TV Drama has been hit by cutbacks at home and strikes abroad, but producers are now looking ahead to a new normal. Pippa Considine reports
In this report last year, some producers were already declaring that the bubble had burst. The seemingly unstoppable demand for drama was easing and budgets were reducing.
While many published figures are still referencing over a year ago, when drama engine houses were pumping at a faster rate, there’s overwhelming evidence that those producers were well informed.
In Televisual’s Production 100 this Autumn, feedback from drama indies talked of uncertain commissioning, reduced budgets (even for A list writing talent), cashflow crises and concern for the freelance workforce.
In September, industry trade union Bectu estimated that around three-quarters of freelance film and TV crew in Britain were out of work. High inflation, a drop in advertising revenue, the BBC licence fee freeze have come at the same time as the new international streaming services are reviewing their nascent business models and commissioning budgets.
Meghan Lyvers, Sky’s director of original drama for UK & Ireland, refers to “drastic changes across our industry” in 2023. Central to this has been the five-month strikes by the US writers and actors. “In the UK, we’re fortunate because we’ve been able to continue working,” she says, “but in some cases there have been shows that we’ve been in development on that we’ve had to pause.”
LINDSAY SALT – BBC
What recent titles have stood out for the BBC?
The Sixth Commandment demonstrated the enduring appeal of impactful true stories told with care and rigour. It averaged 7m across the series, the second biggest new drama series across the whole market. The Woman in the Wall is in our top 10 new drama series. Boiling Point was well received, it has a gripping realism and leaves you rooting for the characters. Time Season 2 has had brilliant feedback from viewers and Shetland S8 was welcomed by loyal fans.
What shows are coming up and how do they indicate your direction of commissioning travel?
Our big push this past year has been to find the new characters that that will take us through to the next generation. The enduring popularity of Lookout Point’s Happy Valley is a testament to the fact that characters like Catherine Cawood last the test of time. We also want to support writers at every stage in their careers. Coming up is The Jetty, written by Cat Jones and starring Jenna Coleman as a rookie detective; Virdee, based on AA Dhand’s best-selling crime novels and starring Sacha Dhawan and Sally Wainwright’s Hot Flush, which centres on the lives of five women navigating all aspects of their lives whilst deciding to form a punk-rock band.
Key new shows also include a multi-generational Nicole Lecky series and Dope Girls, created and written by Polly Stenham and Alex Warren, starring Julianne Nicholson as a single mother who establishes a nightclub amidst the hedonistic uproar of post-World War One London. The Tourist, The Responder, Vigil, Blue Lights and Sherwood are all returning for second series.
The strikes have had a direct impact on US shows being made in the UK, with production stopping on movies including Deadpool 3 and Wicked and TV shows such as Apple TV+ production Silo.
Scripted commissioning has ebbed. According to research by Ampere Analysis, commissions in the UK in 2023 have been at their lowest since 2020. 233 Scripted first-run and renewal titles were ordered in the UK in the first 10 months of this year, this is an 11% decrease on the number announced in the same time period in 2022.
Taking a step back, the overall picture can still be seen as healthy. At Moonage Pictures, producers of Netflix shows Bodies and upcoming The Gentlemen, co-founder Frith Tiplady says, “we’re still busier than we were five years ago, and we’re much busier than we were 10 years ago. So, there is no doubt that people are buying and wanting material.”
They just want a bit less and to pay a bit less. “Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and UKTV have all reduced their scripted commissions, while those announced by ITV plateaued,” says Zuzana Henkova, senior analyst at Ampere Analysis. “The BBC was the only major UK linear broadcaster to boost their scripted commissions in the last 12-months.”
The BBC’s scripted commissions rose by 22% in 2022/2023 when compared to 2021/2022.” It has been stocking up on thrillers, ordering 34 in the last year.
POLLY HILL – ITV
What’s been working well for you and why? We have been able to expand the sort of drama we offer with ITVX with dramas like A Spy among Friends and Without Sin. A highlight this year was Nolly, written by Russell T Davies and starring Helena Bonham Carter. On ITV1 The Long Shadow figures have grown week on week. It launched on ITV1, but most of the viewing is on ITVX. Returning series Unforgotten continues to bring in big viewing. It was lovely to see a pure family drama like Maryland do so well too.
What is coming up and what are you looking for? We are looking for big noisy ideas, original storytelling, important stories and big talent. At the start of next year, we will have Passenger, a new mystery with a fresh tone, starring Wunmi Mosaku – a very different police procedural, whilst providing all of the appeal of the genre. It feels like the right new direction for ITV. We also have Mr Bates vs the Post Office – because it is an important story to tell. Then Vicky McClure will be returning in series two of Trigger Point.
With its long lead times, drama as a genre has perhaps not suffered as much, or as abruptly, particularly for terrestrial broadcasters. “We’ve not been impacted by the ad crisis in the way that other genres have because I’m commissioning for ‘25, 26,” says Caroline Hollick, head of drama at Channel 4. “There are lots of opportunities.”
Channel 5 has committed to raising its drama hours from 70 to 100 in 2025 and UKTV has recruited its first head of Drama. Helen Perry. Its recent commissions include The Marlow Murder Club from Monumental (a co-production with Masterpiece PBS) and The Red King, from Quay Street, in association with ITV Studios.
The more significant hit to drama commissioning is among global SVoD streamers operating in the UK. “Netflix and Apple have also cut back heavily on local commissions,” says Ampere’s Henkova, “particularly on expensive genres.”
At the Edinburgh TV Festival this year, Netflix UK VP for Content Anne Mensah underlined that the streamer had invested around US $1.5bn annually over recent years, describing its approach as “steady.” With successful franchises The Crown, Top Boy and Sex Education coming to a close, they focused on upcoming titles Heartstopper, Eric, Black Doves and The Gentlemen.
The SVOD cupboard isn’t bare. Apple has renewed Merman’s Bad Sisters and See Saw Films’ Slow Horses. The platform favours seven and eight-part series. Scott Free is producing drama Sinking Spring. Idris Elba drama Hijack has been a hit for the channel. And The Forge is behind The Buccaneers. Another eight-part, thriller Criminal Record from Tod Productions and STV Studios, will premiere in the new year.
From Amazon, there has been a trickle of thrillers. Firebird Pictures and Amazon Studios launched Wilderness this autumn and Fifteen Love from World Productions premiered in July. Thrillers The Rig and The Devil’s Hour have both been renewed. Amazon Freevee co-produced six-part thriller Boat Story with the BBC, from Two Brothers Pictures.
MEGHAN LYVERS- SKY STUDIOS
What are you looking for? We have three pillars: tentpole prestigious, series, cultural events such as The Tatooist of Auschwitz or Mary & George, we do one or two a year. Then, tentpole, more commercial facing – Gangs of London or The Day of the Jackal are examples. Jackal also demonstrates potential synergies within Comcast: produced by Carnival, airing on Sky and Peacock and distributed by NBCU. We do three or four a year. They tend to be based on IP, speak to UK audiences but have the ability to travel. We are building up series for the UK, three or four a year – they must feel like shows where audiences can ask what would they do in that situation, sometimes in familiar RV worlds – crime, law enforcement, medical – pushing boundaries with characters. Then there are Talent driven shows, which need the POV of the creator, such as I Hate Suzie, Cobra, Funny Woman, Dreamland. Our last Christmas special Christmas Carol was such a success. This year we have The Heist Before Christmas.
As the international players recover from strikes and revisit their business models, the focus is likely to be on review. Executive producer at Bad Wolf, Lachlan Mackinnon reckons that for at least a few months greenlights will be few and far between. “For quite some time, those shows that will be remounted will be the ones that have already been invested in.
“The streamers have realised that probably the budgets were too high, so we’re seeing the budgets come down on some of the shows that we’ve been making. There’s always going to be the budgets at higher price points, but I think there is a general acceptance that the trend couldn’t continue.”
It’s increasingly unusual to find a producer planning to pitch the next Game of Thrones or The Crown. “Everybody’s open for business,” says Tiplady at Moonage. But seller beware. “You’re not going to get a massive sci fi show for a million an hour and you’re not going to get Hollywood talent on a show made for a BBC licence. It’s how you deliver those partnerships together. At the moment we’ve got to see this realignment of people’s pockets matching their appetite.”
Moonage launched in 2018 and before that Tiplady was co-md at Tiger Aspect Drama. Looking across the last 10 years, she has seen an exciting evolution of the genre. “We can tell different stories in different kinds of ways.” She cites Sky epic Fortitude, shot in Iceland, as a “game changer” – using the landscape in an ambitious way. She’s made a show about night car racing, a show set in space. Production quality has soared. And what audiences will consume has changed and widened. “It’s broadcaster ambition, wanting to punch above your weight and deliver for audiences in different ways.”
CAROLINE HOLLICK – CHANNEL 4
What works for you? We always look for shows that deliver streaming views – crime drama, psychological thrillers. The Couple Next Door is a remake of a Belgian series, where Starz was our partner. We do a couple of shows a year which are at a lower tariff. The Light in the Hall was a co-production with S4C.
What’s coming up, what are you looking for? The Gathering, by World Productions. The central characters are teenagers, but it’s an intergenerational thriller. We’re always looking for drama that can hit with a younger audience and can potentially play pre watershed. We’ve also got Generation Zed, our Ben Wheatley zombie series. We’ve commissioned a show called Dance School, which has got a huge amount of heart and warmth. And True Love, about a group of friends who make a pact to bump each other off if any of them get dementia, a thriller with a burning romance. Then we want shows that make a noise, state of the nation, they have to somehow speak to societal structures, to power. It’s A Sin, or The Undeclared War.
Comedy drama has moved further into the mainstream, taking comedy specialists such as Merman and Roughcut Television with it. “We felt some years ago that it was all starting to blur,” says Roughcut md, Ash Atalla. “The comedy landscape was moving in the drama direction. Budgets were getting, maybe not much bigger, but the ambition was, production was definitely getting much bigger.”
As drama budgets expanded to match demand over the last ten years, and more hours were costing £1m and above – in line with the UK tax credit levels – comedy has not kept pace. Where drama budgets might double, comedy could hope for a 25% uplift.
While holding onto their reputation for comedy gold, Roughcut recruited Marianna Abbotts as head of drama in 2019 and they have built out the slate. The indie’s Sky original romcom Smothered, from Monica Heisey, comes out before Christmas and it has announced four-part thriller Coma, for Channel 5, to be made with CBS Studios.
Working on comedy budgets, “you just get extremely resourceful,” says Attala. Partnering with Channel 5 has been a revelation. “We couldn’t believe their appetite for drama,” says Abbotts. “And the calibre seems to be getting better and better. They’re very clear about what they want, and they know exactly what they don’t want.”
The new money
Channel 5 has been ahead of the game in working to limited budgets, licensing for the UK only, working with lower tariffs and with producers deficit funding. “We’ve got our eyes and ears open to all sorts of funding models,” says Sebastian Cardwell, deputy chief content officer and head of scripted for Paramount UK.
Shooting abroad to take advantage of tax credits on lower budget levels is de rigueur. Shooting in Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Cyprus. can also save money on crew. Schedules need to be efficient and tight. “The Castaways, we did with BBC Studios and Clapperboard, looks like a show that cost two to three million. It wasn’t anywhere near that,” says Cardwell. “We shot in Greece, used Greek crews.”
The same principles will apply to shows on Paramount +. “We’ve brought the discipline that we have on Channel Five across into the streaming environment.”
At Clapperboard, md Mike Benson has a history of delivering drama for Channel 5. The indie is behind returning dramas The Madame Blanc Mysteries and The Good Ship Murder. Together with BlackBox Multimedia it’s also producing book adaptations The Castaways and The Serial Killer’s Wife.
Benson questions why the tax credit threshold in the UK should be set at £1m an hour. “I spend most of my time figuring out how I’m going to produce abroad – liaising with service companies, managing what training regime we have for local graduates to come onto the set and train because it’s part of the tax credit. All of that might be a turnover locally. I’d much rather be doing that in the UK. It seems to me crazy that were that we’re not. Given where TV budgets are going, which is a downward trend, I think it’s an opportune time for the industry to think again and the regulators to think again about that threshold level.”
Channel 5 would like to do more in the UK, and is investigating regional funds, looking at producing in the North East and Wales. All Creatures Great and Small is shot in Yorkshire and has received some funding from Screen Yorkshire. “We can’t quite make it work on the majority of our shows at the moment,” says Cardwell. “In truth we probably would like to do more here.”
With UK broadcasters committed to regional quotas, there’s plenty of activity in the regions. At Channel 4, looking at the London versus regional axis, Leeds-based head of drama Caroline Hollick says, “my instinct is always to make drama outside of London, because London is such a specific experience.” Commissioning editor Guerra Lloyd in Bristol has been focused on bringing Welsh projects to the slate.
Hollick also needs to be pragmatic. Channel 4 is clear that it is looking for some projects each year at a lower tariff. They might achieve this by shooting abroad, working with co-producers, or being minority partners. Watch Before We Die, starring Lesley Sharp, was produced by Eagle Eye, filming in Belgium and Bristol, and using the remake of an existing IP. “Then you can put all the money into the talent,” says Hollick.
At the BBC, Lindsay Salt says, “We stay nimble and open to always helping producers find the additional money they might require.”
Moonage has new BBC shows The Famous Five and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, with BBC Studios handling distribution; both saw significant budget increases during development. “It did pose a real challenge,” says Tiplady.
At Sky, Meghan Lyvers says “we do a lot of co-production, trying to be smart about how we all keep making our shows and making them the best way possible to support producers…We’re very sympathetic to the nature of the environment, rising costs ….We do understand the position people are in, but I think we are all very resourceful.”
SEBASTIAN CARDWELL – PARAMOUNT UK
What shows are working for Paramount Plus?
For Paramount Plus, it’s bums on seats: mystery, aspirational thrillers, crime drama, then slightly more genre. Romantic comedy Flat Share did amazingly, we’ve two or three more projects in that space. Burning Girls was good, we’re looking for more supernatural mystery. We’re trying to tap into guilty pleasure shows, Castaways with Sheridan Smith and Serial Killer’s Wife, The Doll Factory, a psychological period thriller. We’re shooting The Road Trip and a couple of others. Then there’s period and literary adaptations, more audience specific. We’re putting big terrestrial talent into streaming shows: Ewan McGregor, Sam Walton, Vicky McLure in Insomnia.
What are you looking for on Channel 5?
On Channel 5, we’re doing 60, 70 hours of drama. The plan is to break through to 100 hours in 2025. We’re looking to increase our detective shows and crime drama. We’ve got a diverse-led detective show. We’re working on a female-led six-part crime drama, our version of Broadchurch or Unforgotten. We want another character-led, precinct-based community show, my hunch is contemporary, for people that watch the Call the Midwife or Lovejoy. Next year, there’s The Hardacres – our Downton Abbey meets The Beverley Hillbillies. We’ve got a new mystery thriller in the mould of Desperate Housewives, with an ITV-ten-years-ago vibe. We don’t get enough of a show like Inheritance – a universal subject matter, an anxiety rooted in real life. We’re looking at some of our mystery thrillers and evaluating if they might go to six. The Inheritance did extraordinarily well. We could bring it back as anthology with different characters. Then talent, talent, talent: actors who aren’t quite in fashion, but our audience would love them.
The next chapter
But what shows have been inspiring TV industry insiders in 2023? At Channel 4, Caroline Hollick was “blown away” by Blue Lights “reinventing the police procedural is probably the hardest thing in the world.” Hollick also cites Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker’s Dynasty on HBO. “I love sport, and I love drama, and it’s really hard with television to put the two of them together…I find it utterly compelling. Using near history to shine a light on who we are today is absolutely what I’d love Channel 4 to do.”
Polly Hill, head of drama at ITV, loves Australian comedy drama Colin from Accounts and on Netflix she’s been tuning in to gothic horror mini-series Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
“The lockdown fast tracked the shift in viewing and now audiences are looking for great content to watch across so many different platforms,” says Hill. “We need to work harder to cut through and grab their attention.
“We have brilliant producers in the UK. It has been tough and continues to be tough, particularly in securing those all-important partners and with the cost of drama rising,” says Hill. “Continuing to invest in the hours of UK drama that we do, is our best response.”
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