Roll, roll up, for the dope opera

MTV has found a way to stay ahead of the pack - a new drama about drug 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.

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Lead Systems Developer / Software Developer

COMPETITIVE + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Lead Systems Developer / Sof...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Engagement Manager - French or German Speaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The world's leading financial services careers...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - 6 Months Contract

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Digital Marketing Executive...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Senior Account Manager

40-45K DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Manager / Senior Account Manag...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage