Drama report: The scripted boom has thrown up all sorts of challenges for drama producers, from rising costs to growing competition. Tim Dams on the reality of TV drama’s golden age

The boom in television drama is one of the big stories of 2016, a year in which big budget, British-made shows such as The Crown and The Night Manager have raised the bar in the scripted space. As we approach the end of the year, however, the real implications of the drama boom are becoming ever more apparent to those working in the industry. Many of these are positive but, as with any boom, there are downsides too. 

Talk to any drama producer or commissioner, and they will acknowledge that the market feels buoyant. There has been a well-documented surge in audience appetite for high quality drama, prompting broadcasters around the world to invest more heavily in the genre.

Much of this increased investment comes from the US, where cable firms such as AMC, Showtime and Starz and digital players such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu recognise the power of expensive, high quality dramas to attract subscriptions and audiences.  Netflix, for example, has 30 scripted shows now in production.  In total, US broadcasters are expected to make 500 original dramas in 2017.

There are said to be around 60 drama commissioning broadcasters in the US, of which around a dozen will regularly buy or co-produce from British producers.

The UK market has seen less growth in broadcaster spend on drama. Producers say that the key terrestrials – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – are ordering about the same volume of drama as they have done historically.  Their drama budgets have, by and large, remained fairly static too.

However, the UK market has been boosted by Sky growing investment in drama. It now commissions 8-10 shows a year.  Virgin is a new commissioner too, announcing it will create four new dramas with All3Media. BBC1 is also spending an extra £30m on drama, following the closure of BBC3.

“There’s no doubt that the market feels incredibly buoyant,” says Frith Triplady, joint md of Tiger Aspect Drama, which has produced 56 hours of drama in the past 18 months, such as Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street and ITV’s upcoming Good Karma Hotel.

Like many other producers, she points out that there are more buyers – particularly from the US – who are either commissioning British indies directly or providing co-production finance for projects. 

That’s partly because international demand for British drama and talent is riding high, buoyed by global hits like Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Happy Valley. The key US buyers all have a presence in London. “The Americans now see the Anglophone world as one market, which they didn’t ten years ago” says Gareth Neame, the md of Downton Abbey and The Last Kingdom producer Carnival Films.

“The number of buyers is the most fundamental change in the last couple of years”, says Sid Gentle Films’ founder Sally Woodward Gentle (The Durrells). “A project doesn’t need to start in the UK anymore.”  Sid Gentle, for example, is producing thriller Killing Eve from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge – which has been greenlit directly by BBC America.

However, direct US commissions – such as Netflix’s The Crown from Left Bank – are for now the exception rather than the rule. “There are more outlets that want drama…but it’s not like we are making 100s of things for Netflix and Amazon. Our core business is still UK network programmes,” says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler, the producer of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.

Much of the activity from US broadcasters comes in the form of co-production finance, rather than direct commissioners. Netflix, for example, has boarded Red’s ITV thriller Paranoid as a co-producer, taking worldwide streaming rights.

Netflix is also co-producing the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Watership Down, made by indies 42 and Biscuit Films. AMC, meanwhile, is co-producing Cuba Pictures’ upcoming BBC thriller McMafia, while National Geographic has teamed with Channel 4 to co-produce Peter Kosminsky’s as yet untitled Isis drama, made by Archery Pictures. Amazon US is co-producing Sky’s 43AD-set Britannia, which is produced by Neal St and Archery Pictures.

“Pretty much everything on our slate is co-produced,” says Kudos CEO Diederick Santer, citing The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic/Canal Plus), Humans (C4/AMC) and Grantchester (ITV/PBS).

UK commissions remain the lifeblood of most British drama indies. However, to achieve the look and scale in drama that audiences have come to expect, producers are topping up their UK broadcaster budgets – which have flatlined for several years at around £700-800k an hour – with US co-production money.

Or they are deficit financing with investment from international distributors. The amount that distributors are putting into drama has risen significantly, from £25-50k to around £200k-500k. Kudos’s upcoming Sky thriller Tin Star, starring Tim Roth, is deficit financed by Sky Vision and Endemol. Its budget, says Santer, is  ‘way more’ than the Sky tariff, and its distributor backers are confident it can recoup from international sales.

Combined with the UK tax relief at around 20%, it means budgets have risen up to a minimum of £1.1m-£1.2m for many primetime shows. BBC hit The Night Manager, a co-production with AMC, cost a reported £3m an hour.

This rise in budget means that talent – both on and off screen – is keener than ever to work in television. So too are a host of new production companies.

A swathe of experienced TV producers and commissioners have launched their own drama indies in the past year, such as former Kudos bosses Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) and Stephen Garrett (Character Seven), ex-Film4 chief Tessa Ross and Working Title’s Juliette Howell (House Productions) and former BBC drama execs Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner (Bad Wolf). 

Film producers have also pushed into TV, such as David Heyman (Harry Potter) who launched Heyday Television with backing from NBC Universal. Several of Sky’s new dramas are made by indies with a film background, including Riviera (Archery Pictures) and The Last Dragonslayer (Blueprint).

“The challenge is that everyone has cottoned on to the drama boom,” says Kudos’s Santer. Phillipa Giles, md of Rillington Place producer Bandit Television, says it is now a ‘very, very crowded marketplace’, and she predicts that some indies will have to ‘go to the wall’ in the next few years.

Meanwhile, Jill Green, md of Foyle’s War and New Blood producer Eleventh Hour Films, predicts: “At some point the bubble has to burst. All these companies can’t survive.”

The increasingly competitive nature of the UK drama sector has been made worse by a commissioning merry go round that kicked off in the Spring at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. Polly Hill has just arrived at ITV as its new head of drama, while Piers Wenger has recently taken over at the BBC and Beth Willis has stepped up at Channel 4. “The market has completely slowed down,” says one indie, who rues waiting much of the year for greenlight decisions. Another adds: “It’s been a really, really difficult year.”

Meanwhile, there are well-documented fears that the international drama market is overheating, particularly in the US. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf warned this summer that the drama market is ballooning into oversupply, and that ‘the balloon will eventually deflate.’ Sky Vision boss Jane Millichip recently warned about the increasing amounts that distributors were investing upfront in drama in the hope of recouping from international sales. “We could be heading for a subprime mortgage moment,” she said.

Closer to home, indies are struggling with issues that characterise a booming market. Prime among them, says Nicola Shindler, is “a real shortage of high end writers who [broadcasters] want to commission a whole series from.” “Everybody wants significant writers,” confirms Eleventh Hour Films’ Jill Green. The problem has been made worse, says Shindler, because broadcasters rarely commission story-of-the-week procedural shows which have multiple writers on them and where writers learn their craft. It’s a Catch 22: as drama budgets have got higher, so commissioners want experienced writers – but there are fewer shows for them to cut their teeth on.

Kudos’ Diederick Santer says the relationship between top writers and producers has also changed, with agents having much more leverage as their clients have become more in demand. It’s no longer the case of simply meeting up for a friendly chat with a writer to discuss ideas.

There is also a scramble for book rights to adapt for TV. “Everyone is optioning books, and even rubbish books are going for a fortune,” says Santer. Beauty parades are now typical for hot books, with up to 10 indies at a time invited to pitch. Now more than ever it’s vital “to make sure you are not caught up in the feeding frenzy,” says Santer.

Meanwhile, the cost of making drama has risen. Demand for experienced crew and top talent is at an all time high, pushing up rates. Big shoots, such as Game of Thrones, will pay higher rates for their crew. “If you are still making something for a BBC budget, you can’t afford those rates,” says Red’s Nicola Shindler. “That has become really problematic for our production department.”

On the plus side, many producers say they are starting to take risks on new production, writing and onscreen talent, such is the demand in the market. Triplady says there is increasing room for new voices and talent in drama.

All the while, however, producers are wrestling with the impact of big budget co-pros like The Crown and The Night Manager. “The bar has gone on to another level,” says Eleventh Hour’s Jill Green. So producers are increasingly trying to find projects that will attract additional finance, most likely from America, and that can attract a big cast. But because a lot of the big name talent is being lured to America, “we have to up our game to deliver those ideas that will get them back,” says Green.

The production values of The Crown have also set a challenge for producers. Sally Woodward Gentle says: “I’ve just come out of a meeting where we were taking about a Coronation scene, thinking we are never going to have the money that The Crown has got – so should we bother?”

However, Woodward Gentle says that while The Crown’s reported £100m budget across two series has raised the bar for audiences, it “feels like a slight anomaly in terms of production budgets.”
Over at ITV, head of drama Polly Hill recognises the challenges and opportunities stemming from the “huge investment bubble” in drama. But she says not every drama needs huge production budgets. “It is important there is variety, a mixed ecology in drama….some fantastic shows have cut through internationally that haven’t had huge budgets.”

Indeed, ask producers and commissioners to name their top dramas of the past year, and a whole range of shows stand out beyond the likes of The Crown and The Night Manager. Several indies cite comedy dramas like Fleabag (‘timeless and completely contemporary’) and Chewing Gum (emotionally supersized, but not production supersized’) for showing, according to Triplady, that it’s misleading to think all drama needs to come with ‘the bells and whistles’ of a big budget.  Others pick out the ‘humanity’ and ‘warmth’ of The Durrells, and the ‘addictive’ nature of Doctor Foster. National Treasure, meanwhile, ‘had something to say’, while the return of Cold Feet was an attempt to revive the relationship drama, a holy grail of the TV industry. Victoria (and The Crown) ‘spoke to us as a nation when we are questioning our place in the world,’ says Santer.

More than ever, producers and commissioners say that distinctiveness, range and diversity are vital for standing out in today’s crowded marketplace.  “My main focus is on creating content our customers think is worth paying for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. More specifically, she describes this as “distinctive content that they would talk about with their friends.” ITV’s Polly Hill adds: “We want a great range of drama on the channel…it is about finding the things that are fresh and distinctive that sets them apart from anything else.”

Tim Dams

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