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TV Drama Commissioning is Changing

The commissioning landscape for drama in the UK is changing fast, with US giants looming over the traditional British TV landscape. At this crucial time we hear the BVE experts discuss the impacts of commissioning priorities, the key requirements for format, story and style, and how online platforms differ from terrestrial viewing. We heard from the following panel:

Jonathan Lewsley – Development Executive, BBC Drama
Rhodri Thomas – Head of Production, The Ink Factory
Matthew Wilson – Head of Development, Channel 4
Stewart Mackinnon – Executive Producer, The Man in the High Castle, Amazon

Most of our current productions continue to be consumed via terrestrial viewing but there’s a crossover between OTT consumption and traditional content being broadcast. There’s great co-production work between UK and US productions such as the upcoming Troy: Fall of a City and Happy Valley because it’s a great way of spreading money to increase scale and reach of UK drama. Moving forward we need to keep the healthy ecosystem of diverse contribution and competition to maintain collaboration rather than having one dominant beast in the broadcasting world.

Global dramas

Diverse audiences
“If we’re interested in reaching a global audience there must be a British or European perspective that distinguishes it from US shows” says Executive Producer of Man in the High Castle, Stewart Mackinnon. “We face an enormous task. If we look at MITHC, the implications of the world are considered which means the drama’s audience is global thus we must see a UK perspective. We originally planned 6 hours for the US pilot but were asked to provide 50 hours’ worth of episode planning for 5 seasons, so we had our work cut out. The budgets were breathtaking for work of this scale and reach, and the decision making process was instantaneous to commit to the level of money invested. In Europe, the problem we have is that European domestic broadcasters are set up principally to serve a domestic market. They all want to produce long form drama series but must work together to create a new business model which, sadly, I don’t see happening.”  He also states Season 3 of Man in the High Castle is currently in production and in terms of the release, there will be a campaign that has never been used before that runs parallel to the episodes on another digital platform… So keep your eyes open for news!

Small versus large

We’re now seeing productions attempting to provide a different journey from what the domestic broadcasters offer in terms of the intense long form dramas. “Developments show that these extraordinary US dramas that take years to put together are being made with European sensibilities” according to Head of Production, Rhodri Thomas. “There are other types of drama to explore than big budget supernovas and as a British audience, we shouldn’t always listen to broadcasters telling us we only want British drama.”

BBC’s Development Executive, Jonathan Lewsley, continues: “Addressing a younger audience gives us huge potential to expand scheduling to have more space for ambitious, large scale drama to appeal to younger people. It’s a really interesting arena for broadcasters to be fighting in. To produce the best drama that will be a success, you need to ensure its relevance can cross over to a global audience and considers cultural reflection, character relation and story.”

Thomas contemplates the idea of smaller dramas after working on The Night Manager and says that with a budget of $5m per hour with big named stars, US networks will want you have a well-known director to sell it. “The US is an important territory to discuss but there are also the UK creations to think about, as great drama needs to be retained even if it’s unlikely to be an international success. It’s valid to have smaller UK dramas that cover a reduced spectrum that can find a niche audience to explore other issues.”

Production finance

The panel also turn their attention to the role of producers and reflect on the two ways to manage the finances in this role. “The first is to be paid a percentage of the budget and control the financing, selling to other territories so the revenues come through you. The second is usually the way US productions work, where a studio is set up and they retain most of the value whilst you get paid a non-writing executive producer fee” the panel concur. “To maintain control over a budget, in the UK you can sell a high profile series license for up to £850k per hour. This means there is more control for the producer as there is no need to sign up to an expensive international distributor or drop production fees” says Mackinnon. The international rights also benefit broadcasters because through embracing a collaborative culture and allowing room for growth, as opposed to previous advertising-only business models, they have room for exploration of new platforms. They then balance this with business-focused skills and capabilities to make their service more commercially viable. Ultimately this leads to productions being more profitable.

The next generation of dramas

“There are audiences globally that we must consider and the ‘one size fits all’ style doesn’t always work” states Wilson, Head of Development at Channel 4. “It’s healthy for the industry to have a broad array of content and we must bear in mind that innovative ideas appeal to a younger viewership.” In terms of the future, the consensus is mutual; we mustn’t revert to boring reproductions of previous classic shows. It is a crowded landscape and we need to find new ways to present and format content using digital platforms alongside traditional terrestrial viewing.

There must also be expansion in terms of diversity of voices and writing talent, as supported by Lewsley; “We need to reinvigorate genres and concepts that may have been overshadowed in recent years, such as crime dramas – Silent Witness and New Tricks were so popular and with a different perspective, it’s exciting to think what could be achieved.” He also adds: “It is vitally important that Wales and Scotland see more screen time to add to the mix of existing productions and to represent other parts of the UK apart from the usual stomping grounds.”

How to sell your idea

“It’s a pretty complex algorithm whenever an idea is pitched” says Wilson. “If you’re working as a new writer or producer though, we would probably need to see more at the beginning of the project than someone who is already established in the industry. This is to feel confident that the show can be delivered. Channel 4 is a nursery of fresh talent and we have shows in production in collaboration with new production companies, writers and producers. If something excites us and we believe it is deliverable, it’s likely we’ll go with it.”
In terms of the selection process, the panel were unanimous in saying the idea behind the project is central, rather than having an incredible track record and extensive career.

It was also commented that it is reassuring when a new writer with a great sample script works with producers that can support them. This is to enable collaboration between the experienced and the upcoming, allowing them to foster a relationship, strengthen the creative team and add weight to the new show. If the drama is small form however, there is a premise that must be adhered to; the smaller the series, the more powerful the sense of statement has to be.

Whether the concept is for a globally targeted production, or you’re working in small form, mutual collaboration is the future – bear in mind the format, story, style and viewing platform, and you’re on your way to a successful enterprise.