As TV showrunners adjust to their celebrity status in Hollywood, what are the biggest they face in the business?
This DQ show hears from some of the top executives in the industry on topics such as the shortage of showrunners in the era of ‘peak TV,’ the use of technology, the impact of social media and the new opportunities available for writer-producers to get their stories on screen.
Contributors include Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Amblin Television’s Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank (Bull), Ben Silverman (Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Timeless), Eric Kriple (Timeless), Jeff Melvoin (Army Wives, Alias, Northern Exposure), Marta Kauffman (Friends, Grace & Frankie), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Eric Newman (Narcos), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) and Ilene Chaiken (Empire).
Watch part one, Rise of the celebrity showrunner, here.
In 2011, US programme market Natpe moved from Las Vegas to Miami to be closer to the Latin American TV community. So it’s fitting that Natpe 2016 (held between January 19 and 21 last week) provided a platform for so many Latin American scripted TV announcements.
Pick of the bunch was the news that Brazilian media giant Globo is moving into Spanish-language production with a thriller called Supermax. Although Globo has previously coproduced Spanish-language shows with the likes of Azteca in Mexico and Telemundo in the US, Supermax marks the first time it has fully funded a drama in Spanish.
The 10-part series, being produced in-house with Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman as showrunner, follows eight characters who travel to a remote prison to participate in a reality show. Although production doesn’t start until April, it has already been picked up by Azteca for broadcast in Mexico.
Commenting, Globo executive director of international business Raphael Corrêa Netto said: “We’ve taken a strategic look at the market and worked out how to leverage our creative capabilities. We wanted to develop and produce (this show) based on our thinking for the global market – from script development to production and design.”
In other Latino news, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa has revealed that it is to adapt four Keshet International Israeli dramas from the original Hebrew into Spanish. One of them is a title we discussed last week, Loaded, which is also being remade by Channel 4 in the UK. The other three are yet to be selected but will be produced over the course of the next three years.
Televisa is also involved in a coproduction with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) that will focus on the life of Alejandro Muñoz Moreno, a Mexican wrestler better known as the Blue Demon. The 65×60’drama, simply called Blue Demon, will air across Latin America on Televisa platforms and before being distributed worldwide jointly by SPT and Televisa.
The show is the latest title to come out of a coproduction alliance formed by the two partners in 2014. Angelica Guerra, senior VP and MD of production, Latin America and US Hispanic for SPT, said: “There is a growing demand in the region for stories about real people and events, a trend that started in Colombia and has made its way to Mexico. Blue Demon will offer audiences an intimate look at one of (freestyle wrestling’s) greatest legends, exploring a complex and turbulent world that few knew about.”
Also coming out of Miami was news that producer Ben Silverman is teaming up with Eric Newman, the showrunner behind Netflix hit Narcos, on a series about Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, the Colombian singing sensation better known as Juanes. The show, whose English title is Chasing the Sun, will follow Juanes’s early life in Colombia through to his arrival as an aspiring musician in Miami.
The goal is to produce an edgy series, with the press announcement saying it will “stylistically be in the vein of an Entourage-meets-Narcos bilingual drama.” No network is attached as yet, but Silverman has a good track record for bringing Latin American ideas to the world with series such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. Note that it is being set us as a bilingual series.
In other greenlight news this week, USA Network has given a straight-to-series, 10-episode order to Eyewitness, a drama based on Norwegian crime thriller Øyevitne. The US version will be created by Adi Hasak, whose credits include Shades of Blue. He will work alongside Norwegian series creator Jarl Emsell Larsen.
Øyevitne, which aired on NRK, was one of the most talked-about Scandinavian shows of 2015. It focuses on two gay teenage boys who secretly meet up in a forest. During one such liaison, they witness a shooting and barely escape with their lives. Desperate to keep their relationship a secret and in fear of being found by the perpetrator, they remain silent.
Commenting on the decision to pick up the show, Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming at USA, said: “Eyewitness takes a horrific crime and, in compelling fashion, uses it to examine a whole network of unique character relationships. We were immediately drawn to the source material, and Adi has found a very smart way to adapt it into a universal and engaging story.”
The dark tone of the show fits a broader agenda at USA, which is reinventing itself as a more exciting destination for young viewers. Alongside the Eyewitness project, it has Golden Globe-winning hacker drama Mr Robot and Carlton Cuse-produced series Colony. Earlier this week, it also announced another new drama called Falling Water. This series centres on three strangers who realise they are dreaming separate parts of the same dream that has major implications for problems in each of their lives.
“Today’s world demands shows that challenge and reward the audience in spectacular ways,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at USA Network’s parent company NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Falling Water is the type of show that can move the needle of popular culture with its thrilling exploration of the dark side of the mind.”
Meanwhile, Netflix, now up to 75 million subscribers worldwide, continues to commission new shows. Its latest addition is a 10-part sci-fi series based on Richard K Morgan’s book Altered Carbon. Set in the 25th century, Morgan’s novel imagines a world where the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. The series is being produced by Skydance Television and written by Laeta Kalogridis. Kalogridis’s previous credits include the screenplays for the movies Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys.
Elsewhere, there have been rumours circulating in the last few days that Fox in the US would love to commission a follow-up to its six-part X-Files reboot, which debuted last night in the US. However, the big obstacle to that appears to be scheduling the talent.
In an interview with Variety, male lead David Duchovny said: “Gillian (Anderson, co-star) and I have talked about (doing more episodes), and then we just stop because we get to 2023 and we still haven’t found a date we can do it. It’s like, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens after this,’ and then we can start to talk seriously about whether we can make it work again.” Possibly, if the ratings are good enough to justify it, there might be room to squeeze in another short run of six or eight episodes.
Finally, the big story on the drama acquisition front is that pay TV platform Sky has done a deal with CBS that means its Sky Atlantic channel will become the exclusive home to Showtime’s original drama series across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The agreement covers all new and future series including Billions, which premiered strongly in the US this week, and the forthcoming revival of cult drama Twin Peaks.
Commenting on the deal, Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “This is one of the most important content deals Sky has ever agreed, cementing Sky’s position as the market leader in Europe for world-class drama. The agreement means our customers can enjoy an incredible slate of upcoming new dramas and can also explore hundreds of hours of amazing series such as Dexter, Californication, The Affair and House of Lies on demand from the back catalogue.”
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.
Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.
Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.
Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’
The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.
One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.
Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.
Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.
At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.
It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.
On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.
Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.
Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.