Roll, roll up, for the dope opera

MTV has found a way to stay ahead of the pack - a new drama about drug dealers
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MTV reckons that if it wants to be down with the kids and remain the most-watched music channel among 16- to 24-year-olds, it has to stick its neck out. Hence the first-ever drama to be shown on the channel will be based, controversially, on the life and times of two cannabis dealers.

MTV reckons that if it wants to be down with the kids and remain the most-watched music channel among 16- to 24-year-olds, it has to stick its neck out. Hence the first-ever drama to be shown on the channel will be based, controversially, on the life and times of two cannabis dealers.

"It's a departure for us," says Richard Godfrey, senior vice president of MTV Productions Europe, of the "dope opera" - called Top Buzzer - which begins next month.

"From the early rushes, Top Buzzer looks like nothing else you'd see on TV, nothing like a BBC3 or Channel 4 show," says Godfrey, revealing precisely which channels he's benchmarking his output against.

Asked why the music channel has gone for drama he replies: "We've taken the decision to invest in original programme development in the UK and we need a balance of projects."

Godfrey describes Top Buzzer as "edgy comedy/drama" which will provide a counterweight to some of the more traditional territory covered by the channel. "This particular show is rooted in the music culture, its soundtrack is really important and there's an MTV spirit to it," he says.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining exactly what the "MTV spirit" is, the idea that the show is "rooted in the music culture" is highly controversial because Top Buzzer is all about the lives and adventures of a pair of drug dealers. "It's based on a culture that exists and it's a perfectly justifiable one on which to base a show," says Godfrey. "It's the perfect time to do a programme about this because it's something people are confused about. People may know cannabis has been taken down a notch legally but they don't know what that means."

He's quick to add that the channel feels it must treat the subject of cannabis use "responsibly" and has lined up websites, helplines and a range of support programming exploring different views on drug use.

But he rejects the idea that a "dope opera" clashes with any image MTV might have as a squeaky clean broadcaster. The channel is better known for its HIV- and Aids-awareness campaigns and earnest young people interrogating Tony Blair on the rights and wrongs of going to war in Iraq than espousal of drugs culture. "I wouldn't classify the characters you see on MTV as squeaky clean," Godfrey says.

So he admits that the music industry is riddled with dope smokers? "You can't deny that," he agrees. "In The Streets' album every other line is about spliffing up. It's part of the music culture and why MTV is the perfect place to show such a programme."

World's End Productions - the production company owned by Johnny Vaughan, who served time for drug offences in his distant past - initially pitched the idea to MTV after realising the channel was interested in original, edgy programming.

The government may not be so sanguine about the subject matter, however. It reclassified cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug in January this year but production, supply and possession remain illegal. Only the penalties for being caught with cannabis have changed. Supplying cannabis still carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison but possession earns two years' imprisonment, rather than the previous five. For small quantities of the drug there is also a "presumption against arrest" if the offenders are adults, rather than those under 18 (who are deemed vulnerable and would normally be arrested).

That said, the Home Office insists: "It remains an illegal drug. In particular, the government intends to take a tough line with dealers." The very characters, played by James Lance (from The Book Group and Teachers) and Stephen Graham ( Snatch), who front Top Buzzer's cast of ne'er-do-wells. Former Happy Mondays member Bez, who personified the drug euphoria of the early Nineties, is also rumoured to be making an appearance.

Godfrey is hoping the show will be a hit among young British viewers and be exported to other MTV channels around the world - the liberal Netherlands are already planning to show it. A terrestrial channel could also choose to air the programme, just as Channel 4 picked up MTV's The Osbournes.

MTV won't say how much the comedy/drama is costing, except to suggest it accounts for most of the channel's original-programming budget this year. It's all part of a desperate struggle to stay hip and relevant in the increasingly cluttered world of digital TV.

With the launch of music channels by Emap and Sky in the past few years, MTV's USP as a music-video service has been seriously eroded. It sees original programming as a point of difference in the sector. During May of this year, when the second series of Dirty Sanchez was on air - featuring four crazed men inflicting various forms of mental and physical pain on themselves - MTV saw a 26 per cent rise in its ratings compared to the previous month. It remains the top-rated music channel, but Emap's channels, including Q and Kerrang!, are providing fierce competition.

The overall strategy is to move MTV "from being a back-to-back, music-video channel to a lifestyle channel". "We're very ambitious for this stuff," says Godfrey. "Mark Thompson [director-general of the BBC] quotes MTV in the US as one of the powerhouses of ideas. In a few years' time, we want him to think of what MTV in the UK is doing."

In the week that Top Buzzer debuts on MTV - at the end of November - the channel will launch another original series, America or Busted, which covers more traditional MTV territory as it follows the British band Busted as they try to crack the US market.

And that tide of creativity may already be turning - instead of MTV UK taking endless shows - including The Osbournes and Jackass - from its mother network in the States, MTV US has just ordered a series based on a pilot developed by the MTV UK team, featuring real-life families.

Not surprisingly, given the strength of the Bible Belt in the US, that show doesn't feature drugs, however.