British broadcasters are going back to drama basics as they line up a swathe of lower budget scripted series to counter the multi-billion spend of the global SVODs.
Broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are preparing for a drama future where the likes of Netflix, which spends around $6.5M per episode of The Crown, for instance, and Amazon, which is expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its adaptation of Lord of the Rings, are looking to take all global rights to projects.
Over the last few years, British networks have taken advantage of digital co-pro funds with shows such as C4 and Amazon’s Electric Dreams and BBC and Netflix’s Troy costing millions. But, these funds are soon expected to dry up, with the likes of Sister Pictures founder Jane Featherstone saying “the honeymoon is over”, leading domestic broadcasters to find new ways to get drama stories on screen.
Last week, Deadline broke the news that Channel 5 was getting back into the drama business. However, the Viacom-owned broadcaster is only planning to spend around £250,000 per episode for its forthcoming psychological thriller Cold Call, which stars Sally Lindsay and is produced by Chalkboard TV.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, C5’s Director of Programmes Ben Frow said, “The thing about drama is you can’t compete with the Netflixes at £10m an hour, so how can we be different? My philosophy is if you can’t be the best, turn left and do something different. Our initiative is to do low cost drama and work with new writers, new directors, new companies. The creative challenge is how do you do drama for less. I don’t want people just to shoot it in one location because that sounds like they’ve compromised, I want them to go away and make me a great drama. As a smaller channel we have to think more carefully about how we do it and how long we spend filming.”
Frow, who is understood to be on the verge of commissioning a second drama, set in Liverpool, revealed that this call has “ignited” something within the British drama business and has had interest from the likes of Nicola Shindler, the boss of Happy Valley producer Red Production Company, which recently made Michael C Hall’s Safe for Netflix, and Kay Mellor, writer and director of BBC’s The Syndicate, which was remade in the U.S. as Lucky 7 for ABC.
His comments were echoed by BBC drama chief Piers Wenger and Channel 4 content boss Ian Katz. Wenger said it “wasn’t all about big budgets”. “There’s a lot of big splashy dramas available to audiences now. What we do is slightly different, it’s not always about those hugely budgeted pieces, it’s as much about great writing and great stories that matter to people and have an emotional immediacy and you don’t always need massive budgets to do that.”
One of the BBC’s forthcoming dramas, The Cry (left) is produced in association with Australian public broadcaster ABC, rather than one of the major SVODs. Made by Scottish producer Synchronicity Films and written by Jacquelin Perske, the Jenna Coleman-fronted four-part drama tells the story of a young Scottish couple who go to Australia to fight a custody battle and their son disappears.
The BBC also recently found success with low-budget drama Keeping Faith, a Welsh thriller originally produced by Vox Pictures for Welsh broadcaster S4C. The show, which stars Eve Myles as a solicitor whose husband disappears while she is on maternity leave following the birth of their third channel, subsequently aired on BBC’s VOD service iPlayer before running on BBC One and picking up steam via word of mouth. It airs on Acorn TV in the U.S.
In fact, the show was heralded by rival Katz, who said he “loved” it. “Not least because I think there’s this really interesting conversation going on about the cost of drama and how we can make drama on modest budgets that don’t require massive international co-productions and fascinating thing is that it is made for half the price that most of the networks have been making,” he said.
By relying on SVOD funding, the British broadcasters face another challenge around attribution. Cult hit The End of the F***ing World (right) was produced by Misfits producer Clerkenwell Films for Channel 4 and Netflix. The first episode of the show originally debuted on Channel 4 last year before being rolled out on its digital service All4 as a boxset. However, Katz admitted that as the show, which has been renewed for a second season, launched on Netflix three months later, many people thought it was a Netflix original. “Next time we’ll run the whole series on the channel then there will be a conventional hold back of more than a year before people see it on Netflix. It really bugs me that people think that show is a Netflix show, I really want to reclaim ownership of it, it’s absolutely a Channel 4 show,” he said.
Frith Tiplady, who previously ran Peaky Blinders indie Tiger Aspect, admitted that it had faced a similar problem with the Cillian Murphy-fronted gangster drama. The show was commissioned by the BBC but was acquired by Netflix in a number of territories, meaning some assumed the budget was higher than it was.
While low-budget isn’t a phrase often associated with commercial broadcaster ITV, home to massive entertainment formats such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, content chief Kevin Lygo admitted that it wanted to move back into heartland drama after a string of edgier thrillers.
He pointed to forthcoming Sheridan Smith series Cleaning Up, produced by Featherstone’s Sister Pictures, a drama about a group of cleaners who attempt to start insider trading, and called for producers to bring it the “next Morse”.
“It’s curious at the moment, writers are all just wanting to write thrillers and are very influenced by what they’ve seen on Netflix or HBO,” he said. “Our highest rating dramas are things like Vera, Midsomer Murders and Doc Martin. These shows are not talked about in the media but are the most viewed. I’m permanently saying ‘where’s the next Lewis or [Inspector] Morse?’, those are the shows that have defined ITV over the decade. We’re finding it surprisingly difficult to find writers who want to make those types of shows.”