The Media Column: Post Mad Men, TV chiefs seek next box-set sensation to hook British audiences

A hit US show adds lustre to a channel and can prove cost-effective

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The finale of Mad Men last week provided a melancholy moment for viewers who have followed the stylish period drama for eight years. In the days when the BBC spent big on the buzziest American imports, it was a huge coup to land the Madison Avenue-set series, which initially ran on BBC4.

Sky snapped up the show three years later and, although Mad Men ultimately played out to a niche audience on Sky Atlantic, it remained one of the most talked-about shows on British screens.

Although we’ve dabbled in Scandinavian noir, the rise of “box-set” series with novelistic aspirations has made US dramas even more attractive to British audiences.

From Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, a hit US show adds lustre to a channel and can prove cost-effective since a  long-running import can deliver more than 100 episodes, with audiences returning for multiple repeats.

Acquiring the next American smash is a hugely competitive business, with much of the activity compressed into the LA Screenings, an annual event where the major US studios present their latest wares in front of international buyers.

Potential purchasers – which now include digital upstarts including Netflix and Amazon – spend a day at each of the big production houses, where they are bombarded with pilot episodes from the likes of Disney, CBS, Fox and NBCUniversal.

The Muppets provided one of the buzz shows at the screenings, which concluded at the weekend. The felt favourites return in a “mockumentary” sitcom form, in which Kermit and co speak to camera in the style of The Office.

Medical dramas are back in fashion with several vying to become the “new ER”. A reboot of The X-Files from Fox is certain to find a UK home and an increasing trend for superhero spin-offs found Supergirl, featuring Superman’s cousin, played by Melissa Benoist of Glee, ready to fly.


The British buyers with an open chequebook included Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions, who also has responsibility for filling the schedules of owner Viacom’s UK channels MTV, Comedy Central and Spike.

“It’s an incredible week because you get to immerse yourself in the world of US TV,” she said. “Buyers across the world descend on LA. Today I’m at Disney, we start with breakfast and then we have seven to eight hours of screenings. I’ll be viewing 50 to 60 shows inside six days.”

Ms Keenan bagged a hit with Batman prequel Gotham last year and is looking for the next generation of long-running “procedurals” to follow hits such as CSI, NCIS and The Mentalist.

“There is an audience for critically acclaimed shows but I’m buying for 5 and the  Viacom brand, which means broad-appeal series that deliver for our audience. They aren’t necessarily the ones critics get excited about,” she added.

“We’re also looking to fill slots with something fresh and glossy, [and] which is female-skewed, for the 5* channel,” said Ms Keenan, who was impressed with Shades of Blue, a new NBC detective drama starring Jennifer Lopez.

Channel 5 has designs on the latest show from Shonda Rhimes, the producer with the magic touch behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. But The Catch, a fraud thriller about a forensic accountant who is set to be the victim of fraud in her own life, is also interesting buyers from Sky and Channel 4.

The Catch recast two lead roles last week, suggesting that the producers have work to do. The nightmare for a buyer is to land a show that fails and is cancelled halfway through its first series.

Ms Keenan said: “You want a show that will survive for many years. When you meet the networks, you want to know where a show is placed in the schedules – is it up against a very successful show? Will it have a chance of survival? There are a number of different elements to factor in.

“You get to meet the show-runners and cast so you can ask where a story is going, what happens to the characters, how will a show be maintained – these are people with a great energy and passion for their shows.”

However, as the 83,000 live audience for the Mad Men finale demonstrates, shows with mass audience appeal are becoming harder to find. Piracy, the rise of streaming subscription alternatives and the sudden popularity of subtitled European drama, are limiting the prices that the Hollywood studios can wring from buyers.

Stephen Arnell, a former ITV digital channels director who is now a broadcasting strategy consultant, said: “The likes of Amazon and Netflix are siphoning off talent, in front and behind the camera, who would have previously been working on network or cable shows.

“Through the influence of cable, with its shorter, 13-episode runs, the networks are realising that 22-part series often mean a dilution of quality and now have begun to commission shorter series, or at least break up longer-running shows to attempt to keep standards up.”

Back in Burbank, Ms Keenan believes comedy, previously a tough sell for 5, is due a comeback. A new Rob Lowe legal sitcom, The Grinder, is on her slate but Sky 1, ITV2 and E4 are also fishing in the same waters.

Ironically, a British export is one of the hot comedy buys. CBS is marketing The Late, Late Show, presented by James Corden, to UK buyers, now that the new host has  found his feet. “James Corden is getting incredible guests and he’s multi-talented,” said Ms Keenan, who senses a possible replacement for The Daily Show, which Viacom’s Comedy Central channel is dropping after Jon Stewart’s departure. “We’re looking at The Late, Late Show along with others.”

Phone-hacking saga will cost Mirror and Labour

The confirmation that senior journalists at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People intercepted celebrities’ voicemails on an industrial scale – making the News of the World’s phone-hacking look like a “small, cottage industry” – has placed Trinity Mirror on the hook for at least £30m in compensatory payments.

Up to 100 alleged victims are now ready to lodge claims after record damages totalling £1.2m were awarded to celebrities, including Paul Gascoigne and Sadie Frost, against Mirror Group Newspapers.

Mr Justice Mann even questioned whether Sly Bailey, the Trinity Mirror chief executive between 2003 and 2012, was correct in her evidence about  phone-hacking to the Leveson inquiry.

Leading Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, so keen to condemn Rupert Murdoch’s News International over hacking at its papers, did not deem the growing scandal at Trinity Mirror worthy of comment.

Labour, which made “taking on Murdoch” a key plank of its failed election campaign, now needs to construct a new media policy independent of the demands of the Hacked Off pressure group.

It’s a challenge for shadow Culture Secretary Chris Bryant, himself a hacking victim who won a £30,000 damages payout from News of the World.

Leading Tory worried by TV-vetting plans

Theresa May’s proposal to introduce counter-extremism powers to vet programmes before they are broadcast has proved so controversial that even the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has warned of a threat to freedom of speech.

The Home Secretary wants to give Ofcom extra powers to weed out extremist content such as interviews with terrorists. In a leaked letter to David Cameron, Javid points out that other countries that have imposed similar powers “are not known for their compliance with rights related to freedom of expression and the Government may not wish to be associated with such regimes”. Ofcom would be “a censor”.

Ofcom already has strict rules to ensure that material likely to incite hatred is not broadcast on radio or television.

Ms May’s plans are expected to be included in Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech.  While the proposal might be designed to boost the Home Secretary’s credentials in a future Conservative leadership contest, it is unlikely to survive detailed scrutiny in Parliament.

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