Tag Archives: You Me and the Apocalypse

Sky high

From talking the talk to walking the walk, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky has put its money where its mouth is in the search for compelling original drama.

It was in 2011 that Sky group CEO Jeremy Darroch said the UK pay TV giant would be investing £600m (US$909m) a year in original content by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its previous spend.

Now that money is being seen on screen in the guise of an enviable slate of original series, including You, Me and the Apocalypse, The Last Panthers and Fungus the Bogeyman, which aired over Christmas. New series coming up include The Five, created by crime author Harlan Coben, and second seasons of The Tunnel (pictured above) and Fortitude.

And as Sky moves into a new era of year-round drama commissioning across three channels – Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts – there is only the promise of more to come.

Mensah: 'If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left'
Mensah: ‘If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left’

“We are a pay TV platform so we have a mandate from our CEO to make sure we can provide drama that people want to pay for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. “What’s brilliant about that relationship with our customers is that it’s a mandate for distinction. Everything we do is about being the boldest, the most distinctive, the most innovative drama in the UK, specifically for our customers. We have one drama after another and they all have that ambition to be absolutely best in class, but also good fun and really watchable.”

Sky is best known for its acquisition of rights, predominantly for sport, movies and US television – in particular series from HBO. Last month, Sky tied up exclusive UK rights to content from Showtime, which will include Billions and the revival of Twin Peaks.

And Mensah compares Sky’s original drama ambitions to that of the film business: “We look at television like movies. In the same way you’re working really hard to get an audience to get out of their chair and go to the cinema and buy a ticket, you buy a ticket for Sky. We treat our customers in the same way, with the same production values, the same stars and the same sense of event.

“On Sky1, it’s a blockbuster experience; on Sky Atlantic, it’s more of an art-house cinema experience. But Sky Atlantic is not niche – it’s an art-house cinema experience with wine.”

Cameron Roach, Sky’s drama commissioning editor, takes the identities of Sky’s channels further by describing them in terms of how viewers watch them.

“On Sky1 we want to promote shared viewing in households, whereas Sky Atlantic is not about the overnights and is much more like reading a novel – you might watch two or three episodes at once,” he explains. “The on-demand platform (Sky Go) is really important for that viewing experience.”

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made extensive use of CGI

But when viewers are watching Sky’s output in a variety of ways, how does the broadcaster measure success? Mensah says it’s about what the programme makers wanted their show to achieve in the first place.

“Some shows are built to be consumed like novels, to be massive critical successes and to talk to an audience that want to get into real think-pieces. Others are built to be super entertaining,” she says. “Everybody’s obsession with how you measure success is totally reductive because every show does something different. Particularly when you’ve got a pay TV platform – on a basic level our jobs are to bring people to Sky and keep them at Sky, and to give them a good experience of being Sky customers. That’s not one show, that’s the whole offering.”

As far as development goes, Sky doesn’t have a number of projects waiting in the wings. Instead, its drama team puts its money only on shows that are likely to make it to air, rather than taking scripts on and passing on them further down the line.

Mensah notes: “If we know we want to do a show, we think we shouldn’t put other things into competition with it. I would hope the talent comes to work with us and knows we’re backing their show and not slightly playing the odds like some other channels can do. It can be quite hard to get stuff into development with us, but once we’re in development with something, we’re doing it because we intend to make it.”

Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime
Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime

Roach adds that Sky’s drama team turns down lots of projects. “Before I started working with Anne, she said her ambition was to run a narrow slate,” he says. “Lots of people say that but it is genuine. We’re a small team but if something is in funded development with us, that means one of the team absolutely loves it. We’ve all got different tastes so it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but we have an absolute ambition to see that show made and we will support that production company.”

Funding from the pay TV broadcaster is also dependent on the type of project in question. With its use of CGI, Fungus the Bogeyman required extensive research and development, while horror story The Enfield Haunting also required commitments in terms of research and script development.

Sky’s development process has also become slightly more complicated since Sky UK’s acquisition of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, creating a single company that broadcasts to 21 million customers in five territories across Europe.

Both Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland have retained their own drama teams, however, with forthcoming series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, offering the first example of how the trio will work together.

The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers was simulcast across all of Sky’s territories

“The Young Pope is a coproduction through all three but editorially it goes through Sky Italia, because what you don’t need is 7,000 voices on something,” Mensah says. “There’s one editorial voice but the backing of the whole weight of Sky. The Last Panthers was simultaneously transmitted across all of our territories, as was Fortitude. What you’ve got is the best of all possible worlds, which is clear editorial focus but with the weight of this massive company backing your show.”

Sky is also a committed coproduction partner, working with NBC on end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, Showtime on horror Penny Dreadful and France’s Canal+ on cross-Channel drama The Tunnel and pan-European crime thriller The Last Panthers.

“We love coproductions but luckily with Sky, it’s not about the money as much as creativity. Working with Canal+, not only do we like them personally but they also brought creative talent to us that we couldn’t find ourselves. I’d never worked with Haut et Court (Les Revenants) before Panthers. The Warp Films-Haut et Court partnership is why Panthers is so unique. As for The Tunnel, we had worked with Kudos before but working in France with French directors was new to me.”

Looking ahead, Roach says The Five is a good example of how Sky wants to take an existing genre – crime, in this case – and give it a different hook for Sky1.

The show follows a group of four friends haunted by the disappearance of one of
their younger brothers some years earlier while he was in their care. The group is forced to revisit the past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. It is written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company.

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is a coproduction with Showtime

“Anne and Nicola started talking about the hooky novels that come from the likes of Harlan Coben,” recalls Roach. “It was a really innovative development process and it was the same with Fungus and Lucky Man (now airing on Sky1), which was an original idea from (Marvel Comics’) Stan Lee.”

The prospect of year-round drama also looks set to create a new story for Sky’s channels, with their individual identities no longer being separated by strict boundaries.

“There has to be fluid boundaries between the channels, particularly as we’re aware of the growing importance of our on-demand offering,” says Roach. “We’re planning two or three years in advance and we’re not sure how platforms will emerge. Sky1 and Sky Atlantic have a very clear identity but as we go to year-round drama we can diversify our output.”

Mensah says anyone hoping to pitch a project to Sky should simply talk to her and her team. “A pitch should feel like a conversation,” she explains. “Too often people put too much emphasis on the formal pitch – anything we’ve got in funded development began as a conversation. People can over-think that process. We’re working with Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, and he simply called us. We bought the idea on the phone. He then won an Oscar. Equally, other people send us full scripts. There are seriously no rules.”

Stan Lee's Lucky Man
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man

No rules, then, but if one were to offer potential partners some guidelines, it would be to avoid generalised stories and to throw caution to the wind in a bid to offer big, bold, epic tales.

“If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left,” says Mensah. “With The Five, everyone else was doing lovely, languid thrillers so we thought, ‘how can we do it as quickly as possible?’ It turns on a dime every five seconds and the producers have done such a good job.”

Ultimately, to have a drama land on Sky, you’ve got to reach for the stars. “If you feel a show could sit on ITV or the BBC, they’re brilliant so that’s the space it should be in,” Mensah adds. “We really do look for stuff that feels like it could only be us.”

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Laughing all the way to the bank

modern-family
Modern Family is currently on its seventh run 

The US churns out a lot of appalling sitcoms. But just occasionally it produces half-hour comedies that are pure genius.

Friends (1994-2004) is the most famous example of this. But there’s no question that Friends is matched by ABC’s Modern Family, which is now in its seventh season.

Created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, Modern Family is a mockumentary-style comedy that follows the lives of Jay Pritchett and his extended family, which divides into three units. In the first unit are Jay, his Colombian second wife Gloria, his stepson and infant son. The second includes his daughter Claire, her husband Phil and their three children. Finally there is his son Mitchell, his partner Cameron and their adopted child.

The show won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row before finally being knocked off its perch this year by Veep. In ratings terms it delivers consistently high audiences, averaging around 12 million viewers throughout each season once time-shifting is considered.

There is a slight sense that critics are getting bored with the Modern Family formula, but this has yet to translate into a mass exodus by fans. The show is currently five episodes into its current run and continues to do a good job for ABC, despite being up against last year’s breakout drama Empire and long-running series Criminal Minds.

blackish
Black-ish is given a helping hand by airing immediately after Modern Family

It also provides a good leg-up for one of ABC’s newer comedies Black-ish (now in season two), which airs immediately after it on Wednesday evenings.

With around 150 episodes, Modern Family has also become incredibly valuable as a syndication and distribution property. More than Friends, it also lends itself to adaptation, with local versions of the show made or planned in Chile, Greece, Iran and India.

Modern Family stands out for its ability to both attract audiences and appeal to critics. Compare it with NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for example. That show, starring Amy Poehler, came to an end in February 2015 after seven seasons. While Parks and Rec was well crafted, funny and positively reviewed, its ratings for the last four seasons came in at around the four million mark, which is not particularly good.

NBC is to be congratulated for sticking with it for so long, however, and also with its creator Michael Schur. This summer, the network announced that Schur had been signed up to created a 13-part comedy called The Good Place.

There are also reports that NBC is backing a second comedy from Schur and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) about a happily married interracial couple whose lives change when they move closer to the wife’s family.

The Big Bang theory cast are big earners
The Big Bang theory cast are big earners

So what else comes close to Modern Family? The most obvious comparison is CBS megahit The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), now in its ninth season.

Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show centres on a pair of university physics geeks sharing an apartment and their circle of friends. TBBT’s first season attracted a fairly modest 9.7 million viewers, but by season six the show was hitting the 20 million mark.

This year there seems to be some slackening in the ratings and a growing sense that the formula has run its course. But with the show already renewed through season 10, it isn’t going anywhere just yet.

After then, however, who knows? The lead actors are now on salaries resembling those of Friends cast. So if ratings continue to slide then CBS may decide it is an opportune time to call a halt to the show.

Successful but not spectacular is how best to describe ABC’s The Middle, about a working-class family in Indiana coping with the day-to-day problems of existence. Now in its seventh season, the show has a rock-solid audience of around 8-8.5 million. It has also racked up enough episodes to become a valuable syndication and distribution asset.

The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers
The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers

Not to be overlooked either is Fox’s contribution in the form of animated comedy, with The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy all doing good business (The Simpsons is now up to 578 episodes over 27 seasons).

The Simpsons doesn’t look like it will ever be cancelled (it will take a brave exec to do this), but if we take the view that Modern Family and TBBT are both in the autumn of their lives, what else is coming through that might build up similar momentum?

One show moving in the right direction is CBS’s Mom. Another Chuck Lorre comedy, it focuses on Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother who, after dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse, restarts her life in California, working as a waitress and attending AA meetings. Like many good comedies, Mom started out with fairly good ratings (season one hit 8.3 million) but really took off once word of mouth kicked in (season two drew 11.79 million). Season three, which starts on November 5, will provide an indication of whether the show has stamina for the long haul.

Also building an audience, albeit from a slightly lower base, is ABC’s The Goldbergs. Created by Adam Goldberg, the show is set in 1980s Pennsylvania and is loosely based on the showrunner’s own childhood, during which he videotaped events.

goldbergs
The Goldbergs, airing on ABC, has seen ratings improve since its first season

The show’s brashness has divided critics (it’s not as sedate as The Wonder Years, for example) but with season two (8.3 million) building on season one’s ratings (6.2 million), there were high hopes coming into season three. So far The Goldbergs is holding up well and looks like a dead cert to come back for a fourth run. For all that, though, it doesn’t yet have the feeling that it can develop into a modern classic.

As yet, there are no comedies in the class of 2015/16 that are obvious hits in the making. But one of the more encouraging entrants to the market is CBS’s Life in Pieces, which looks like the channel’s attempt to come up with its own Modern Family.

The show, which has settled in with audiences in the 8-9 million mark, revolves around four branches of the Short family tree and their awkward, funny, and touching milestones. Very likely to get a renewal, it benefits from being aired after TBBT and having the likes of James Brolin and Dianne Wiest among its cast.

Also looking good is ABC’s Dr Ken, which is rating well despite not being that popular with critics. The show, which has just been given a full season order by ABC, stars comedian Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and is loosely based on his experience working as a doctor before making it in Hollywood.

Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong
Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong

As we’ve seen with The Goldbergs (and Louis CK’s successful sitcom Louie), blurring the lines between reality and fiction is becoming a big theme in US comedy (see also Real Rob and The Real O’Neals) and is an extension of the mockumentary trend.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the big four networks are the only ones capable of delivering great comedy. While those channels are undoubtedly best placed to secure large audiences, the US cable market can also be relied upon to deliver some superb comedy. A case in point is HBO’s Veep, the show that broken Modern Family’s run of five wins at the Primetime Emmys.

Veep recently finished its fourth season and typically secures ratings of around one million. However, its value to HBO is more about its ability to reinforce the brand’s profile and attract subscribers – a job it does very well.

Commenting on the latest run, TV critic Tim Goodman of The Hollywood reporter said: “Veep entered its fourth season, firmly established as one of TV’s best comedies, and then did what seems impossible – it delivered its most thoroughly assured, hilarious and brilliantly written and acted episodes.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep

In May, HBO announced a fifth series of Veep, renewing another of its acclaimed sitcoms Silicon Valley at the same time.

Another show that is attracting plaudits is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was released on Netflix in March.

The series follows 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City, having being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana where she was held for 15 years. The subject matter is more edgy than you’d see on network TV but is typical of the more complex themes that pay TV and streaming services can touch on (another example being Amazon’s acclaimed Transparent).

One other show worth keeping an eye out for is You, Me and the Apocalypse, a joint production between Sky1 in the UK and NBC in the US. The story of an eclectic group of people forced to survive together as a comet heads for Earth has already started airing on Sky1 and is doing pretty well. It will be interesting to see how it performs when it reaches NBC, a more mainstream outlet. If it does well for both partners, it might open the door for a few more transatlantic ventures.

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