TV drama goes from strength to strength but with so much on show, standing out from the crowd is becoming a bigger challenge for producers. Jon Creamer reports

Drama is still the headline act in the world of TV genres. Across broadcasters and across borders, television drama is continuing its run of extraordinary success and there’s no sign of that slowing down.

Since the UK tax break for high end drama kicked in, the genre has had a major shot in the arm leading to ever bigger shows and ever higher production values. Internationally, the wealth of possible co production partners coupled with the widening number of broadcasters and platforms crying out for the genre has created a perfect storm. “In all the years I’ve been working in drama I don’t think there been a time where there’s been such an incredible appetite for it,” says the BBC’s controller of drama, Polly Hill.

The sheer weight of drama now accessible to audiences across the platforms has led to a “virtuous circle,” says Nicolas Brown, director of film and TV at Neal Street Productions. “There’s a desire from broadcasters for something that has as big an impact as their last big show.” Success breeds success and as the shows get better, competition increases too.  “Competition is a good thing for us all,” says Polly Hill. “The appetite for drama raises all of our games. Competition makes us want to reach further.”

Success has also lead to talent migrating to TV drama, particularly from the movie world because what’s possible on television has also opened up. With so much choice, the audience’s horizons have widened and there’s an appetite “for strong, sophisticated, ambitious storytelling,” says Polly Hill. What’s possible in the mainstream has shifted too. “What we mean by mainstream is really progressing. People want things that are sophisticated and smart. If you give them that they come in great numbers.”

Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground Television agrees that the mainstream now accommodates a wide range of shows. “In the past year there’s been Wolf Hall, Dr Foster and This is England, all things that have gone out on terrestrial channels, all brilliant pieces of work but so incredibly different from each other.”

Broadcasters in response are emboldened to widen their drama offering too. “It’s not a revolutionary change but my sense is they’re all broadening out and wanting to be less defined and provide audiences with something they don’t quite expect,” says Neal Street’s Brown.

There are more places for drama to play out too. “There is a greater potential for co-production,” says C4 head of drama, Piers Wenger. “That’s driven by the US, which has increased the number of buyers UK producers can sell to, allowing them to maximise budgets and increase the range of their output.”

Kudos’ Santer says drama now feels like “it’s become an international game. We haven’t yet made a show solely for a foreign broadcaster but that doesn’t feel impossible now. It feels like we’re in a global market now.”

The amount of co production is driven by the need for higher and higher production values as shows compete and audience expectations rise. The nature of co production has changed too. Now there is a “proper conversation in terms of co production,” says Sophie Gardiner. “When it first started it was ‘put in a French character then you can get French money.’ That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening now. With all the really exciting co pros what they want is the author’s voice. That allows writers to be bold and ambitious.”

However, the rise of the big budget co pro does have its downside. “On more domestic shows it’s harder,” says Santer. “On Humans or River we’ve managed to find good international partners because they’re returning series. What’s harder is with a show like Capital, a great but traditionally structured BBC1 three parter so it’s harder to attract that partnership. With the cost of everything going up suddenly those things are hard to make.”

And as broadcasters push for bigger ideas, there’s a danger there may be fewer mid range shows, traditionally the training ground for directors. “Those places where you can learn your craft and get a break and not have the pressure of a £1m-plus budget are harder to find. It feels like TV is more polarised between expensive stuff and soaps,” says Santer.

But there’s an inevitability to that middle ground falling away. It may be a cliché but with so much noise out there, broadcasters do need shows that “cut through” and have a clear central idea. “In the past if there was a new drama launch people knew about it and were probably quite interested. They would give it a go,” says ITV’s drama controller, Steve November. “Now week on week there are so many drama launches internationally that people have access to there’s much less excitement and fanfare. It isn’t an event any more. Getting people to make the choice to try it in the first place is very hard. That does to an extent influence commissioning decisions. What is going to be appealing about the very idea of it? What are we selling to people. Marketing is so important. There’s no point having a beautifully crafted gem that hasn’t got the marketing appeal to create the choice to view in the first place.”

So bold, clear ideas are the order of the day and “the exceptional is becoming the norm,” says Daybreak’s Hal Vogel. “That’s not always about pulling in stars it just needs to be bolder and more engaging. If you look at Dr Foster it was taken a notch beyond what everybody was used to. That’s what excited everyone – taking the familiar and taking a new twist. It’s about fantastic writing and being bold,”

“No one can tread water now,” agrees Sophie Gardiner. “It’s got to shout louder. It has to have a really strong voice and sense of purpose. There are boring things being made but they just get forgotten. There’s more commitment on the commissioner’s part to find things that shout loud and earn their space.”

Roanna Benn, md of Dr Foster producer Drama Republic, says there’s more pressure now to “come up with something distinctive and authored and genuine. You can’t be cynical about it. Back in the day we used to make shows where the ideas were a bit softer at the edges.” But not now. The trick “is to come up with these big, bold ideas but remember it’s ultimately still about the interaction of the characters.”

The trouble is, those big bold authored ideas have to be generated by writers. And good writers are few and far between. More and more production companies that haven’t traditionally made drama have started developing ideas too. And that means competition is high for the top writers. “There is so much demand and not enough writers to meet that,” says Benn. And more writers need to be brought through. “The challenge as an industry is to keep bringing in fresh names and fresh blood so it doesn’t become too narrow and too focussed on a few names with everybody chasing them,” says Neal Street’s Brown. And with so much drama being made, and so much British talent being picked up by America, it seems the industry is prepared to look a bit harder than it might have done in the past. And as the quality of TV drama rises, more will be attracted from the worlds of film and theatre and novels.

The sheer success of drama is even making its makers a little nervous now. The number of new dramas and the budgets it’s attracting are leading some to fear there is a glut of drama that is no longer sustainable in the long run.
But, says Sophie Gardiner, a drama glut is not the real danger for the genre. “One of the reasons we have such a vibrant industry here is because of the BBC. It’s a wonderful haven for creativity. We’ve got to make sure we defend that and also the terms of trade. One of the reasons this country is so vibrant in drama is because we have a vibrant independent industry.  We punch above our weight. The threat for drama is coming from those larger political movements.”

Bite size drama
The last years in TV drama have been marked by the success of single narrative serials like Broadchurch, The Missing and Dr Foster as well as The Killing, Breaking Bad and The Wire. But all those shows require commitment from an audience and there’s a sense that while those shows are here to stay, there’s a need for bite size drama too. The hunt is now on to find the next tranche of ‘story of the week’ shows. “The commissioners all want to have more episodic shows,” says Roanna Benn of Drama Republic. “ I do think someone will crack that. There’s a definitely a will in this country to do a modern version of an episodic show.”

“Inevitably there’s a pendulum effect,” says Nick Brown of Neal Street. “If you’ve been around long enough you see things swing back into fashion again. It’s been great to have those serials around but it demands a lot of audiences. Audiences want that but there are others that want to dip in and out a bit more.”

“We nailed serials with Broadchurch and The Missing,” says Kudos’ Diederick Santer. “But some people don’t want all their TV to be that intense and demanding.”

“There’s still a hunger for those big immersive multi-layered pieces, but you can only fit so many of those into the schedule,” says ITV’s Steve November. “It would be difficult to watch Broadchurch and The Missing in one week so I’m really looking for slightly easier to digest story of the week shows to mix it up a bit. You still want character driven shows with serial character arcs though.”

Small island
Since tax breaks for movies and high end drama kicked in, a flood of US productions have headed to the UK leading to a drain on space and crew. “It’s a massive issue, says Neal Street’s Nick Brown. “The reason we’re shooting Penny Dreadful in Dublin is because we couldn’t find appropriate space here. Crew rates have been pushed up, they’ve been held for a long time and were due a rise but that’s made dramas much more expensive to make. It’s simple supply and demand. We need more people trained. It’d really important to make the industry feel like it’s a place that people from all sorts of backgrounds can come and work in if they have the desire.”

“The tax credit is fantastic,” says Diederick Santer of Kudos. “But in the time since that’s happened the prices have inflated beyond it so the benefit is swallowed up to a degree. I’m not complaining though, talent inflation is the sign of a vibrant market.”

“On the technical side there is no shortage of opportunities and work,” says Daybreak’s Hal Vogel. “The appetite is huge to take new people on.”

Jon Creamer

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