Tag Archives: Tut

Crowded house: Is the US cable market oversaturated?

US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.

When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.

In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.

Third and fourth seasons of Black Sails have been confirmed by Starz
Third and fourth seasons of Black Sails have been confirmed by Starz

He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”

Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.

But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.

Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.

WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.

Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.

Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.

“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”

Schrier: 'We have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness'
Schrier: ‘We have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness’

Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.

“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.

“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”

Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.

“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.

Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.

“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”

While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.

With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.

Sons of Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy

Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.

“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.

“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”

Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”

It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”

Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.

Tut, which aired on Spike TV earlier this year
Tut, which aired on Spike TV earlier this year

“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”

That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.

The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.

“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.

“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”

Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).

“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.

“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”

Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.

Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear in The Kennedys
Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear in The Kennedys

This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?

“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”

The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.

“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”

At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.

“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”

One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?

“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).

“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”

Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”

Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.

“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”

From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.

“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”


 

Rebecca Eaton
Rebecca Eaton

Following the PBS path

US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.

For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.

The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.

“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”

Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.

More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.

Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.

Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”

Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.

“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”

PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street

It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.

“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.

“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”

PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.

Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.

Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”

Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”

That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”

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Disney’s Descendants on the up

Descendants was directed by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega
Descendants was directed by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega

When Disney gets it right, it really gets it right. Currently doing great business for Disney Channel US is Descendants, a modern-day story based around the teenage offspring of Disney’s most notorious villains. Having attracted 6.6 million viewers for its premiere, the live-plus-three-day audience for the show increased to 10.5 million.

Those figures make Descendants the number-one cable TV movie of 2015, which is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that it was directed, choreographed and exec produced by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega. HSM was a huge franchise, spawning three movies and giving the world the adorable Zac Efron.

Descendants is also performing well across other platforms. It currently holds the top spot on iTunes (Top TV seasons), while its soundtrack is at the top of the iTunes soundtrack chart and third on the iTunes album chart. It has also spawned a best-selling prequel novel, The Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz, and an animated shortform series, Descendants Wicked World.

More movie-length productions are presumably an option, although the concept and characterisation might also lend itself to a live-action series.

Cedar Cove stars Andie MacDowell (left)
Cedar Cove stars Andie MacDowell (left)

Hallmark Channel is also celebrating this week following a strong showing from Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, a romantic drama starring Andie MacDowell and Dylan Neal.

According to Hallmark, the latest episode of Cedar Cove became the network’s most watched and highest rated among total viewers and households in its Saturday 20.00 time period. To date, season three of the show is averaging a 2.0 household rating and two million total viewers.

“Over the last four years, Hallmark Channel’s scripted series have become appointment viewing for our audience,” said Michelle Vicary, executive VP for programming and network publicity at Hallmark owner Crown Media Family Networks. “The popularity of Cedar Cove, Good Witch and When Calls the Heart demonstrate the power of our brand and the resonance of our storytelling.”

With so much competition in scripted content, a lot of launch success these days is down to whether you can offer something that piques the audience’s interest.

Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in Sneaky Pete
Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in Sneaky Pete

Today, for example, Amazon launches Sneaky Pete, the pilot for a conman drama written and executive produced by David Shore and Bryan ‘Walter White’ Cranston.

Backed by Sony, the show was originally intended for CBS. But when the network withdrew its interest, Amazon stepped in and greenlit the pilot. The star of the pilot is Giovanni Ribisi, but Cranston will guest star, which is sure to lure in swathes of Breaking Bad fans.

That might be enough to convince Amazon it is worth going to series with Sneaky Pete – particularly if it results in new subscribers for the service.

Amazon’s approach is to show pilots for free and then base its commissioning decisions on audience data and customer feedback. Alongside Sneaky Pete, another pilot hopeful launching today is Casanova, from Jean Pierre Jeunet, Stuart Zicherman and Electus’s Ben Silverman.

The Guardian said Odyssey 'failed to produce a single moment of originality.
The Guardian said Odyssey ‘failed to produce a single moment of originality’

In previous weeks, we’ve reported that ancient Egypt drama Tut achieved good ratings for its launch episode on cable channel Spike in the US. It has now aired as a two-part miniseries on Channel 5 in the UK.

C5, which like Spike is owned by Viacom, attracted around 880,000 viewers across two episodes. This is around 28% above the slot average. With Spike having announced its intention to invest more money in scripted shows, Channel 5 may find itself a long-term beneficiary of this.

A less successful acquisition has been thriller series Odyssey, snapped up by BBC2 at the LA Screenings this year after an initial airing on NBC in the US. In this show, British actress Anna Friel plays US army special ops member Odelle Ballard, who is the sole survivor of a drone attack in Mali but has been reported dead after her team discovers a US terrorism funding conspiracy.

On paper, Odyssey looked like it might be a combination of Homeland and The Honourable Woman, but it has received poor reviews and ratings. Already axed by NBC in the US, it has seen its audience on BBC2 slide from around 2.5 million at the start to around one million at the end of its run.

Friel’s acting was praised, but The Guardian summed up the general mood among critics: “Why beat around the bush with subtlety when each coarsely drawn character can spell out plot and motivation so clearly and deliberately? You can practically hear the clunk and ding of the typewriter whenever someone opens their mouth. Even the secret documents kept safe in a USB stick around (Ballard’s) neck are written in Fisher-Price spy language. The writers do not believe you’ll keep up any other way.”

While BBC2 has had a summer to forget regarding drama, BBC1 continues to do pretty well with its Agatha Christie adaptation Partners in Crime. The second episode of six attracted five million viewers last Sunday evening.

While this is down from episode one (6.5 million), it’s still pretty respectable. It bodes well for another upcoming Christie adaptation based on iconic novel And Then There Were None. Due to air later this year, And Then There Were None is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions programme for the BBC, coproduced with A+E Television Networks. RLJ Entertainment has taken US DVD and DTO rights, while A+E Networks will handle international sales via A+E Studios International.

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Right place, right time

The Americans is coming to ITV Encore, having previously aired two seasons on ITV
The Americans is coming to ITV Encore, having previously aired for two seasons on ITV

The success or failure of a show can often hinge on finding the right slot or the right channel for it to air on. For example, it would have been fascinating to see how critically acclaimed shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead performed if they had been placed in free-to-air primetime as opposed to cable TV.

It’s possible they would have been axed after a few episodes instead of developing into the pop culture phenomena we know today.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that UK broadcaster ITV has just acquired seasons three and four of US spy drama The Americans from Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution for its digital channel ITV Encore.

This deal comes despite the fact that the pubcaster’s main free-to-air channel ITV, which originally aired the show in the UK, dropped it after two seasons. These first two runs will now play out on ITV Encore ahead of the newly acquired seasons.

The message, then, is that The Americans is better suited to a pay environment. Perhaps this is no surprise when you consider that the show, which tells the story of two KGB spies posing as an American husband and wife in Washington during the Cold War, airs on cable channel FX in the US.

Swedish drama Jordskott is outperforming ITV Encore's British shows
Swedish drama Jordskott is outperforming ITV Encore’s British shows

But it reinforces the broader notion that we are currently operating in an era when there is a clear distinction between the kind of scripted shows that work on free as opposed to pay/SVoD television.

The decision to air the show on ITV Encore also suggests there has been a reappraisal of what the channel is going to be. Launched in 2014, a lot of its content to date has been re-runs of classic British dramas such as Poirot, Vera, Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and DCI Banks – giving the channel a crime/period profile.

However, these shows are all currently being outperformed by another acquisition, the Swedish series Jordskott. With the Nordic crime drama drawing an audience of between 100,000 and 200,000 viewers per episode (seven-day ratings figures), it suggests the ITV Encore audience would rather see original foreign series than homegrown re-runs (even if the latter are very good). Aside from Jordskott and The Americans, the channel has also aired the US version of Broadchurch (Gracepoint) and is gearing up for the launch of its first original commission, Midwinter of the Spirit.

In the US, Telemundo is celebrating the fact that on July 21 it ranked as the number-one Spanish-language network among adults 18-49 in primetime, beating Univision by 3%. According to the channel, “this marks the first time in history that Telemundo topped Univision in weekday prime with its regular line-up.”

A key part of the channel’s success has been season three of scripted series El Señor de los Cielos (aka Lord of the Skies). The show was ranked number one among all broadcast and cable networks, regardless of language, at 22.00 in adults 18-49.

El Señor de los Cielos has given US broadcaster Telemundo a big lift
El Señor de los Cielos has given US broadcaster Telemundo a big lift

A US-produced series from Argos Comunicacion and Telemundo, El Señor de los Cielos tells the story of drug dealer Aurelio Casillas and his ruthless rise to power. It is based loosely on the life of real Mexican druglord Amado Carillo Fuentes.

The show first aired in 2013 with a debut season of 74 episodes. This was followed by 84 episodes in season two and an as-yet-unquantified number in season three. So successful is the show that Telemundo confirmed plans for a fourth season at its Upfronts presentation in May this year.

Although the series is produced in the US, its high episode count makes it more like a telenovela than a US drama – an advantage when taking shows out to international distribution. By the end of season four, Telemundo will already be able to offer buyers 300 episodes (equivalent to around 12 years’ worth of a US returning series).

Still in the US, Variety conducted an interesting survey this week, asking three leading media-buying agencies which shows they think will attract the most viewers in the upcoming autumn season (and thus be most appealing to advertisers).

Among dramas, the top pick is season two of Empire (on Fox), which is no real surprise given the success of the first run. And there are high expectations for the return of the Shonda Rhimes hits Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder (both ABC).

More interesting, perhaps, are the new shows that are expected to do well. Here, the top three picks are Fox’s reboot of The X-Files, followed by NBC’s Blindspot and ABC’s The Catch. The Catch is another show for ABC from the Shonda Rhimes hit factory and is expected to be given a lead-in by one of her other shows.

Da Vinci's Demons' third season will be its last
Da Vinci’s Demons’ third season will be its last

Cable channel Spike is investing heavily in scripted shows at the moment. Its first project, Tut, debuted on July 19 and got off to a good start. With 1.7 million viewers tuning in for the first episode, Spike achieved its biggest Sunday night primetime audience since May 25, 2008.

More saliently, the figure was 123% ahead of last week’s primetime average. “We are thrilled that Tut resonated with viewers and delivered a big audience for Spike’s first scripted event series in almost a decade,” said Sharon Levy, Spike’s exec VP of original series.

Elsewhere, another piece of reimagined history is coming to a close, with Starz announcing this week that the third season of David Goyer’s Da Vinci’s Demons will be its last.

Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “David Goyer brought us a plan to portray the unknown early years of a genius and we think the fans will enjoy this final chapter, which segues into the da Vinci history knows.”

A few weeks ago, we talked up the performance of a grisly French thriller called Witnesses, which was rating well in its home market. This week, the show debuted on Channel 4 in the UK, which was clearly hoping to repeat the success of its previous French drama acquisition Les Revenants (The Returned). Things didn’t quite work out as planned, however, with Witnesses only managing to attract around 550,000 viewers in its 22.00 slot. This is about a third of The Returned’s audience when it launched back in 2013.

Witnesses opened to disappointing figures on Channel 4
Witnesses opened to disappointing figures on Channel 4
In defence of Witnesses, The Returned aired an hour earlier at 2100, which would have given it access to a bigger audience. However, Witnesses was also well down on the 22.00 slot average, which will be a source of disappointment for C4. It was also bested by Channel 5’s Aussie prison drama import Wentworth.

Despite this, UK newspaper critics were mostly positive about the show. The Guardian called it “rather promising,” adding that it “bodes well for Channel 4’s imminent on-demand service, 4World Drama.”

The Independent, meanwhile, said referring to the show as ‘The French Broadchurch’ doesn’t do it justice: “This classy, creepy thriller should be judged on its own merits, rather than compared to our Dorset-filmed whodunit and its Scandi-noir forebears”.

So it’s just possible that Witnesses could be a bit of a sleeper hit. What it needs now is the 550,000 people who tuned in to the first episode to get onto social media and tell their friends to watch it.

The Sharknado franchise has proved a massive hit for Syfy
The Sharknado franchise has proved a massive hit for Syfy
On the subject of social media, a round of applause please for Syfy’s global pop culture phenomenon, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, which has generated a staggering two billion Twitter impressions – doubling the impressions for 2014’s Sharknado 2: The Second One.

Video clips from Sharknado 3 have generated nearly six million views to date, including 4.1 million on Syfy’s YouTube channel. The film itself debuted on Wednesday, July 22, so we’re just waiting for the TV ratings at time of writing.

Unsurprisingly given the noise created by the third edition, Syfy has greenlit Sharknado 4. Chris Regina, senior VP of programme strategy at Syfy, said: “Sharknado 3 may have devoured half of America’s celebrities, but there are still hungry fans and sharks to feed, so the adventure continues – not in a galaxy far, far away, but on your television sets next July.”

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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Can Humans survive in the US?

Humans' US ratings have seen a more dramatic drop compared with its UK figures
Humans’ US ratings have seen a more dramatic drop compared with its UK figures

Sci-fi drama Humans is now halfway through its eight-episode run on Channel 4 (C4) in the UK and two episodes into its airing on US cable channel AMC. In both cases its ratings are on the slide, but it is doing well enough in the UK that C4 will want a second series.

In the UK, the show generated a huge number of headlines when its opening episode attracted an impressive audience of 5.47 million (live plus seven days). Episode two dropped to 4.45 million, the third outing secured 3.6 million and the numbers are yet to be released for the most recent fourth edition. In the minus column is the scale of the slide, but on the plus side Humans is still massively outperforming C4’s usual drama ratings. Even if figures dip further over the next two to three episodes, the hardcore audience looks strong enough to merit renewal.

The AMC audience, however, has not been so enthused with the show. After a debut audience of 1.73 million for episode one, the show attracted 1.09 million for episode two. That’s a 37% drop, compared with the 19% drop on C4. Of course, we need to give the show a few more episodes on AMC before we reach any firm conclusions. But producer Kudos will be hoping that the US audience stays strong enough to merit an AMC renewal. It won’t want to be in a position where C4 says yes and AMC says no. For comparison, AMC’s version of Low Winter Sun was cancelled after one season, having averaged 1.21 million and a 0.43 rating among 18-49s. Humans is performing at a similar level on AMC.

Rectify has been given a fourth season
Rectify has been given a fourth season

While AMC will need to think carefully about Humans, its sister channel SundanceTV has announced a fourth season of Rectify. Revealing the renewal on the eve of the season three premiere (July 9), Charlie Collier, president of AMC and SundanceTV said: “Even in an increasingly crowded field of dramas on TV, Rectify has established itself as something special. What (creator) Ray McKinnon, this incredible cast and everyone associated with the show have achieved is remarkable, and we are so pleased to usher in this third season with an order for a fourth.”

Rectify follows the life of Daniel Holden, who returns to his small hometown in Georgia after serving 19 years on death row. It has received good reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly (“TV’s wisest, deepest drama”) and TIME (“Terrific slow-burn drama”). News that it is going to a fourth series will be welcomed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which has sold the show internationally to such firms as Sky Germany, Netflix and Arte.

USA Network’s much-hyped hacker series Mr Robot launched this week to a solid start. Live-plus-three ratings came in at 3.7 million, which is at the upper end of recent USAN launches. Elements in the show’s favour include the fact that the audience was pretty strong in terms of the all-important 18-49 demo. It’s also important to take account of the fact that the show had been previewed online a month earlier, attracting 2.7 million viewers. Presumably, some of those early adopters wouldn’t have bothered to watch this week’s linear TV transmission.

Lifetime has used UnREAL to attract younger viewers
Lifetime has used UnREAL to attract younger viewers

Success with the 18-49 demo is also one reason why Lifetime has decided to renew UnREAL, its reality TV-based drama. The opening episode of the first season didn’t rate at all well, but Lifetime’s subsequent decision to put the first four episodes online appears to have revived the show’s fortunes – resulting in a strong showing for the TV airing of episode five. The dynamic at work here seems to be that Lifetime wants shows like UnREAL to attract younger audiences. But the problem is persuading those younger audiences to come looking for content on Lifetime. The online experiment seems to have addressed this conundrum, by allowing non-traditional Lifetime audiences to sample the show. The result is that UnREAL is now being described as Lifetime’s youngest scripted series ever, with a median viewer age of 43.

Commenting on the renewal, network executive VP and head of programming Liz Gateley said: “We couldn’t be more proud to bring back UnREAL. With authentically flawed characters, sharp storytelling and impeccable performances, this show is propelling our brand in a truly exciting direction – an unexpected and bolder Lifetime. We are thrilled to continue our work with (co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) and the A+E Studios team, as we together bring a new generation of viewers to Lifetime.”

Adweek has a good analysis of this story, exploring the way US channel chiefs are increasingly leaning on digital numbers when making their renewal decisions.

Tut stars Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (right)
Tut stars Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (right)

Adweek also makes an interesting observation about the tendency for cable channels to recommission shows early (Rectify, Mr Robot and UnREAL all being examples). It says early pickups are a way for networks to “assure viewers who may be on the fence about diving into a new show that might get cancelled that, yes, it’s safe to start watching.” This is a growing problem for channel chiefs – and not just in the US. Audiences don’t want to invest time and emotional energy in shows that may be axed in the near future, so viewers adopt a wait-and-see attitude by banking episodes. The problem with this, of course, is that their reluctance to jump on board may increase the likelihood of cancellation, because it dampens ratings performance. This is another factor channel chiefs need to ponder.

In terms of projects to watch out for, July 19 sees the launch of Spike US’s six-part miniseries Tut. Produced by Muse Entertainment, the drama will tell the story of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s rise to power and the political machinations in his court. There is very little indication yet as to what the show will be like, but it has been acquired this week by Channel 5 in the UK, which – like Spike – is part of the Viacom family of channels.

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