Conor Dignam on Broadcasting
The age of US shows reigning in the UK may be Lost for good
Monday 03 September 2007
The hit US show The Sopranos made a welcome return to British TV screens last night when the final series began airing on E4 at 10pm.
The HBO series is unquestionably one of the greatest television shows made, and has had an enormous impact on the whole of the television industry, on both sides of the Atlantic.
A couple of years ago, when Broadcast magazine asked 40 commissioners and controllers across British TV for their favourite TV programme, the answer wasn't a show that any of them had made, but The Sopranos. At that time, mob boss Tony Soprano was king of the TV hill, and – along with other shows such as Sex and the City and Friends – it helped Channel 4 define what it stood for: risk-taking, aspirational, cool and sexy.
Friends and Sex and the City have now disappeared into the world of US syndicated reruns, constantly played out on cable channels across America but no longer being made. The Sopranos, after its final short run of nine episodes, is going the same way.
And here's the stinger for both the US networks and the British counterparts who have lined up to buy their output: nothing has really replaced these shows.
Of course, there have been some tremendous programmes coming out of the American TV system: 24, Desperate Housewives and Lost, to name but a few. CSI and House have done the business both in the US and for Five over here. But there has been nothing in the way of scripted drama and comedy that has really had the impact of what has gone before – certainly nothing that rivals in any way the phenomenal success of Friends.
The scripted American TV dramas and comedies that UK channels have fought over so hard in the past have lost their badda bing, and formats such as American Idol or America's Got Talent are the biggest shows of the day. Even the high-concept, multi-million dollar shows like Lost have shown that they might generate a massive spike in audience interest to begin with, but struggle to sustain it across 22 episodes. Audiences dip in and out of such series, and tune in to the final to find that they haven't missed much in the intervals.
The backlash has begun. At the recent Edinburgh TV Festival, C4's director of television, Kevin Lygo, said that C4's days as the place to go for great US TV shows that you couldn't see anywhere else were pretty much over. His roll call of great shows – Hill Street Blues, Roseanne, NYPD Blue, Cheers, Friends, Frasier – recalled a time when C4 could talk about exclusivity around these offerings, and owning them really meant something unique for its audience. Those days are over. Viewers can buy the box set or download the shows long before they're available on British TV. And digital channels often get there first: Living, not C4, is the first port of call for the new season of Will and Grace; Hallmark gets House before Five.
Lygo said that C4 was largely "backing out" of the acquired genre. The savings will add up to £10m, to be invested in new original British-made programmes. Five wasn't far behind. Its managing director of content, Lisa Opie, declared that with its digital channel, Five US, now up and running, Five itself would be "more British", and looking for homegrown shows.
ITV will also be taking a hard look at its acquisitions, particularly since the talk of it buying and running US shows in ITV1's peak time schedule seems to have ended with a quiet acceptance that there is nothing from the US that could possibly work in such a slot at the moment.
None of this, of course, means that the top shows won't still command big bucks. C4 last year paid out around £900,000 an episode for Desperate Housewives. Sky One was prepared to pay almost £1m an episode to pull Lost away from C4. Meanwhile the BBC is still prepared to spend £400,000 an episode on Heroes, despite the fact that British commercial networks would have picked this up.
Great American shows will still send a rush of blood to the head of British TV buyers, but it is likely to happen less in the future, and when they reach for their corporate wallets they will have less to play with.
JON DE MOL, the original founder of Endemol, is looking at a bid for RDF Media. After taking back control in May, he is running the rule over RDF. De Mol already has a 29.26% stake in RDF - the company behind Wife Swap. In the past this has always been described as "an investment opportunity" rather than a takeover target, but then he would say that wouldn't he?
RDF is the company behind the current ''Crowngate" controversy. De Mol is waiting for this controversy to finish before making his move, probably so it doesn't look like an opportunistic move. This really would be the creation of a mega-indie - bringing together two of the most significant players in British independent production. It would make many smaller indies incredibly nervous, and once again raise the question of whether less choice and range of programming will be the result of further consolidation of the independent production sector.
Suffer the little children, but not on TV please
Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of television, looked slightly bemused at the Edinburgh TV Festival last weekend when he was asked from the audience whether he feared being sued by some of the young children featuring in the channel's output on "problem kids" once they had reached adulthood.
Supernanny is the channel's most famous and successful example of shows featuring nightmare kids and their screaming and punching tantrums, all screened to millions of viewers.
Lygo gave the impression of a man who'd never considered the possibility (which seems fair enough) and said he didn't expect C4 to be deluged with writs once the kids were old enough to consult a lawyer.
But last week, watching the latest instalment of Supernanny, following a deeply disturbed and unhappy young boy and his parents who were struggling to deal with the cot death of his younger brother, I couldn't help feeling that this young boy's distress and pain was being packaged up for the TV audience in a highly questionable way. These TV shows will be around for a long time. They will pass on to digital channels on parenting or lifestyle and play for years to come, as this boy and family seek to move past the pain this show captured.
Dr Tanya Byron, the parenting guru featured in the BBC's House of Tiny Tearaways, joined the debate, saying she too was disturbed by how this "terror toddler" TV trend was going. Perhaps it's something that television executives should be thinking about a little harder than they have done up to now.
Conor Dignam is the publishing director of 'Broadcast' magazine
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