Lee Daniels has made a strong impression with Empire, the music industry show that has been rating so well on Fox in the US. But it looks like he is going to have a tougher time with his follow-up drama Star, which debuted on the same network on Wednesday.
The series follows three young women trying to break into the music scene. Star (played by Jude Demorest) has spent most of her life in foster care following her mother’s death from a drug overdose. She forms a girl group with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), an aspiring singer who (unknown to Star) is the daughter of a wealthy rock musician; and her 16-year-old sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), who she has not seen in five years.
At time of writing, the audience figures aren’t in but an IMDb score of 6.8 doesn’t augur well. Nor do the reviews, with critics quick to pan the series. The Chicago Tribune, for example, complained about the show’s “stilted dialogue” and “sloppy narrative,” while the New York Times said Star was “all over the place.” According to the NYT, “Empire’s first season set a standard for narrative drive and engaging storytelling that Star doesn’t approach in its initial three episodes. What Star doesn’t have is a Cookie – a Taraji P. Henson to light a fire that would draw your attention away from the tackiness of the show. It needs a star.”
It’s early days, of course, but it looks like Daniels will need a rapid turnaround in fortunes to keep the network bosses happy. If not, the show could go the same way as HBO’s musical miss Vinyl.
Turning to French-language/French-produced drama, the last few years have seen a steady stream of acclaimed shows coming on to the international market – examples including Braquo, Spiral, The Returned and Witnesses. 2016 has also been a pretty positive year, with series like Netflix’s Marseilles, the France-Sweden copro Midnight Sun and English-language epic Versailles attracting a lot of interest. Not to be overlooked either is The Bureau, a political thriller that has picked up a strong following on iTunes in the US and Amazon in the UK; or the two Belgian series, Truce and Public Enemy, which have attracted critical acclaim.
There are signs that this momentum will be maintained into 2017 following the news that StudioCanal has sold the German-speaking rights for eight-part series Baron Noir to Sony Channel.
A Canal+ Création Originale, Baron Noir follows French politician Philippe Rickwaert’s thirst for revenge against his political enemies. Launched to critical acclaim in France, with a second season now in development, this “French House of Cards” has also been acquired by SBS Australia and Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland. “Baron Noir is a gripping political thriller and a masterpiece of French storytelling. We are proud to premiere this series on Sony Channel,” said Carsten Fink, VP of German-speaking Europe at Sony Pictures Television Networks.
Another show in the news this week is the cult Norwegian youth series Skam (Shame), which is to be adapted for the US market by XIX Entertainment’s Simon Fuller. “Shame is an important show,” Fuller said. “There is precious little content created primarily for a teen audience and Shame provides this with great honesty and integrity. This show packs a punch and is leading the way in exploring multi-platform storytelling. It has become an enormous hit in Norway and has the potential to become an influential show in America, where there is simply nothing like it. Scandinavia and Norway in particular is at the forefront of innovation and creativity in the shaping of the world’s digital and creative industries right now. I’m proud to be in partnership with NRK to take Shame to a worldwide audience.”
Created by Julie Andem for NRK Super, Skam tackles topics such as school, depression, sex, homosexuality, alcohol and religion. With a fourth series now commissioned, the show has seen its weekly audience grow from 24,000 to 1.26 million in 2016. It is also popular in Denmark and Sweden and has picked up a strong teen audience via social media platforms. Addressing the deal with Fuller, Håkon Moslet, head of youth TV for NRK added: “A lot of people in the TV industry have got their eyes on Skam this fall, but no one has got a vision like Simon Fuller. He wants to be true to the original idea and make Shame a series that can change the rules in the American TV market. We’re honoured he wants to take our baby to the next international level.”
Also this week, there’s good news for Showtime following reports that the premium pay TV channel has signed a new salary deal with Shameless star Emmy Rossum. A holdup over Rossum’s pay demands had threatened the future of the show, but now that this has been resolved it leaves the door open for an eighth season of Shameless, which also stars William H Macy.
Although Showtime has not yet officially ordered an eighth run, it is very likely to do so. Shameless is currently Showtime’s second strongest performer behind Homeland and ahead of Ray Donovan and Billions. With The Affair experiencing a substantial drop in ratings for season three, having the stability that Shameless provides must surely be a priority for Showtime. Shameless is based on a UK show of the same name. Created by Paul Abbott, the original version ran for 11 seasons on Channel 4.
Finally this week, Tribune Broadcasting-owned cable network WGN has cancelled its witch-themed drama Salem after three seasons. The show, which is centred on the 17th century witch trials, is currently averaging around 260,000 viewers – well down on its performance in seasons one and two. To date, WGN has had a hit-and-miss record on drama origination. Manhattan was also a poor performer but Underground and Outsiders have both done well for the network and have been renewed for second seasons.
A couple of months ago, we looked at the success Disney has had with its Marvel acquisition. So it seems only fair that we also shine a spotlight on DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros that has spawned dozens of films, scripted shows and animation series.
Characters from DC, formed in 1932, have formed the basis of hit TV series since the 1950s. After early outings for Superman and Batman, DC properties gave us iconic shows like Wonder Woman, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville.
The latter ran for 10 seasons (2001-2011) and 218 episodes, first on The WB and then on its replacement network The CW (which is 50/50 owned by CBS and DC Comics owner Warner Bros).
While DC properties remain an important part of the feature-film landscape, it’s The CW that continues to provide the major platform for DC Comics’ success on the small screen.
A key landmark was the launch of Arrow in 2012. Adapted for the screen by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, the show is one of The CW’s top performers and is currently in its fifth season, attracting just under two million viewers per episode.
The importance of Arrow goes beyond its ratings, however. On the one hand, it has encouraged The CW to back a number of DC-based franchises, with Berlanti and co in charge of the creative. On the other, it has persuaded some of the larger US networks to tap into the company’s pool of comic book IP.
Looking first at The CW, 2014 saw the launch of The Flash, which is part of the same mythological universe as Arrow (known to aficionados as the ‘Arrowverse’). Now in season three, The Flash is currently The CW’s top-rated show with around 2.8 million viewers per episode. And earlier this year, the network launched another spin-off based on the ‘Arrowverse’ pool of characters. Called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it is currently attracting a steady 1.8 million and has been renewed for a 17-episode second season.
In addition to the above shows, The CW is also home to Supergirl, a DC-based series that was originally aired on CBS but then shifted to The CW for season two when its ratings started to decline. In the less exposed world of The CW, the show has thrived and is now its second most popular series, averaging 2.6 million viewers.
The relationship with DC has also allowed The CW to segue into the ‘Zombieverse’ with iZombie. Loosely based on a comic book series that came out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, the show has a third season on the way and averages around 1.2 million viewers.
The rise of DC’s stock has also encouraged some of the Big Four US networks to sample the company’s wares. The stand out example of this is Fox’s Gotham, which delves into the backstory of the young Batman, focusing its energy primarily on Commissioner James Gordon and the origin stories of some of Batman’s most famous enemies. Now in its third season, the show is currently attracting an OK-but-not-amazing 3.4 million (down from four million in season two and six million in season one).
Echoing its growing relationship with Disney’s Marvel, Fox has adapted a second DC property, Lucifer, based on a character that appeared in comic book series The Sandman (created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg).
The show debuted last year and did well enough to get a second season. Currently averaging around 3.5 million viewers, the second run was extended to 22 episodes last month – though the jury is still out on whether it is doing well enough to secure a third outing.
Without being overly critical, there is a pattern with DC properties – they perform strongly on The CW but modestly on the Big Four. Gotham and Lucifer have done OK but not fantastically well, while Supergirl’s strong start dissipated quickly, hence its move to The CW. To this list should be added Constantine, which aired for a single season on NBC before being axed.
The main reason for this is The CW is a narrowly focused youth channel while the Big Four are mainstream, so are probably trying to reach an audience that is more ambivalent about superheroes and fantasy adventure series. Nevertheless, there are more planned DC shows in the pipeline for the Big Four.
NBC, for example, is developing a sitcom rooted in the DC universe. Called Powerless, the shows is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in the US – with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”
Fox, meanwhile, is reported to be piloting a show based on Black Lightning, one of the first African American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. This is a welcome trend, echoing the recent Marvel/Netflix tie-in on the new Luke Cage series.
Of course, the fact that The CW does so well has not been lost on cable channels, which have a similar kind of niche profile. So we’re also starting to see more DC properties populate this part of the TV business. AMC, for example, is doing pretty well with Preacher, another idea from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The first season attracted around 1.68 million per episode and a recommission followed.
Other pilot orders include Scalped for WGN America and Krypton for Syfy (the latter set in the Superman universe). There are also reported to be several other titles in development including DMZ and Ronin for Syfy and Amped for USA Network. FX is also believed to be developing a series based on Y: The Last Man.
For those unfamiliar with the world of comic books, the DC/Vertigo dichotomy is interesting. While the former is home to mainstream franchises like Superman and Batman, the latter was specifically set up to publish more hard-hitting, adult-themed franchises. This is significant, because it opened up the range of opportunities for DC.
Supergirl, for example, might fit on CBS or The CW but would look tame on AMC. Preacher, by contrast, would not go down well with a more mainstream audience. That said, Constantine and Lucifer were both born into the Vertigo family, which shows that the Big Four networks have been exploring the potential to soften Vertigo shows for their demos.
It’s also worth noting that there have been other DC subsidiaries down the years that are still providing IP for film and TV. For example, DC acquired an imprint called WildStorm in 1999 and shut it down in 2010. During that time, WildStorm created Red, a franchise that was subsequently turned into two successful films. Recent reports suggest NBC is now planning a TV version.
One obvious final question, of course, is how DC-based shows fare internationally. Well, not too badly actually.
Gotham has been licensed to platforms including Globo Brazil, Pro7 Germany and Netflix in Poland, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have both been acquired by Italia 1 among others.
Lucifer has also travelled well, to platforms such as Amazon UK and Viasat 3 in Hungary. On UK pay TV channel Sky1, latest ratings figures put The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl as the top three shows, underlining the global appeal of the dynamic DC business.
Chuck Lorre, the creative force behind hit comedies such as The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men, is to be inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Commenting on the decision, NAB exec VP of Television Marcellus Alexander said: “An artist in the prime of his career, Chuck Lorre is a legendary television writer and producer. His biting wit and memorable characters have become a part of our culture and defined an era of scripted comedies for Warner Bros TV and CBS.”
Lorre began adult life as a songwriter, penning the Debbie Harry hit single French Kissin’ in the USA. His first writing gig was working on ABC’s hit comedy Roseanne. After this, he created a CBS show called Frannie’s Turn, which lasted just five episodes.
Although Frannie’s Turn didn’t work out, it was a good early indicator of the way Lorre likes to use comedy to tackle topical social issues. In this case, the story centred on a 50-something seamstress who decides to fight back against her domineering husband. His next project, ABC’s Grace Under Fire, focused on a single mother with three kids who had recently divorced her abusive husband. Later in his career, he would turn his attention to issues such as obesity (Mike & Molly) and sobriety (Mom) with notable success.
During the 1990s, Lorre’s credits included CBS’s Cybill (another divorced single mother; four seasons) and ABC’s Dharma and Greg (about a couple who marry after their first date despite being complete opposites; five seasons).
Then came Lorre’s first monster hit, Two and a Half Men, created with Lee Aronsohn. This show, produced through Warner Bros TV, ran on CBS from 2003 to 2015 and managed to survive a massive fallout with lead actor Charlie Sheen in 2011, with Ashton Kutcher subsequently taking the central role. Still a staple on pay TV networks around the world, Two and a Half Men’s final episode managed to pull in an audience of 13.5 million for CBS.
Working under an overall deal with Warner Bros TV, Lorre’s career has gone from strength to strength ever since. In 2007, he launched The Big Bang Theory – also on CBS. The story of two physics geeks with no social skills, the show’s first season averaged an audience of around 9.7 million. Support for the show grew year after year until it hit the 20 million mark in season six. Although the ratings for the current season (nine) have dropped back to the 15-16 million mark, The Big Bang Theory is still the number-one US entertainment series among total viewers and adults aged 18 to 49.
Lorre also executive produces Mike & Molly, which is coming to an end this year after six seasons on CBS, and is into his third season on CBS’s Mom, which he created with Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker. After a particularly strong series two (which averaged around 11.8 million viewers), the show is currently drawing audiences of eight to eight-and-half million.
With Mike & Molly ending and The Big Bang Theory unlikely to last too much longer, the big question is what will the 63-year-old Lorre do next? Well, the latest reports suggest he is working with David Javerbaum on a multi-camera comedy about a group of potheads who run a legal marijuana dispensary in Colorado.
If anyone else had tried to pitch that idea, it probably would have been vetoed straightaway. But in Lorre’s hands it might just work. Chances are, however, it could be a bit too risky for CBS – so it might turn up on one of the subscription VoD platforms, Netflix or Amazon.
As an interesting footnote, Lorre post a series of short anecdotes and observations online which he calls his Vanity Cards (see chucklorre.com). In one, he talks amusingly about why he changed his name from Levine to Lorre. “The reason I changed my name was simple. My mother, never a fan of my father’s family, had an unfortunate habit of using Levine as a stinging insult. When displeased with me, she would often say/shriek, ‘You know what you are? You’re a Levine! A no good, rotten Levine!’” he explains.
“So, for as far back as I can remember, every time I heard my last name I would experience acute feelings of low self-esteem. My first wife suggested I change my name to remedy the situation. In fact, it was she who came up with the name Lorre, complete with the fancy spelling. I thought it sounded great. Chuck Lorre. Finally a name that did not make me squirm. It didn’t occur to me that in England my new name translated into Chuck Truck.
“But most interestingly, I had forgotten that when I was around eight years old my father’s business began to fail, forcing my mother to find work in a clothing store called… Lorie’s. Pretty creepy, huh? Did I abandon my father’s name only to unconsciously name myself after a place associated with my mother’s abandonment of me? Or, even creepier, did my ex-wife somehow know all this and propose the name Lorre just to screw with me? Hmmm… I was a no good, rotten husband so I certainly had it coming.”
In other news, Viacom-owned cable channel Spike is teaming up with sister network Paramount to develop a drama called Pendergast. Based on novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the show follows an eccentric FBI special agent solving crimes in New York City. Pendergast is being developed with Universal Cable Productions and written by John McLaughlin, who is also executive producing alongside Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead).
McLaughlin’s credits range across film and TV, though he is best known for movies Black Swan and Hitchcock. Some years back he was also part of the writing team that adapted Paul Abbot’s Touching Evil for the US market.
Elsewhere, it has been a good week for Outsiders, which became the most viewed original series in WGN America’s history. The first episode generated 3.9 million viewers in Live +3 ratings, and gathered a total of 5.5 million viewers during its premiere week.
The 13×60’ show, set in the Appalachian hills, represents something of a breakthrough moment for creator Peter Mattei. “We felt that Outsiders was exceptional,” says Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios, “but there is no greater validation than this kind of viewer response. We’re grateful for the stellar cast and creative team, Peter Mattei, Peter Tolan and Paul Giamatti, and our producing partners at Sony Pictures Television, and we thank the fans, who inspire us to deliver one-of-a-kind storytelling.”
After initially being told his script wouldn’t find a TV home, Outsiders creator Peter Mattei says he found the perfect fit in WGN America. He tells DQ how his story of renegades who clash with the modern world came in from the cold.
Novelist, playwright, filmmaker, screenwriter – it’s fair to say Peter Mattei (pictured above right) has more titles than most. So it’s a sign of the ongoing strength of television drama that he chose the small screen as the medium for his latest project.
Outsiders marks US cable channel WGN America’s latest foray into the world of original programming. Described as a struggle for power and control set in the rugged hills of Appalachia, the series focuses on the Farrell Clan, a tight-knit family of renegades who have lived atop the rugged Shay Mountain for more than 200 years, and their fight to defend their way of life from the town below and anyone who would dare to challenge them.
Produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios, it was created and written by Mattei, who executive produces alongside Fedora Entertainment’s Peter Tolan, Paul Giamatti, Dan Carey for Touchy Feely Films and Fedora’s Michael Wimer.
“I had pitched and sold a batch of TV ideas over the years and none of them really went forward,” Mattei explains. “I wasn’t sure whether I should do this one as a novel or film but I saw it as a longform story. The kind of independent films I’m interested in aren’t being seen and it’s hard to get money, so the idea of doing it as a TV show was more appealing.
“It’s a great time to be doing longform novelistic stories. I wanted to do it as TV but I knew it wasn’t pitchable because it’s so strange, so I just wrote it.”
Mattei says the series was inspired by a number of contemporary issues facing the US, notably in terms of politics and the financial crisis, gentrification and the idea of freedom.
“I was interested in this idea of people living an alternate lifestyle, in cults and communes,” he says. “What if there were people living a lifestyle that people were living 200 years ago and were determined not to change? What would happen if these people were discovered living among us and their way of life was threatened? What if they were illiterate? And the ideas fell in together.”
The author of 2013 satirical novel The Great Whatsis, Mattei wrote the pilot script for Outsiders (originally called Titans) and for a few years was told by friends in the business that it was a great idea but one that wouldn’t fly on television.
Unperturbed, he passed it to his agent, who also represents Giamatti, and they teamed up to take it out to the networks. Arriving at WGN, Mattei was impressed by the broadcaster’s ambition and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for his show.
Equally impressed, WGN gave Outsiders a 13-episode straight-to-series order, following in the footsteps of its earlier original series Salem and Manhattan. It makes its debut on the network tonight.
“They’re an upstart, similar to AMC when they did Breaking Bad and Mad Men,” Mattei says of WGN. “They’re looking for interesting, edgy material to differentiate themselves and have a straight-to-series model. They also loved the material and it seemed like the perfect fit. After a period of writing, they decided to move forward with it and they brought in Sony as a co-studio (with Tribune, the production arm of WGN parent Tribune Media). I knew I needed a partner and Sony brought Peter (Tolan) in. He loved it too.
“It still feels surreal. This was a very strange idea I cooked up and wrote very quickly – I didn’t think about it too much. I wasn’t trying to sell anything. I wanted to write something I thought would be cool on air. A year later, seeing it coming to life, it’s very surreal. Since I had never made a show before, I felt like I was a student of the process and absorbed everything from Peter. We put the writers room together. It was incredibly daunting to plot 13 episodes of a show when I had barely scratched the surface.”
Though Mattei worked alongside Tolan to run the writers room, he says being a showrunner is different to anything he has done before.
“Showrunning is definitely one of those things you can apprentice if you’re working on a show, but if you’ve never done it before, there doesn’t seem to be a playbook,” he says. “Everyone does it very differently. For me, having the equivalent of four full-time jobs was really hard. I was the only writer on set and the only producer on set.
“The experience was twofold: the time I was in LA with the writers room and plotting out the season’s story arc, and being in Pittsburgh during production. Because it was a made-up universe, it was very different to anything everybody had worked on before. It’s not a lawyer show where you know how everyone behaves. I don’t know how my characters talk or how they dress. I had lots of ideas and also the way this story looked was very important to me. I wanted it to be very cinematic. We just shot a 10-hour movie in 13 parts.”
The look of the show was so important to Mattei that he put together a 60-page presentation outlining the appearance of both the world of the show and its characters – drawing inspiration from such groups as bikers and gypsies – and the style of music that should be used. He also worked with director Adam Bernstein to hire the director of photography and costume and production designers.
“I really got involved more than most showrunners do in terms of production,” he says. “We wanted it to be really cinematic so I wanted to be on the ground.”
Mattei values the work of his collaborators and says he is keen to let people have their own voice. “I just want to make sure what we are doing is the best thing we can do,” he adds. “This is the first year of the show and it’s such a made-up fantastical world that there was a lot of back and forth with the actors and designers about what the show would be. By midway, we knew what we were doing and I felt confident I would know the answer to any question people could ask.”
Outsiders also boasts a strong ensemble cast, headlined by David Morse, who is best known for big-screen roles in The Green Mile, Contact, The Hurt Locker and The Rock. He has also appeared in episodes of HBO dramas True Detective and Treme. Other cast members include Thomas M Wright, Ryan Hurst, Joe Anderson, Gillian Alexy, Kyle Gallner, Christina Jackson, Francie Swift and Phyllis Somerville.
“When we set out in casting, we just wanted great actors in every role as opposed to having specific ideas of the look of a character,” Mattei says. “We were very lucky because when the script got out, there were certain actors who came to us.
“We were overjoyed when we heard from David Morse. He was someone whose name I had thrown out as the kind of actor I wanted to work with. He’s an actor’s actor. All our actors were really smart about their characters and their story arcs. It was a very collaborative process where they would give feedback on stories. We did table reads and a lot of rewriting based on those.”
Having taken a series to air after several false starts, Mattei says he now cannot imagine doing anything other than television. “I’m a dilettante; I like to try everything. I’m sure at some point I would love to get back in theatre – it’s been 20 years – and to make a film as well. For the moment, this is an incredible moment for US TV. I hope it lasts. It feels to me like when I got into making films and was in the middle of the independent film community at Sundance. TV feels like that, filled with excitement and so many people making smart stuff. It’s full of energy where lots of things are possible and really great work is happening.
“Mr Robot is amazing. It’s incredibly good. I also liked Black Mirror – that was a real masterpiece. When there’s stuff out there like that, you get really inspired.”
Looking back on making the first season of Outsiders, Mattei describes it as “easily the most intense experience” of his life.
He adds: “I was not at all prepared for how demanding it would be to run a show like this. I fucked up a lot of stuff and struggled with a lot of stuff. We all did. It’s one of those experiences. It’s really quite a journey. It’s so much more intense than making a film. We were taking 15 days to make 90 minutes, not 30 days. The pace is daunting. We have been through a war together.”
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
As John Legend becomes the latest singer-songwriter to sign up to a television drama, hot on the heels of fellow artists Timbaland and 50 Cent, Michael Pickard asks whether more will follow.
US cable channel WGN America was on song this week as it announced details of its latest original production.
Underground will tell the story of a group of plantation slaves who come together to fight for their families, their future and their freedom.
But while the straight-to-series order follows in the footsteps of other WGN original dramas, including Salem and Manhattan, the new series also followed another new trend with the addition of a key member of the creative team.
Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning musician John Legend (pictured above) was unveiled as an executive producer on the project. Together with his Get Lifted partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius, he will oversee Underground’s score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.
Earlier this year, Legend won the Oscar for Best Original Song for Glory, from the motion picture Selma, which followed the 1965 voting rights marches that took place from Selma to Montgomery under the civil rights leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We are excited to join forces with WGN America and Sony and the talented team of writers and producers on this powerful project that we believe will inspire us all,” Legend said. “This series has a unique opportunity to speak to the passion and courage of those who risked it all as they raced to freedom. We are honoured to bring our creative vision to this thrilling project.”
Underground is created and written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who also executive produce with writer Akiva Goldsman of Weed Road Pictures, Tory Tunnell and Joby Harold of Safehouse Pictures and Legend, Jackson and Stiklorius of Get Lifted.
It is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios, and is being filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a 2016 debut.
The cast is led by Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, a restless slave who organises a small team of fellow slaves on the Macon plantation to plan an escape. It also includes June Smollett-Bell, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller and Jessica de Gouw, with Marc Blucas, Adina Porter, Mykelti Williamson, Amir Vann, Johnny Ray Gill, Chris Chalk, Reed Diamond, and Jussie Smollett.
“Underground depicts a raw and revolutionary chapter in the American story. We wanted an artist who could help us find the light through the darkness, and John Legend was a perfect fit,” said Green and Pokaski. “We are beyond excited to be working with John, Mike and Ty at Get Lifted. They stand without peer at the intersection of music and television – we couldn’t think of better producing partners.”
Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios, added: “We are thrilled that John Legend will lend his impressive talents to Underground, a story that chronicles the compelling journey of brave individuals whose fight for freedom still inspires us today.
“We look forward to John, Mike and Ty’s creative imprint on this series that we believe will be both provocative and captivating.”
While musical dramas are nothing new – Glee, Smash and Nashville are some of the more recent efforts – Legend joins a growing list of musicians moving into television.
Music producer Timbaland signed up as a songwriter and song producer on US network ABC’s hip-hop drama Empire, which features a mix of original and current music as it spins the story of a family that runs a music empire.
Meanwhile, Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson is an executive producer on premium cable network Starz’ Power, about a New York nightclub owner who leads a double life as one of the city’s biggest drug dealers. Jackson also has a hand in the music that accompanies each episode.
It is a sign of the current strength of TV drama that artists such as Legend, Timbaland and 50 Cent are interested in working on the small screen, following a similar migration of film actors, directors and screenwriters, plus bestselling authors such as Harlan Coben.
It is also a shrewd move on behalf of the networks and producers, who can expect to sell additional show merchandise by way of series soundtracks, while the performers can also look forward to increasing interest in their back catalogue.
So can we expect more musicians to move into TV? With Kanye West linked to Underground before Legend signed on, and with Mick Jagger on board a new HBO rock drama headed by Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, a television series could soon be as lucrative as a residency in Las Vegas.