TV Drama recaps some of the developments from the scripted television business last year.
We’ve heard concerns about “Peak TV” since FX Networks chief John Landgraf introduced the phrase in 2015. But as 2017 drew to a close, the worries were less about the volume of drama out there and more about the sustainability of funding models.
Acclaimed British producer Jane Featherstone, in her BAFTA Television Lecture last October, sounded the alarm for U.K. drama in particular. The boom time in scripted has been “heavily subsidized,” Featherstone said. “Whether it’s the U.K. tax break that’s driven up budgets, or virtual advertiser monopolies in free-to-air commercial TV. Or hefty deficits from distributors. Or the high-end returning drama series and soaps that have provided nursery slopes for writers, directors and producers, courtesy of public service broadcasting.”
The “quality mainstream” coming out of the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky, she continued, has attracted “new and intrepid visitors, keen to explore and draw on our resources, which is where the irreversible and dynamic change comes in,” with some 500 SVOD and OTT platforms operating in the landscape. “Chief among these are Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google—or to give them their Bond villain name, FAANG.
“So, these arrivals have brought with them a new form of subsidy—a stream of money from U.S. broadcasters and from FAANG’s own apparently bottomless pockets. Budgets have escalated, demand for on-screen named talent and behind-the-scenes A-listers is sky high. Co-production has been a buzzword for the last five years. Happy marriages all…. Well, and I’m not the first person to say this: That honeymoon period? Consider it over.”
Just a few days later, BBC Director-General Tony Hall, in the Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool John Moores University, stressed that British content “faces an uncertain future,” with a predicted £500 million funding shortfall by 2026. And those hoping that the streaming giants Netflix and Amazon can make up that shortfall will be disappointed, Hall noted. “The reality is that their investment decisions are increasingly likely to focus on a narrow range of very expensive, very high-end content—big bankers that they can rely on to have international appeal and attract large, global audiences. Even the most generous calculations suggest they are barely likely to make up half of the £500 million gap in British content over the decade ahead. And a more realistic forecast points to them contributing substantially less. What this adds up to is not just a real risk to the volume and breadth of British content, but also a potentially damaging impact on U.K. distinctiveness, risk-taking and innovation.”
FAANG certainly wielded considerable influence over the scripted sector in 2017, from Netflix’s high-profile deal that lured Shonda Rhimes away from her longtime home at ABC Studios to Amazon’s very expensive bet on a Lord of the Rings series to Apple’s big investments on its new content unit, now led by ex-Sony Pictures Television heads Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg (with a team that includes Morgan Wandell, Jay Hunt and Tara Sorensen). And that influence is expected to continue, especially as Netflix continues its spending spree worldwide and Amazon, recovering from a shakeup in its content team, looks to bolster its Prime Video lineup in key markets.
Amazon’s video team was famously rocked by two significant sexual harassment scandals last year. One resulted in the ousting of Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, the other has left the future of the platform’s biggest success, Transparent, in doubt following allegations against star Jeffrey Tambor. Netflix is plowing forward with a Kevin Spacey-less House of Cards. Any shows that had funding deals in place with The Weinstein Company are looking for other options. Several series canned writers, showrunners and on-screen talent as allegations came to light. The media sector is certainly not done facing up to decades of bad behavior. You can expect to see the ramifications of the #metoo campaign for years to come, on-screen and off.
The sheer volume and diversity of the global scripted landscape mean that there are few discernible trends. Contemporary and period, fantasy and real-world, limited and long-running, procedural and serialized all made their way to the most-watched charts. Trend-watchers agree that it helps to have a preexisting brand—a movie, a book, a beloved show that can be rebooted—and, obviously, the best off- and on-screen talent available. And it’s accessing off-screen talent that is top of mind for many executives in busy content-production sectors, so expect the wave of acquisitions and exclusive development deals that we saw last year to continue into 2018.