With competition from the US streamers intensifying, British broadcasters are exploring new strategies for drama. Tim Dams reports

Drama’s golden age is a boon for viewers, providing an abundance of  scripted shows to pick from on live TV, catch-up or streaming platforms. It’s a boon too for many of the cast and crew working in the genre – they’ve never been so busy, and rates have climbed amid high demand.

For British broadcasters, it’s a rather different story.  The disruption to the market caused by the streamers, which has been gathering steam since Netflix launched in the UK in 2012, is now having a profound effect. Rising costs, competition and choice are all taking their toll.

“This year you can really feel it,” says ITV’s head of drama Polly Hill, noting how much harder it is for new drama to cut through in the market place. “Five years ago, audiences would come and try things, even though they might not stay. Now, with so much choice, the challenge is to get them to come in the first place.”

BBC controller of drama commissioning Piers Wenger adds that all of the terrestrial broadcasters “have felt the bite” of the challenge from streaming firms. He says, though, that the stimulus to drama storytelling is a good thing. “We are going through a period of redefinition – interrogating what sort of ideas and what modes of storytelling are going to connect with audiences.”

Grabbing audiences
Over at Channel 4, incoming head of drama Caroline Hollick says that audiences are rewarding excellence, flocking to new shows which are exciting and challenging – and don’t run out of story too quickly. “There’s so much good content out there, it can be tough to hold on to terrestrial viewers after episode one.” Polly Hill adds that dramas “have to grab audiences in episode one – we used to have time, now we don’t.”

A British focus
Meanwhile, there is a sense that over the past six months many UK broadcasters have started to look away from big international co-productions, epitomised by shows such as The Night Manager. They still want shows with scale and top talent, but increasingly they are looking for shows that reflect British lives.

In part, this is to stand out from the international offers of the streaming firms. It is also being driven by necessity. Netflix and Amazon are increasingly looking to take all global rights to projects, having previously co-produced with British channels on shows such as C4 and Amazon’s Electric Dreams and BBC and Netflix’s Troy. Those kind deals are becoming more rare, BBC director general Tony Hall noted earlier this year.

It means domestic broadcasters are having to find new ways to get drama stories on screen, looking beyond the streamers. “The co-production market has shrunk,” acknowledges Wenger, explaining that it has encouraged the BBC to strengthen its ties with US broadcasters such as FX, HBO and AMC on upcoming high end dramas such as His Dark Materials, Les Miserables and Gentleman Jack. “The well hasn’t totally dried up. There is still a real appetite from international buyers for the sort of dramas the BBC makes.”

Wenger is quick to stress the BBC’s slate of upcoming midweek shows “that really reflect what is going on in Britain now and tell stories that feel relevant to people’s lives.” He cites 2019 series such as Levi David Addai’s Dark Mon£y, Marnie Dickens’ Gold Digger and Neil Mackay’s The Barking Murders.

Similarly, ITV has a strong British focus for 2019. “We wouldn’t put on a show at 9pm that felt like an acquisition,” says Polly Hill.  Coming up are “contemporary shows about how we live now” such as Mark Marlow’s Cleaning Up, starring Sheridan Smith, and Anna Symon’s emotional thriller Deep Water, starring Anna Friel. There’s also crime drama, like Wild Bill, starring Rob Lowe as a high-flying US cop with a brief to shake up the East Lincolnshire force. “We’re trying to land a few more returners in 2019,” says Hill.

True crime is also a big theme at ITV, with Hill mentioning Jeff Pope’s A Confession starring Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton. She’s looking for more ideas in this area, citing mid-week slots at 9pm. “How do we find freshness in crime, either in the idea or casting? It’s a crowded genre.”

This British focus carries over to Channel 5, which is introducing lower cost scripted content into its schedules after budgets were freed up following the cancellation of Big Brother. Clink (working title), is a 10-parter set in a female prison, from LA Productions. Also for 2019 is crime thriller 15 Days, produced by Boom, an untitled feature length murder mystery from Darlow Smithson Productions (DSP), and revenge thriller Cold Call starring Sally Lindsay and produced by Chalkboard TV. “Home grown drama is the missing ingredient from Channel 5’s schedules,” says director of programmes Ben Frow.

Meanwhile, there’s new drama leadership at Channel 4, under incoming head of drama Caroline Hollick.  She sets out some of her thinking opposite (see box), but stresses the need for a diverse slate: “I want to bring a range of voices to the forefront of C4 drama and you can only do that by putting your money where your mouth is, and commissioning more women, more black and Asian writers, more regional writers as creators.”

Sky, meanwhile, continues to invest heavily in drama – and looks to back 6-8 shows per year to play across Sky Atlantic and Sky One – many of them with an international focus more akin to the streamers. Upcoming shows include big budget series such as Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren, a co-pro with HBO, street race drama Curfew starring Sean Bean, and the fourth series of Fortitude.

Streamer strategies
What about the streamers themselves? Beyond headline shows such as Left Bank’s The Crown, many say they don’t actually spend that much with UK producers. Indeed, Ofcom’s data suggests that less than 10% of the catalogues of Netflix and Amazon are comprised of content produced in the UK. Their investment into new UK programmes is around £150m a year, according to BBC director general Tony Hall – a point backed up by C4’s Caroline Hollick. “Although the streamers are investing a lot of money globally, I wouldn’t say loads of it is going to British producers right now.

Netflix, for example, said that it planned to invest $1bn of its annual $8bn content spend in Europe in 2018 – but much of this will be spread widely throughout the continent.

Upcoming British Netflix shows include Julian Fellowes’ football drama The English Game and the Idris Elba starring comedy series, Turn Up Charlie.

Coming up for Amazon is its co-production with the BBC, Good Omens. It’s also signed a TV deal with its British writer, Neil Gaiman. But its slate is very international too with new shows being developed in Germany, Spain, France – as well as British factual series like The Grand Tour and Man City biopic All or Nothing.

Nevertheless, local production is a big priority for Amazon. The head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, says she now visits the London office every six to eight weeks, where director of European originals Georgia Brown is based. “It’s so important that we create a global home for talent,” she says.

Brown says the European drama market is highly competitive, making it important “to have local boots on the ground, having creative teams that speak the language and understand the culture but also, crucially, have full autonomy to develop in a local territory without constantly having to go back to HQ. That nimbleness and that speed to market is going to be key to our success.”

Netflix and Amazon are not the only streaming companies developing content out of Europe.  Apple is also doing so under new creative director for Europe Jay Hunt, the former chief creative officer of Channel 4. In June, YouTube, launched its subscription video offer YouTube Premium in the UK, and hired local commissioners for the service.

Development trends
For producers, there is now the option to go direct to the streamers which will fully fund shows but take global rights, or to work with local broadcasters and distributors to stitch together finance for dramas.

“It’s almost as if there are two strands of development now where we are thinking about what we can take to the OTTs and what we can make for the UK audience,” says Kudos chief executive Diederick Santer.

“The goal is actually aiming for the UK, but ending up with international.” By way of example, Santer cites Kudos productions Spooks, Broadchurch and Grantchester – all British shows which have travelled the world. Kudos is also behind ITV series Deep Water. “It is designed for the UK, but will travel. We are talking to various US partners on that.”

Whether a show is for an OTT platform or a UK terrestrial, ultimately each wants the same kind of drama though. Wenger comments: “Any broadcaster or platform will tell you that what they are looking for is that next generation, talked about, entertaining, distinctive, returnable series – that is the Holy Grail.”

Piers Wenger
Controller of drama, BBC

What sort of dramas are working well for the BBC?
We are a live broadcaster, watched by millions every night. So the question that is driving us is, what are the sorts of ideas that can get people watching and talking on the same night? The success of a show like The Bodyguard has proved that everyone is still open to watching live TV, and that BBC1 is still the place to go for high quality live drama. Audiences really enjoyed being reminded of the pleasure of live broadcast, being able to talk on the Monday about what happened the night before.

We also have a brilliant platform in BBC iPlayer, which enables us to mop up lots of viewers not habitually watching live TV. The amount of appreciation we have received from the audience for box setting shows like Killing Eve and The Informer is just a reminder of how much, particularly the younger audience, values the experience of being able to watch the whole thing at their convenience.

Anything particular you are looking for?
I am really interested in finding mid-week shows that have really compelling thriller hooks, major twists and turns but which – taking the example of a show like The Cry – have a bigger emotional story to tell as well. Then it is big compelling ideas for Sunday nights that can really unite the audience and entertain them and give them the same sort of pleasure and narrative thrill that The Bodyguard gave.

What is the market for you like right now?
We are challenged by shrinking budgets and rising costs. Super inflation is a real issue for us. And that will have an impact on the drama slate on BBC1 and BBC2. But we are working hard to ensure that we can continue to work on shows with a real range of price points so that we can make money go as far as possible and give audiences great value.

Caroline Hollick 

Head of drama, C4

What recent dramas have stood out for you?
I’m loving Succession, on Sky Atlantic. It’s an HBO show set in New York but it’s created by Jesse Armstrong and has some brilliant British writers on the team, like Lucy Prebble and Georgia Pritchett. I thought Bodyguard was a triumph, I watched it TX live every week, and its success was a boon to the whole industry. And Killing Eve proves that female-led shows don’t have to be cosy or mainstream to be successful – it’s a real game changer.
What approach are you taking in terms of commissioning new drama?
I’m thrilled that I’m going to be working with the incredible writers who have been at the heart of C4 drama’s success. I also want to bring a range of voices to the forefront of C4 drama and you can only do that by putting your money where your mouth is, and commissioning more women, more black and Asian writers, more regional writers as creators.  

I also think that C4 has a unique, progressive brand, and this allows us to also be a vital, trusted co-producing partner within the global market. We can do sexy and high-end too – it just has to have something bold and incisive to say about the world we live in.
What is the state of the drama market like going in to 2019?
It’s so hard for producers right now. High-end actors, writers and directors are in huge demand, and are often unavailable for years at a time. There are so many sellers, and so few buyers in the UK market, as we don’t have that many channels.   And even if you get your dream show made, if you are unlucky with scheduling and go out in a week saturated with other dramas, you might not get the ratings and profile you deserve.  And although the streamers are investing a lot of money globally, I wouldn’t say loads of it is going to British producers right now. You are competing with the best scripts from all round the world.

Tim Dams

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