleonic Wars).
Switching briefly to corporate news, this week has seen suggestions that SVoD platform Netflix is gearing up to launch in the Middle East next year, while rival streamer Amazon has started offering its users access to cable channels such as Showtime and Starz.
Under a new scheme entitled the Streaming Partners Programme, Amazon Prime members can pick and choose SVoD versions of famous TV channels – a move that may well push the pay TV subscribers further towards cord-cutting. Showtime and Starz will be available for US$8.99 per month, with the promise that the latest episodes of series will be available simultaneous with broadcast.
“The way people watch TV is changing, and customers need an easier way to subscribe to and enjoy multiple streaming subscriptions,” said Michael Paull, VP of digital video at Amazon. “With the Streaming Partners Programme, we’re making it easy for video providers to reach highly engaged Prime members, many of whom are already frequent streamers, and we’re making it easier for viewers to watch their favourite shows and channels.”
David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks, said: “By marrying Showtime with the powerhouse retail capabilities of Amazon, we greatly expand our footprint, making sure our service is available to new subscribers whenever and however they want to watch us.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht added: “Starz is excited to offer subscriptions to our premium hit shows like Outlander and Power, as well as our thousands of movies, to Amazon Prime customers.”
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.
Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?
The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.
Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.
Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.
As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.
Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.
But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.
The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.
But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.
So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.
During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”
Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”
However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”
Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”
And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.
Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”
Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.
If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.
This week’s standout drama is Doctor Foster, a five-part thriller produced by Drama Republic for BBC1 in the UK. Although a number of critics have questioned the show’s “uninspiring” title, there’s a general consensus that Mike Bartlett’s script is a sophisticated look at marital suspicion and the corrosive impact of jealousy.
The Independent said: “The first instalment of the five-parter charted Dr Foster’s (Suranne Jones) growing suspicion that her husband Simon (Bertie Carvel) was having an affair. The old green-eyed monster is a common topic in a relationship-focused show, but Mike Bartlett’s (The Town) naturalistic script, brilliantly delivered by Jones and Carvel, was close to the bone.”
The Daily Telegraph’s assessment was also upbeat: “When I saw the title of new drama Doctor Foster, I must confess my stony cold critic’s heart sank. Not another medical drama. Don’t tell me: maverick surgeon fighting the system while saving lives, yes? Thankfully, it turned out to be an edgy nail-biter that rather reminded me of the hit drama Happy Valley. This was tensely intriguing fare. It was reminiscent of Fatal Attraction from the wronged wife’s point of view or the domestic noir novels that have been all the rage since (Gillian Flynn’s) Gone Girl.”
The viewers seem to have shared the critics’ opinion. Episode one, airing at 21.00 on Wednesday night, attracted an audience of 6.1 million (29.4%), well ahead of the 4.2 million slot average.
The show had a couple of things in its favour that might explain this high figure. The first is that its lead actress, Suranne Jones, is well known to the British public through previous roles in shows such as Coronation Street and Scott & Bailey. The second is that the show followed BBC1’s mega-hit The Great British Bake-Off (which attracted in excess of nine million viewers at 20.00). Nevertheless, the first episode has probably done enough to retain a large proportion of its audience for episode two.
By coincidence, the UK also saw the return of Buffalo Pictures’ long-running drama series Doc Martin this week. A gentle comedy about a high-flying London doctor who goes to live in a small village in Cornwall, the show is now in its seventh season and appears to be as popular as ever. The first episode of the new eight-part run, which comes after a two-year absence, attracted 5.9 million viewers.
While this is down on season six, it is still significantly ahead of ITV’s slot average over the past year. If there is a downside to the show, it’s that it has a pretty old audience. But Doc Martin’s return will be welcomed by the numerous networks around the world that have acquired or adapted it.
Anyone following the TV trades over the last few weeks will have noticed that RTL-owned FremantleMedia has been busy snapping up production companies around Europe. The most high-profile examples are Fontaram in France and Wildside in Italy, with the latter currently making The Young Pope for HBO, Sky and Canal+.
Fremantle will undoubtedly be hoping its new acquisitions can have the same kind of impact as Nordic indie Miso Film, an earlier acquisition that is enjoying a lot of success both in its home market and internationally. It was Miso, for example, that produced Acquitted, a Norwegian thriller that has been a massive hit across the Scandinavian market. Acquitted was also selected to open the Festival de la Fiction TV de La Rochelle, which runs from September 9 to 13 in France.
Explaining why it was chosen, Carole Villevet, head of the festival’s European selection, said: “Acquitted is an excellent series with top writing, directing and acting talents. Our goal this year is to focus on Europe and to platform European shows that have had great ratings nationwide. Acquitted is therefore a perfect choice for our prestigious opening slot.”
Miso also produced Danish period drama 1864, which sold internationally to broadcasters such as BBC4 in the UK. And now its fledging Swedish production base is launching Modus, a thriller based on Anne Holt’s bestselling novel Fear Not for commercial broadcaster TV4. An eight-hour limited series, Modus follows psychologist and profiler Inger Johanne Vik as she investigates a series of brutal murders. FremantleMedia International will launch it at Mipcom.
In the US, the TV industry is on the cusp of its all-important fall season. Dates have now been set for shows – some of which will have crashed and burned by Christmas. It’s impossible to know at this stage which shows will live or die, but one that already has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it is Fox’s Minority Report, which premieres on Monday September 21 at 21.00. When it was first announced, the show’s heritage as a spin-off of a Steven Spielberg film (starring Tom Cruise) created a lot of buzz. But since then there’s been a steady drip of less positive sentiment.
One issue is that the TV series turns the film’s concept on its head. In the movie, the story is about trying to stop pre-crime policing – a system under which arrests are made on the basis of clairvoyant predictions. But in the TV series, the goal seems to be to bring pre-crime policing back, a plot direction that has got the geek community chattering.
Then there was a feeling that the trailer released at San Diego Comic Con this summer wasn’t especially encouraging, with the show coming off more clichéd than conspiratorial. The tone, which should have been dark and gritty, was like a sci-fi procedural mash-up. Concerns about the direction of the series seem to be confirmed by reviewers who have seen the first episode.
Deadline was especially scathing, calling the show “predictable and surprisingly plodding. With opportunistic politicians, tacky tech, promotion-grabbing cops, air-bound assassination attempts and paranoia galore, the over-explained show tripwires itself from the beginning. Minority Report is a connect-the-dots drama masquerading as a creaky procedural. And, legacy or not, it will have a hard time breaking through even though it is one of the first shows up to the plate this fall.”
TVLine is also unsure of the show’s prospects on a network that has a reputation for not taking any prisoners: “With no Bradley Cooper-like cameo (this refers to the Limitless TV series coming up) from Tom Cruise to give this TV adaptation an implicit movie-star endorsement, Minority Report will sink or swim based on word of mouth. Given the sci-fi-er’s bumpy road to fruition (a lot of reshooting took place over summer), its future is, at best, unpredictable.”
Forbes also has a review of the first episode, which essentially accuses the TV adaptation of lacking ambition.
Fox is giving Minority Report the best possible chance by airing it directly after the new season of Gotham. So it should become clear pretty quickly whether the show stands any chance of survival.
Finally, one show certain to launch with a bang is the new-look version of The X-Files. This week Reed Midem, the organiser of Cannes-based TV market Mipcom, revealed that the first episode of the Fox reboot will be given a world premiere at the market on October 6.
“The return of this iconic series underlines the current demand for storytelling at its best,” said Laurine Garaude, director of TV at Reed Midem. “We are delighted that Fox has chosen MIipcom for the world premiere of the return of The X-Files, one of several high-profile series being showcased exclusively at Mipcom.”
The X-Files was a huge international hit the first time round and is expected to do just as well in its new form.