As reality TV-focused drama UnReal ends after four seasons, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser reflects on the show’s controversial storylines and the rise of female anti-heroes.
UnReal, the US drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a reality dating competition, went out with a bang when its fourth and final season landed on SVoD platform Hulu last month.
The exploits of Quinn King, Rachel Goldberg and the team behind fictional matchmaking series Everlasting have served to both shock and amaze audiences since the series launched on US cable network Lifetime in 2015, going on to win a Peabody Award for its first season.
That it was based on the real inner workings of reality shows like the one at its centre has only increased the attention paid to UnReal. It was inspired by co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, itself a behind-the-scenes look at a reality TV show, with Shapiro also once a producer on real-life dating series The Bachelor.
“We hear a lot in the reality TV industry about how real [UnReal] is,” reveals Stacy Rukeyser, a writer on UnReal since season one and showrunner on the final two seasons. “We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Oh they should call it Real, not UnReal.’ That was always terrifying to me because we showed these terrible, terrible things.”
From the beginning, UnReal has pulled back the curtain on the way reality television works, highlighting the ways producers (in the show’s case, Rachel, steered by Everlasting executive producer Quinn) manipulate the contestants in the quest for high ratings. As Rachel says in season one: “Producers produce things. I create conditions for things to happen.”
Season four of UnReal follows Rachel and Quinn as they return to the set of Everlasting for an ‘All Stars’ season, with former contestants and a new format that means the show-within-a-show is poised to be even more dramatic than ever.
UnReal also offers commentary on society’s relationship with reality television, and this season confronts the ‘hate watching’ phenomenon around the genre, with viewers tuning in not to enjoy the show but to snipe about the contestants.
In addition, it draws on a real-life scandal that engulfed ABC reality series Bachelor in Paradise. That show shut down production last year following allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the contestants, though an investigation later found no evidence of wrongdoing. In UnReal, producer Jay makes a complaint that Rachel twists into a publicity stunt.
“We have been looking at how dangerous these shows are for our culture because they’re perpetuating these myths about relationships, and women in particular – that we should look great in a bikini, sit in the hot tub and be really interested in the guy,” Rukeyser says. “And in exchange, he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner, and that’s what a relationship looks like. That’s really dangerous.”
Rukeyser joined UnReal, which is produced by A+E Studios, in season one as a writer and to also step in for then-showrunner Marti Noxon when she was working on her other series at the time, Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.
“When we were writing the first season, I really had no idea that the show was going to be a buzzy, critical hit,” she admits. What she did know, however, was that UnReal would be about flawed women and would be full of risk-taking storylines. One Everlasting contestant commits suicide in the sixth episode, for example.
Season one sparked conversations around the emergence of female anti-heroes, feminism and female relationships, as drawn through the pairing of Quinn and Rachel. “I really had no idea it was going to have such an effect. When people were saying, ‘It’s the female Breaking Bad,’ I never stopped to think, ‘It’s a female protagonist who’s flawed and evil,’ and I certainly never stopped to think we had not just one but two female protagonists,” the showrunner says. “It just felt like these were women I’d recognise.
“The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is really the love story of the series, even though it’s not a romantic love story, and to have that much focus on female relationships, which are so central for us and, I believe, can withstand awful behaviour and [allow us to] understand each other and support each other, that’s been really exciting too.”
The strength of the relationship between Rachel and Quinn also comes down to the partnership between the actors who play them, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, respectively. Both have also directed episodes of UnReal, with Appleby helming the series finale.
“There’s so much of what Shiri does as Rachel that is non-verbal. If she is expressing so much of who that person is and what she is experiencing just through her face and eyes, there’s been an inherent vulnerability and likability in her that has made her root for Rachel and want her to get out [of Everlasting] by the end of the series,” Rukeyser says. “But it’s been incredible to be able to write in a more spare kind of way because you can trust she’s going to tell the rest of the story in a non-verbal way.”
As for Quinn, Rukeyser sees her as “one of the great characters in TV history,” explaining: “It would be very easy for the Quinn character to turn into an evil bitch, but it was never that way with her. Constance adds so many layers to her performance. It’s magic when you find two actresses who are not only spectacular individually but spectacular in the way they interact with each other. And it has really been such a privilege to write for them.”
Having previously worked on series including One Tree Hill, Crash and The Lying Game, Rukeyser has been writing and rewriting scripts on UnReal since the beginning. It proved to be a good training ground for the transition she made to become showrunner at the beginning of season three. “I knew I could do the job, so that was reassuring. But also, the show means so much to so many people who make it, so what’s been a really gratifying part of my job is, if I’m doing my job right, there are 200 people who feel responsible for the success of the show. It’s been great to be running a show that is about something, that sparks conversations and also means so much to the people making it.”
Beyond the issues it raises and the show-in-a-show format it has so successfully created, it’s the characters at the heart of UnReal that Rukeyser believes will be its legacy.
“We’re part of this groundswell of ‘unlikeable female protagonists’ you see more and more on television. We’re seeing a lot more of them and I hope we continue to see a lot more of them because they feel like complicated, flawed women who I recognise,” she says.
“In terms of the comment on reality television, I don’t think that conversation is done. I don’t even think that conversation is really happening. We have so many fans to who tell us, ‘I love your show and I watch The Bachelor all the time’ – I sometimes cannot understand how that’s possible. There is something deeply embedded in our society – that princess fantasy that some man will come along and sweep me off my feet is still so desirable to so many women, unfortunately. So I would love for someone else to take that conversation on, because the conversation for sure is not done.”
But with the fourth season moving from Lifetime to Hulu, is there no way back for the show and a potential fifth season? “I don’t think so,” says Rukeyser, who has a pilot with Lifetime among other new projects in development. “I think this is it.”
A host of female characters are rewriting the rules for women on television. DQ explores how they are being brought to the small screen to front series ranging from contemporary crime dramas and thrillers to period and historical series.
There have been some great female characters in scripted TV down the years – the likes of Cagney & Lacey, DI Jane Tennison and Buffy ‘the Vampire Slayer’ Summers all spring to mind. But there’s no question that the last few years have seen the range and quality of roles for women expand dramatically. Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Borgen, Orphan Black, GLOW and UnReal are just a few shows that have rewritten the rules when it comes to gender on TV.
For FremantleMedia director of global drama Sarah Doole, this is a sign the TV industry is finally catching up with audience tastes. “Research shows women are in charge of the remote control until 21.30, but most of the iconic dramas you can think of focus on middle-aged white men,” she says. “So what we are seeing is a new world order that reflects audience demands.”
Doole says FremantleMedia’s production slate is addressing this in various ways: “You can see it in Hard Sun, where Agyness Deyn [playing DI Elaine Renko] is not your normal heroine. She is capable of motherly tenderness but also incredible violence. She’s an androgynous, modern character that reaches a new, younger audience. And in Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Friend, we focus on the intricacies of female friendship – issues that women don’t usually see on television.”
Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler says the improved gender balance is also linked to greater representation of women behind the camera. While there have always been a few female role models like Lynda La Plante, “a lot of women of my generation who started out as script editors have now reached positions where they are running companies or making commissioning decisions,” Shindler says. “The result has been more shows with complex and interesting women.”
Red shows with memorable female leads include Happy Valley (starring Sarah Lancashire), Trust Me (starring new Doctor Who lead Jodie Whittaker, pictured above) and Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp). The idea for the latter came from Jones and Sally Lindsay, with Jones keen for more female roles “that weren’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to et cetera.” The series was then scripted by Sally Wainwright, with a directorial team skewed towards women. “It was a ground-breaking show,” says Shindler, “because so much of it was based around the camera pointing at women characters and them talking to each other.”
Inevitably, a lot of recent female-centric shows revolve around cops (Happy Valley, The Fall, Vera). But there are a growing number of shows that explore women in atypical social roles and contexts. After The Night Manager, for example, The Ink Factory is working on another John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. In this thriller, says The Ink Factory’s Simon Cornwell, Florence Pugh portrays female spy Charlie, “an engaging, nuanced and rewarding character, with strong agency and purpose.” Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, adds: “For me, creating roles for women that do not conform to male-defined stereotypes is more interesting.”
The mythology of the spy genre has historically been male-dominated, but Cornwell believes The Little Drummer Girl highlights the fact that women have always played a key role in espionage: “Charlie is, I hope, completely authentic as a character. She’s also not ‘atypical’ because there have been and continue to be real women involved in espionage. I think the show highlights the presence of women who were involved but possibly overlooked or not acknowledged.”
Of course, there are some shows where women play roles not at all intended to be grounded in realism. But the prevailing view is this is fine as long as the characters behave authentically within their version of reality world. A compelling example of this is Wynnona Earp, Syfy’s popular series about the granddaughter of legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp, whose mission in life is to dispatch demonic cowboys who have returned from the dead.
Wynonna started life as a comic book character in 1993, at which point she was a textbook example of comic-geek male erotic fantasy. But for the TV series, says IDW Entertainment CEO David Ozer, “we’ve pivoted completely, as we have also done in the modern versions of the comic books. This is a show led by empowered female characters that also has a strong LGBT component, centred around Wynonna’s sister Waverley.”
The success of this pivot is largely down to the show’s female showrunner Emily Andras and star Melanie Scrofano, says Ozer. “Between them, they’ve created a really relatable character who is more than just a female gunslinger. You can see the female voice of the show running through all the storylines – including the relationship between Wynonna and her sister. In fact, when Melanie got pregnant just before the start of shooting season two, Emily managed to take that and weave it into the existing storylines without missing a beat.”
This isn’t to suggest men can’t write empowered female characters. Neil Cross has done it in Hard Sun and Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley likewise in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, whose female characters include a working mother (a lawyer), a rebellious teenager, an AI expert and a bunch of highly advanced androids, known as synths. Mia and Niska, synths played by Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington respectively, go on journeys that deal starkly with issues around female sexual exploitation, empowerment and awakening.
Interestingly, season three of the show also has a strong female contingent behind the camera, in terms of writers, directors, producer (Vicki Delow) and exec producer (Emma Kingsman-Lloyd). Delow calls it “good female representation, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen five years ago. And that certainly leads to some interesting debates about the female characters and the way they might be expected to behave.”
Kingsman-Lloyd says “there is probably a bit more of a female voice in this season.” Particularly influential, she adds, has been the input of director Jill Robertson, whose recent credits include Harlots. “There’s still a real shortage of female directors in action-based series,” she says, “but Jill is an extraordinary talent who directed the first two episodes of the new season.”
The idea of authenticity within a heightened reality scenario also underpins the Nordic success story Black Widows, made in Finland but sold around the world. In this show, three women in abusive relationships decide to take change of their lives by murdering their husbands. A big challenge with the show, says producer Roope Lehtinen, was “making it so that people rooted for the women even after they’d killed their husbands. I think we achieved that by not dwelling too long on the murder scene, making the guys really disgusting and also giving the show a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
The ensemble nature of the show (something that is still more typical of female-led than male-led drama) meant it was possible to explore the shifting dynamics of the relationships between the women, but also how they reacted individually to what they had done. “They each have their own distinct voice,” says Lehtinen, “including one of them who is not quite as moral as her two friends. It’s important that female characters can have the same anti-hero flavour as we are used to with men.”
Most producers and showrunners agree that female characters need to be messy and complicated, not sanitised or sanctified. “Complicated, messed-up women are the only kind of women I know,” says Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, which tells the story of two manipulative ratings-seeking female producers running a salacious dating show. “Real, relatable women have a strong appeal to TV audiences.”
Rukeyser says the show also stands out “because it’s still rare to see women at work outside of detective series. And I think it’s taken on a new significance during the last year. There may have been a sense that some of the issues around gender equality weren’t that relevant anymore, but now the whole debate about equal pay for men and women has exploded.”
Ellie Beaumont, co-creator (with Drew Proffitt) of Australian crime drama Dead Lucky, also favours shows that depict flawed women: “Our central character in Dead Lucky [a detective played by Rachel Griffiths] has a strong sense of social justice but she also has a temper and speaks before thinking. The best characters – of either gender – are always flawed.”
One interesting way of addressing the gender imbalance in TV drama has been to portray early-to-mid-20th century female characters challenging social stereotypes, such as in Bomb Girls, Ku’damm 56 and Call the Midwife. Susann Billberg, a producer at Sweden’s Jarowskij, identifies similar themes in Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), a period family saga that her company produces in collaboration with SVT, Viaplay and Film i Väst.
“The series explores the Swedish class system from the late 1940s and how these barriers began to break down,” she says. “It shines a light on the different female perspectives and their involvement in helping society progress. Nina is headstrong and determined to break class norms by building a nightclub. Then there is waitress and single mother Maggan who champions women’s rights in the workplace.” Another female powerhouse, adds Billberg, is Helga, the family matriarch played by Suzanne Reuter.
From Canada, Frankie Drake Mysteries is another period show, set in the 1920s, that depicts a woman defying stereotypes, this time as a private eye. Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury and executive producer of the show, says: “At its heart, Frankie Drake Mysteries is about female empowerment. Frankie is a woman living life on her own terms, building a career of her own design and empowering other women along the way. We wanted to explore this era and its challenges through the lives of a group of women working together to solve crimes.”
Canada “is in a good place right now in terms of producing series with women in lead roles,” says Jennings, whose company also produced vampire web series Carmilla. “There is a focused effort to ensure women are taking their place behind the camera, and this helps inform the stories.”
But how do producers approach gender in earlier period drama, where the assumption might be that women were treated as second-class citizens? Take a show like Versailles, for example. “It is true that Versailles was an arena created by Louis XIV to impose his absolute power,” says Aude Albano, an executive producer from Versailles prodco CAPA Drama, “and 17th century France was generally ruled by men. But women also used to play an essential role in that environment and it was important to us to depict and highlight it in the show. It was not our intention to make a feminist show, but it was our intention to use what we found fascinating in history and bring a modern look.”
One way into this subject was the fact that Louis was raised by a very strong woman, Anne of Austria. “The relationship Louis had with his mother had a clear impact on his attraction to strong and smart women, such as Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon,” says Albano. “This gave us the scope to create strong, complex and singular female characters, each one of them coming with their drives, their flaws, their ambitions.”
Another option with period drama is to go so far back in history that there is little guidance on the gender roles. In Sky series Britannia, the creative team constructed a vision of a gender-balanced Britain fighting against a tyrannical Rome. “The little we know of those times was mostly written by the Romans,” says James Richardson, co-founder of producer Vertigo Films, “and they were a patriarchal, quasi-fascistic state. But there is evidence that ancient Britain was a more egalitarian society with female queens and warriors. That gave us something to play with.”
This opened up powerful roles for the likes of Zoe Wanamaker, who plays the ferocious Queen of the Regnis tribe Antedia, and Kelly Reilly, the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii tribe. There’s also a key role for Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays Cait, a teenage girl whose family are murdered by the Romans just as she is coming of age. “I don’t like the notion of ‘strong’ female characters, but what [writers] Jez and Tom Butterworth gave Britannia was interesting women – funny, fierce, complicated, messed up – front and centre of the story,” Richardson adds.
Worthington Cox’s role is a reminder that teenagers and young women are rarely portrayed in a meaningful way in mainstream TV drama. Shows that tackle this gap include Clique, The Girlfriend Experience and upcoming series Hanna, written by David Farr and based on the movie of the same name.
Hanna is an NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) and Working Title Television production for Amazon. A high-concept thriller that differs in tone from the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same name, it follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, accompanied by her battle-hardened father, as she evades the relentless pursuit of a female CIA agent. “What makes it especially interesting,” says NBCUIS executive VP of scripted programming JoAnn Alfano, “is that it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who, for the past 15 years, has been raised in isolation in the remote forests of northern Poland. She’s extraordinary, but what she wants most of all is to be normal. Pitching the character at this age is important to the show because she’s finding out what it is to be a woman. And, at the same time, she’s learning how to have a mind of her own.”
Of course, the debate about gender has intensified in the last year as a result of the numerous sexual abuse and harassment scandals that have gripped the media sector. The Ink Factory’s Cornwell says: “Initiatives like #MeToo, and the questions raised by our sudden recognition of behaviours in our industry that have been endemic and profoundly inappropriate, are forcing us to examine not just our actions but the social norms that have led to those behaviours or created an environment in which they could flourish. We need to address the way we have been perpetuating or internalising problematic gender constructs and behaviours through the worlds we create.”
Shindler raises a salient point, which is that the new gender balance on TV isn’t just about what women do on screen, but what they don’t do: “In Red shows, rape is never a story – and we don’t depict dead female bodies. We made a decision in our TV dramas not to portray women in our dramas as victims.”
After beginning her career on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marti Noxon has written for some of the biggest shows on television, including Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee. She also created Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and co-created UnREAL.
Speaking to DQ, she looks back on her storied career and reveals how she picks her projects.
Noxon reveals why showrunners Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Matt Weiner (Mad Men) have had the most influence on her as a writer.
She also previews her next projects: HBO drama Sharp Objects and AMC series Dietland.
Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.
Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.
As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.
Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.
Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.
Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.
British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.
The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.
A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.
Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.
The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.
Heading into its third season in 2017, Lifetime drama UnReal has shaken up television drama with its focus on what goes on behind the scenes of a reality television dating show. Stars Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby chat to DQ about the series.
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.
A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.
Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.
The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”
The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”
A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.
Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.
Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.
Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.
Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.
Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.
Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…
It’s been one of the surprise hit series of the year – but what is the secret of UnREAL’s success? Michael Pickard reports.
From Breaking Bad to Mad Men, True Detective to House of Cards, there is a seemingly endless conveyer belt of complex – and often flawed – male characters headlining TV dramas. But one new show has turned this trend on its head and placed the concept of imperfect female heroes, and antiheroes, firmly into the public consciousness.
UnREAL, which launched on US cable network Lifetime in June and has been picked up for a second season, is set against the backdrop of a reality dating TV show called Everlasting, where young producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, pictured above left) is pushed to manipulate the contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by the programme’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer, pictured above right).
Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL was inspired by Sequin Raze, the short film made by Shapiro who worked for nine years as a producer of real-life dating series The Bachelor.
Noxon executive produces with Sally DeSipio and Robert M Sertner, while Shapiro serves as supervising producer and Stacy Rukeyser co-executive produces. The series is produced by A+E Studios and distributed by A+E Networks.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Appleby (Roswell, Girls) when asked about her attraction to the project. “The character of Rachel was a woman I’d never met – someone who had so much conflict and a really deep story. I was excited about the challenge of playing a woman who wasn’t going to be likeable and whose purpose on the show is not to serve a man. She’s on her own journey trying to find herself and find where she fits in this world. Each episode continued to interest me and engage me personally and professionally.”
The actress met with some reality show producers as part of her research for the role, and says it was “refreshing” to have the chance to play an unlikeable character.
“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of female showrunners, including Lena Dunham (Girls), so working for Sarah and Marti was comfortable for me. What was awesome was that they were writing a show about women and allowing them to be ugly and complicated, and they weren’t concerned with making these characters likeable. That’s what was so refreshing. The response has been really gratifying.”
Zimmer (Entourage, House of Cards), who boarded the series after the pilot had already been shot, said she was initially concerned about appearing on a Lifetime drama but, after a two-hour meeting, she became convinced UnREAL would change the face of the network.
“It was a stretch for Lifetime but if any show was going to break it out, it was this one,” she says. “If this show were anywhere else, it might not have been as well received because it was so unexpected. People were hesitant – and are still hesitant – to watch a show on Lifetime, but now we’ve broken the mould. People were talking about UnREAL, and once you saw it, you couldn’t stop yourself. That was a huge compliment.”
Zimmer also admits to being a “little terrified” of playing Quinn, a no-nonsense TV producer who demands results from her team. But the challenge of the role also excited her: “With this kind of show, you have to go big or go home. You can’t do this inside reality show where no person is bad – everybody’s flawed and you have female antiheroes.
“We were embarking on a huge journey and to do it we all had to be scared to do certain things – and that’s what was so fun. Because we were all so committed to making it as dark as we could, it was challenging but lots of fun.”
Appleby and Zimmer say they were lucky to land on UnREAL together, but it wasn’t until the show was described by some critics as “the female Breaking Bad” that they realised what they were involved in.
“It just shows you there’s a lack of flawed female characters and that you don’t have to be perfect as women,” Zimmer says. “You can still have a voice if you’re not perfect. Nobody on this show was afraid to be ugly or sinister to have a voice.
“We just tapped into so many different emotions across the board. People were fascinated with the reality side of it, whether they had ever seen a reality show or not, and they were fascinated by these evil characters. That doesn’t happen very often. And because it has two women, it has this Breaking Bad quality, where Walter White was doing horrible things but you still liked him.
“Maybe if it were two men, it might not have been so impactful but because it was two women running this world and abusing other women and themselves at the same time, it spoke to a lot of people about what we all do in our daily life to women.”
With the clamour among television networks around the world for an increasing amount of original drama and the dearth of a new breakout reality or entertainment format – the last big hit arguably being The Voice in 2011 – it is perhaps a sign of the times that reality TV is the subject of a drama.
But according to co-creator Noxon, a series that not just parodies reality television but also explores how it is made was long overdue.
“I wanted to show how these reality shows are really made and the damage they do, not just to those involved but to the people who watch it,” she explains. “This culture of bully television, where you watch to make fun of people or feel superior to them – it’s really corrosive; it’s ugly. I knew it was the perfect setting for a big soapy, juicy drama but also there was a real opportunity to comment on something that has been making me really angry for a long time.”
But has Noxon been on the receiving end of any criticism for the way UnREAL portrays reality television? “The only person who’s commented in any negative way is someone who’s on the show. Everybody else I know involved in reality has secretly said to me, ‘You nailed it, that’s what it’s like,’ and that is shocking to me,” she says. “We pushed the boundaries as far as we could and to have people say, ‘Yeah, that feels like my job,’ is pretty chilling actually.
“One of the things I learned through this experience is that I was like a lot of people watching reality television – I was judgemental, because I felt people on reality TV knew what they were signing up for. Now I know, from getting into how these shows are constructed, that nobody can know what they’re signing up for. They have no idea. Unless you’ve worked on a reality show, you think you can beat the system but you can’t.”
Zimmer agrees UnREAL has “touched a nerve” with some viewers who work in the industry portrayed on the show: “They’ve been unbelievably vocal about saying how much our show is what they deal with, and that was terrifying,” she says. “I was so scared when someone came up to me and said, ‘I know exactly who you’re playing.’”
With a second season of the show due to air on Lifetime in 2016, A+E Networks has already sold UnREAL into more than 100 territories, including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
Joel Denton, the distributor’s MD of international content sales and partnerships, recognises the show’s departure from Lifetime’s regular programming, admitting it’s not the type of series you’d normally see on the female-targeted channel.
“It’s younger, edgier, dark and comedic,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you’d traditionally expect to see there. It’s really pushing boundaries and it’s great to see it was such a huge critical success.
“It’s poking fun at a lot of things that go on in television and that’s fairly universal. Ultimately, it’s a workplace drama and it’s the drama and characters that drive its success. There are a lot of hooks in terms of themes and ideas that are universal.”
With viewers around the world falling in love with UnREAL, many more networks can now be expected to make a date with this hit series.
It’s a truism in the TV business that audiences prefer domestically produced dramas over acquired series. But for many territories, the next best thing after homegrown shows is US scripted content. That’s why, on the eve of programme market Mipcom, international TV channel buyers will be watching US schedules closely.
Right now is an important juncture in the year because US broadcast and cable networks have just launched their latest batch of new shows. While some international networks have already acquired these series (basing their decisions on scripts or pilots), many prefer to wait and see how well shows rate before committing their cash.
From this perspective, Mipcom comes at the perfect time, providing a great opportunity for buyers and sellers to discuss a show’s performance face to face in Cannes.
In this week’s column, we take a look at some of the new drama series that have just hit the US market, providing a few pointers as to how they are shaping up during their debut seasons. The shows are listed according to how well they have started out.
NBC’s Blindspot is one of the top performers among this year’s new US dramas. Last week, we reported that its first episode attracted 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Since then, delayed viewing has pushed the show’s total viewership up to 15.9 million (Live+3 ratings). The show, which centres on a tattooed woman found in a duffel bag in Times Square, has been given the go-ahead by NBC to deliver nine more scripts — an encouraging sign. Buyers that pick up this series can be confident it will come back for a second season. The show is distributed by Warner Brothers International Distribution, which has already licensed it to TVNZ New Zealand, CTV Canada and Sky Living in the UK.
We took a close look at ABC’s Quantico in this week’s Writers Room. The story of a group of FBI trainees attempting to foil a terrorist plot attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49 in its Sunday 22.00 slot. This is a good opening, and the reviews have also been generally positive. Distributed by Disney, the show has already been sold to CTV Canada and UKTV in the UK. Quantico doesn’t look as much like a dead cert as Blindspot to return, but it is better positioned than most shows to get a renewal.
A spin-off from the Bradley Cooper-starring movie of the same name, Limitless is about a man who takes a super drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain’s potential. He then uses his newfound ability to work with the FBI. Airing on CBS, Limitless was one of the strongest performers among the new shows, attracting 9.8 million viewers for its first episode. The show then attracted 9.6 million for its second episode, which is a pretty good audience retention level. Also positive is that the show stayed strong among the 18-49 demo (1.9 rating). Limitless stands a pretty good chance of renewal, though it is too early to call. It is distributed internationally by CBS Studios International, which has already licensed the show to the likes of Fox TV in Sweden and RTL CBS Entertainment – a pan-regional pay TV channel in Asia.
USA Network was so pleased with the first episode of this hacking drama that it immediately ordered a second season. With the first run now over, Mr Robot seems to have found a cult audience and a decent level of critical acclaim (an IMDb rating of 9.0 makes it one of the best-received of this year’s new shows). One buyer impressed by the series is Amazon, which swooped in and secured streaming rights to the first season. However, Amazon is not yet in many territories, so there is still plenty of scope for international networks to buy Mr Robot. It would probably suit a pay TV or subscription VoD platform – though an edgy terrestrial channel might also find a post-22.00 slot for it.
UnREAL aired on Lifetime this summer. Set against the backdrop of a fictional dating show, it focuses on flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by her executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). UnREAL didn’t debut very strongly but Lifetime’s decision to stream a number of episodes online gave the show a boost. The series finished its run as Lifetime’s most successful ever among younger viewers (part of the channel’s plan) and has already secured a second season. The show is distributed by A+E Studios International, which is bringing Appleby and Zimmer to Mipcom. It airs on Lifetime in the UK and has been licensed to streaming services such as Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). Some networks will be put off by the fact it parodies the TV entertainment business, but others will embrace its slick humour.
This revival of the Heroes franchise did moderately well on its return. Having scored a 2.0 rating among 18-49s on its opening night, time-shifted viewing took it up to a 3.1 rating (Live+3). Nielsen’s figures have Heroes Reborn ranking as the fourth best launch out of 11 on the big four US networks last week. A 7.9 rating on IMDb is not spectacular, but it’s okay to start with. The show was simulcast in Canada on Global and started airing on Seven Network Australia on September 30. The original series is currently on Netflix.
Fear The Walking Dead
You can understand the editorial and commercial reasons behind AMC’s decision to extend the world of The Walking Dead, but Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) is not quite living up to the hype. After a massive 10.1 million audience for episode one, it has since slumped significantly. The audience for episodes four and five was around the 6.5 million mark, which is good compared with other shows but not compared with its parent show. Season five of The Walking Dead averaged around 14.8 million. An IMDb rating of 7.8 suggests that the audience hasn’t really bought into FTWD – though there is time for that to change because AMC has already committed to a second season. Internationally, the show is airing on AMC Global where that channel is available (including territories in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In Australia it is on FX. Hulu has picked up US streaming rights while Amazon streams FTWD in Germany and Austria. One interesting development is that AMC has also created a 16-part web series, Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, for its website (amc.com). One of the characters in the web series will be introduced in FTWD’s second season, which is a pretty cool piece of transmedia storytelling.
There was a lot of prelaunch hype around Fox’s Scream Queens, an anthology comedy-horror series from Ryan Murphy (Glee) that makes heavy use of guest appearances by big stars (such as singer Ariana Grande). But the show hasn’t got off to a particularly strong start. Episodes one and two were shown as a two-hour special and attracted a modest 4.04 million viewers (1.7 rating among 18-49s). There was some improvement once time-shifted viewing for episode one was included, but the second episode’s audience of 3.76 million suggests Scream Queens hasn’t really managed to grip America’s imagination. Review site Rotten Tomatoes sums up the show: “Too tasteless for mainstream viewers and too silly for horror enthusiasts, Scream Queens fails to satisfy.” The series is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has so far sold it to E4 in the UK, which is probably the right kind of home for it. Murphy’s involvement makes renewal a possibility, but Fox will want to see an upturn in the ratings to justify a new run.
A week ago, we would have been lauding the performance of the latest Muppets revamp. But a disastrous ratings decline for episode two changes the picture somewhat. For episode one on ABC, The Muppets attracted nine million viewers. But for episode two the show was down 35% to 5.8 million. There was also a drop-off in 18-49 viewers. The decline is so significant that we’re going to need a few weeks to see where the show settles down. Nevertheless, The Muppets has a sufficiently strong following globally that international sales are bound to follow for Disney. Early buyers of the show include Sky1 in the UK.
The Player, another new drama from NBC, got off to a slow start. The main problem seems to be an over-complicated premise, which involves a secret amoral organisation that bets on crimes before they are committed. The first episode attracted a modest 1.2 rating among 18-49s on its first night and a total viewership of 4.68 million (rising to seven million after three days). Nevertheless, Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which distributes The Player internationally, has been very quick to secure some deals for the show. Broadcasters that have signed up include TF1 France, RTL Germany, AXN Spain, Seven Australia, D-Smart Turkey and OSN in the Middle East. All told, SPT has sold the show to broadcasters operating in 105 territories (some deals are pan-regional). Sales have probably been helped by the fact that the The Player features Wesley Snipes, but the chances of a renewal already look slim.
A spin-off from the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, Minority Report hasn’t started very well. Episode one attracted an underwhelming 3.1 million viewers (1.1 rating among 18-49s). Fox fought a rearguard action by pointing to episode one’s increase as a result of time-shifted viewing. But episode two’s audience of 2.56 million (0.9 rating among 18-49s) shows a downward trend that is not encouraging. With IMDb giving the show a low 6.1 rating, it will be a major surprise if Minority Report makes it to season two. That will clearly impact on the distribution strategy for the series.
Finally, a brief mention for the BBC in the UK, which has been running a superb series of feature-length dramas based on classic British literary works. While the dramas in questions didn’t always rate highly, they were excellently produced and provided a great showcase for why public service broadcasting matters.
The top-rating production was An Inspector Calls (5.8 million), which has a particularly high profile in the UK. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover (4.9 million), then Cider with Rosie (3.9 million) and finally The Go-Between (2.6 million). The latter, based on a novel by LP Hartley, is the least well known of the four works, so its lower ratings aren’t too much of a surprise. But it was a well-made drama. Overall, these four films were a job well done by the BBC.
The clear message in the international drama business right now is that producers like to back projects with strong provenance. So intense is the competition that no one wants to go to market without some kind of built-in brand equity, whether that’s a star actor, established screenwriter or pre-existing storyworld. In fact, the safest bet is to develop a project with all of the above.
A good case in point is Gaumont International Television (GIT)’s new action thriller Viva la Madness, announced this week. A one-hour drama series, Viva la Madness is based on the book of the same name by J.J. Connolly. It is the next instalment to Connolly’s novel Layer Cake, which was turned into a movie starring Daniel Craig in 2004. And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with, the show will star feature film actor Jason Statham (The Expendables, Transporter, Snatch) in his first lead TV role.
In Viva la Madness, the hero of the story is stranded in the Caribbean itching for a criminal life he left behind – but he’s still a wanted man back home. Soon he joins forces with two gangsters: the menacing Sonny King and his paranoid partner Roy ‘Twitchy’ Burns. Explaining why Viva will be a TV series, Statham said: “The way J.J. writes is so on the ball and authentic it’s hard to let any of it go. Trying to lose characters or shave down scenes every other page didn’t work – we wanted it all. The best place was a 10-hour-plus show that lets you fully disappear into Connolly’s world.”
Statham and Steven Chasman, who own the rights to the project, will serve as executive producers, along with Connolly who is also set to write the series (as part of a growing trend of authors trying their hand at TV). Commenting on the project, GIT CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh said: “With its riveting characters and twisting storyline, Viva la Madness is a volatile cocktail of action and comedy that only J.J. Connolly can create. Jason Statham brings such strength and credibility to his characters but also has an effortless shade of vulnerability that gives him so much dimension on screen.”
The TV industry’s endless fascination with gangsters has thrown up another interesting project this week, with Showtime reportedly in development on a mobster series with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company. Set in 1980s Brooklyn, the series will focus on the relationship between an unstable mafia captain and a rogue FBI agent (against the corrosive backdrop of Wall Street high finance). The series will be written and exec produced by Brett Johnson, whose recent credits include Ray Donovan. The series is the latest in a run of TV projects that DiCaprio and Appian Way are working on. DiCaprio recently signed a first-look deal with Netflix to develop documentaries and docuseries and he has also optioned the rights to Simon Toyne’s novel Solomon Creed (The Searcher in the US).
Another idea going into development this week is Moreau, a drama series inspired by HG Wells’ classic novel The Island Of Dr Moreau. Phillip Iscove, who previously reimagined Sleepy Hollow for TV, is writing the script for CBS TV Studios and Kennedy Marshall. In this variation of the story, Moreau is a woman who expands the boundaries of medicine through revolutionary scientific experimentation in a privately funded island hospital.
On the international sales front, A+E Studios International has just announced a slew of deals for scripted series UnREAL, which debuted on Lifetime in the US earlier this year. Set against the backdrop of fictional hit dating competition show Everlasting, UnREAL is a workplace drama led by flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby). Rachel is a young producer whose job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the dramatic and outrageous footage her dispassionate exec producer demands.
With a second series already greenlit, the first run has been picked up by broadcasters including TF1 (France), Antenna 3 (Spain), TV2 (Norway), Cellcom TV (Israel), YES (Israel), 360TV (Latvia), SBSTwo (Australia), Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). The series will also air on international versions of Lifetime in Canada, Latin America, the UK, Southeast Asia, Poland, and Africa. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen an ongoing trend for original, character-based shows,” said Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks. “UnREAL rises above the rest with its sharp storytelling and bold characters. We expect further deals at Mipcom.”
Another distribution story this week shows the interesting interplay between traditional TV studios and the ever-rising power that is Netflix. On Friday, it was announced that Netflix had secured the worldwide rights to the first season of ABC’s hit drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM). Episodes are now available in the US, Canada and Latin America, with other Netflix territories streaming the show in the coming months.
Clearly, the financial terms must have been attractive for Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution to do the deal. But there is also some strategic logic to the link-up. With season two of HTGAWM due to premiere on ABC on September 24, letting audiences binge season one of the show for a week beforehand is a way of building up the anticipation, with the hope that Netflix will drive viewers back in the direction of ABC.
In related new, Viola Davis, the star of HTGAWM, has just won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series. The first black actress to win the award, she gave this excellent acceptance speech. DQ previously looked at the show here.
On the subject of Emmys, this year’s big winner was – and about time too – Game of Thrones, which picked up 12 gongs. The next best showing came from Olive Kitteridge, with eight. Both shows are from HBO, which dominated proceedings this year. All told it took 43 Emmys, while NBC was next with 12. Other shows that did well were Amazon’s Transparent – which won five, including Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor – American Horror Story and Veep.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A+E Studios’ Bob DeBitetto outlines the new company’s mission statement as DQ takes a look at some of the shows emerging from the fledging production entity.
In June 2013 US broadcaster A+E Networks announced it was going to launch an in-house production studio under the leadership of Bob DeBitetto (pictured above), the president of brand strategy and business development at the parent company.
Two years down the line and the company has started making its mark with a string of scripted productions, including Houdini, Texas Rising, Sons of Liberty, UnREAL and a US adaptation of French supernatural hit The Returned. According to DeBitetto, there’s also a substantial development slate that will enable the studio to step up a gear in the next year or two. Among titles close to getting the green light is The Liberator, a wartime drama shaping up as A+E’s answer to HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Sons of Liberty
A six-part miniseries for History from A+E Studios and Stephen David Entertainment, Sons of Liberty follows historical figures Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Joseph Warren as they secretly join forces to make America a nation. Written by Stephen David and David C. White, the show was helmed by Kari Skogland and features a title theme by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. The production is distributed internationally by A+E Networks.
DeBitetto has long been an advocate of an A+E-owned production entity because “it makes good economic sense. Under the traditional model, our US networks (which include A+E, History and Lifetime) pay around 70% of the cost of production for a licence fee. The producer of the show – let’s say MGM or Warner Bros – then deficits the remainder and takes the worldwide rights. For me, this has always been problematic, because we are building programme brands but not participating fully in their success.”
This issue has become increasingly acute in the last three to five years, says DeBitetto, “because there are more platforms around the world consuming drama content, including SVoD players like Netflix and Amazon. So before the launch of A+E Studios we were in a position where we had a strong global distribution business (the international division of A+E Networks, headed by Sean Cohan), but didn’t own shows like Vikings (property of MGM). That meant we were losing out on potential revenue but also faced the prospect that shows we helped build in the US would appear on rivals elsewhere.”
Against this backdrop, the purpose of A+E Studios is to rebalance that relationship. “The studio is the vessel for us to own the content supply and exercise greater control over the programming,” DeBitetto says. “We will develop shows, deficit-finance them and put them through distribution ourselves.”
Texas Rising is an eight-part miniseries that airs on History in the US and is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It tells the story of the Texan revolution against Mexico and the rise of the Texas Rangers, the oldest law-enforcement group in North America. Exec producer is Leslie Greif, who has already had a hit Western in the shape of Hatfields & McCoys. The cast includes Bill Paxton, Olivier Martinez, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Kris Kristofferson. The show was produced by A+E Studios and ITV Studios America, in association with Thinkfactory Media.
It all makes sense. But if there is a countervailing argument, it’s that studios cost a lot to build and support. As DeBitetto acknowledges, A+E Studios is “not just a name on a letterhead, it is a proper studio with 25 to 30 executives in LA and another team based with me in New York, covering all the functions you’d expect across production, development and business affairs. So, yes, it involves a sizeable capital investment.”
But, for DeBitetto, “the real risk is the old model, where we had our hands wrapped around the worst part of the business. Our view is that even if a show doesn’t get renewed, it’s still possible to recoup the deficit internationally. Besides, the real risk is that we create shows that make $100m for someone else. A critical part of building an international business is being able to sync it up as much as possible around content. Just imagine if we make the next Walking Dead but don’t control it outside of a US licence.”
In a perfect, friction-free world, A+E Studios would make great scripted shows for A+E, History and Lifetime in the US and then pass them over to the distribution division to sell around the globe (ideally to the international arms of A+E’s own channels). But in reality the market is much more complex.
UnREAL is the first show that sees A+E Studios in complete control. Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, the series is set against the backdrop of a hit dating competition show, whose young producer manipulates contestants to get dramatic and outrageous footage. The programme is produced by A+E Studios and Frank & Bob Films II, with Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Grey’s Anatomy) as co-creator and executive producer. Distributed by A+E Networks, the show is airing on Lifetime US and has already been picked up by a number of networks including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
The first tier of complexity involves A+E’s US networks, which need to be able to buy drama from multiple sources: “Our CEO is clear that content ownership must be a key tentpole of this business. But the people running our networks need to be free to do business with other suppliers. For us, a quid pro quo of this is that A+E Studios should be able to sell content to third parties. If content ownership is a good and profitable business, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be selling our shows to other networks and the SVoD platforms. I could see us partnering on a show with Netflix.”
Another issue is what A+E Studios should do when another company already has its hands on a property that it wants to participate in. A case in point is The Returned, whose first season concluded last month on A+E in the US. “FremantleMedia were very smart and managed to get hold of the format rights to the show,” says DeBitetto. “We were interested in the show and took the creative lead, but that had to be set up as a coproduction where we shared the risk and the rights with them.”
DeBitetto has actually been doing quite a lot of sharing since launching his studio: “The first project we got involved with was Houdini, which was pretty much fully developed when we stepped in. So in that case we were involved as a co-financer. Then there was Texas Rising. In that case, ITV got involved when they acquired the show’s producer (Thinkfactory).
“Clearly, I’d like to move towards a model where we fully own shows. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that, particularly when you are starting up a studio. I see our future slate as being a mix of partnerships and wholly owned shows, but with the wholly owned shows taking a bigger percentage.”
This four-hour miniseries from Gerald W. Abrams aired on A+E’s History in 2014. Written by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek), Houdini starred Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as the famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. A Lionsgate/A+E Studios coproduction, the show debuted on History to 3.7 million viewers, making it one of the network’s strongest scripted shows ever. Houdini was distributed internationally by Lionsgate and sold to networks including Seven in Australia.
Probably the biggest deciding factor in whether A+E Studios thrives will be the quality of talent it attracts. DeBitetto is aware of this and has started signing up showrunners on development deals. “We’ve done deals with Michael Hirst and Carlton Cuse. What we like about these two is that they are both phenomenal talents who have produced great shows for A+E’s networks (Vikings and Bates Motel). We’d rather be in business with creatives where we know the chemistry works.”
Again, flexibility is the watchword when putting together deals like these: “We aren’t like the big studios, which can put people on huge exclusive deals. We need to be smart and not try to keep these guys in a walled-up dungeon. They need to be able to work with others too. That’s another reason why it’s important for us to sell to third-party networks. We can’t be in a position where shows developed here are never used because they are not picked up by our channels.”
DeBitetto is cautious about discussing future projects by name – with the exception of The Liberator, an eight-hour production that will follow the progress of US WW2 soldiers as they battle up through Italy and into Germany before getting involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “The project has been written by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), which is really exciting,” says DeBitetto. “If you think about how much CGI and SFX have come on since Band of Brothers, this will be a really spectacular piece of TV.”
As for the rest of the development slate, he says: “We have eight fully developed screenplays in front of A+E and six in early development with History. I don’t want to say too much yet but there is one time-travel project and another set around the time of the Crusades. Overall it’s an eclectic mix.”
In terms of the studio’s capacity, DeBitetto adds: “Put it this way, if A+E, Lifetime and History sent everything our way over the next three years, we could handle it. More realistically, if we get half to two-thirds of their scripted orders then we could handle those and have room to work on third-party orders. I don’t think you’re going to see us turning work down.”
A coproduction between A+E Studios and FremantleMedia North America, The Returned is based on the successful French drama Les Revenants. It focuses on a small town that is turned upside down when several local people come back from the dead. FremantleMedia is distributing the series internationally, excluding the US and Canada, which are being handled by A+E Studios. Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) wrote the first episode, and alongisde Raelle Tucker wrote and executive produced the series. The show debuted on A+E in the US on March 9. Just prior to that, FremantleMedia agreed a deal that will see The Returned debut on Netflix outside of the US and Canada. Netflix will add the show to its US service next year.
While A+E Studios is centred on LA and New York, DeBitetto says international plays a key role in the studio’s thinking. “Firstly, there are the ideas out in the market, like The Returned, which started in France. It doesn’t always work out, as we found the previous year when A+E in the US adapted Danish crime drama Those Who Kill. There are a lot of good titles out there and an appetite to adapt them in the US.”
Then there is the financing, continues DeBitetto: “When you think about that deficit I referred to earlier, it’s the financial projections coming back from Sean Cohan’s international team that underpin our productions. They are the ones with the market-by-market expertise, so their judgments are critical when assessing affordability and likely returns.”
So where does that leave the ambition to build A+E’s channel brands with wholly owned programming assets? What’s the correct play if a third-party network in the international market is willing to pay more to licence a show than an A+E network? “It’s case by case,” says DeBitetto. “If the option of selling to a big commercial network comes along then that’s clearly more attractive than selling to a smaller A+E network, particularly if our channel’s emphasis is more on factual. But here’s the thing – all we are selling is a window. Ownership means we can have our cake and eat it too. That’s where we are heading.”
In terms of how he wants the A+E Studios brand to be perceived, DeBitetto stresses that it is not a consumer-facing brand like the channels for which it produces. “But as a B2B brand I want people to think of us as small, smart, nimble, creative, eclectic, culturally relevant with an independent spirit,” he adds.
“The truth is your brand is defined by what you do. But we’re definitely material driven. For us, it’s what’s on the page, and then the screen, that matters.”
A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”
The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”
Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.
Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.
The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.
Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”
Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.
Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).
We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.
Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.
This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.
Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”
In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.
Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.
Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.
Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.
Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.