A little while ago, the London Film School ran a day-long event at which many respected UK television industry professionals led discussions on the future of British television writing methods, how different writing methods might affect commissioning and vice versa. I took some notes, and wrote them up to pass to one of the event's excellent organizers, Archie Tait. In case you're interested in what was said (and you should be, it was enlightening!) here are my notes:
Overview: The speakers focused mostly on lengthier series formats becoming more popular, and discussed the benefits of the US ‘showrunner’ writing system, using a writers’ room to produce story arcs and scripts. They also discussed what makes a show more likely to be commissioned, and what sells best globally, among other things.
The speakers and their credits:
Tony Garnett (Producer Cathy Come Home; Executive Producer Between the Lines, Ballykissangel, This Life)
Stephen Garrett (Executive Chairman Kudos Film & Television; Executive Producer Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Spook, Hustle)
Adrian Hodges (Creator and Executive Producer, Survivors, Primeval)
Francis Hopkinson (Producer Henry VIII, Murder City; Executive Producer Wallander, Married Single Other, DCI Banks)
Tony Marchant (Writer Holding On, The Kid in the Corner, Mark of Cain; Creator & Executive Producer The Whistleblowers, Garrow’s Law)
Gub Neal (Producer Cracker, The Fall; Executive Producer Hillsborough, Combat Hospital)
Frank Spotnitz (Writer & Co-Executive Producer The X-Files, Millenium. Creator & Executive Producer Hunted)
Sally Wainwright (Creator & Executive Producer At Home With the Braithwaites, Unforgiven, Scott and Bailey)
Showrunners – not common in the UK because there’s more of an ethos of nurturing the writer rather than the quality of the project being ‘King’. Showrunners are there to make sure the end product is the best it can be, even if this means stepping in and completely rewriting a writer’s work, or even firing them from the project if they’re not working out.
Passion over profits – trying to make programming that is similar to what has been before is, of course, the enemy of creativity and originality. However, executives/financiers/commissioners often want to hear that a project is ‘like’ something pre-existing and successful, as it makes it seem like a safer bet. So it’s often worth packaging a pitch in recognizable terms, ie a ‘precinct drama’ (one set in some sort of institution, ie police station, hospital, courtroom), but then almost subversively including quirkier ‘twists’ on the genre (such as something like HOUSE) – ‘Trojan Horse’ drama, smuggling in originality while making a project seem like something familiar.
Group writing – getting individual different writers to each write an episode of a series can be problematic if their ‘voice’ is too strong and distinctive – their episode might not fit in with the others and series may feel disjointed. The ‘lead writer’ may have to rewrite their episode to make it fit tonally, but this can be taken badly if the writer feels slighted. Ideally they’ll lay aside ego for the good of the show – which is essential in the ‘writers’ room’ style of series writing. If a writer is re-written, and the show is better as a result, they still get credited as the writer and everyone wins – the show looks great and reflects well on that original writer. A different proportion of ego/sensitivity and ‘the greater good’ is required for this method than is traditional in UK writing.
Series vs Serial – In the UK, series tend to be 6/8/10 episodes, serials 2/3/4. More scope for character development in series – they used to be viewed as less ‘worthy’ than serials, as serials were often concerned with moralizing and ‘state of the nation’ subject matter. They were considered more ‘literary’ – however, really tough to sell overseas as global market is more used to the North American model of much longer series – 22 hour-long episodes, typically. Therefore, the UK TV industry is beginning to lean toward longer series, of 13 episodes for example, as they’re an easier global sell and can generate revenue much more reliably. Co-funding from overseas is becoming the norm, and so US funding tends to insist on longer series so the end product will fit in with their schedules for screening over there. With a longer series, such as BREAKING BAD, it’s possible to ‘go on an adventure’, riffing on the moral ambiguities of the protagonist’s unusual situation, rather than having him caught and neatly morally resolved after four hours. There’s sometimes a dichotomy though, as a broadcaster such as ITV may only want to order 6 episodes, but the producer will know that they’ll need at least 10 to raise money from overseas entities. Then the producer has to try to persuade the broadcaster to order more, or perhaps run two series of 6 back-to-back so it can be sold as a single series globally.
HUNTED – A new co-pro between BBC and HBO – there are two different cuts for broadcast on each (ie HBO has a lot more nudity!) It was written using a writers’ room, unusually for the UK. Series creator and showrunner Frank Spotnitz brought along his team of writers and explained how the process worked – he wrote the pilot solo, then met with his writers and they discussed where the characters & plot might go over the course of the series. Then they each took an episode and wrote it, with Frank rewriting all of them to varying degrees. It was a very collaborative process though. They treated the episodes like mini movies, deciding for each a particular movie that would serve as a ‘model’ for the tone and pace of the episode. During production, the writers were on set a lot, and also invited to be involved in the edit – they were involved at every stage.
Writers’ rooms do cost quite a lot – not only does the writer have to be paid a writing fee, but also for the time spent in the room hammering out the arc together. It can really pay off in terms of the quality of the end product – but may not be the right approach for all UK TV.
Using a writers’ room is almost imperative for creating longer US-style series formats – a single writer or small team would not be able to keep up the quality for a run of 22 episodes. Using writers’ rooms could be the way forward for UK series to really compete with US fare.
Things are generally commissioned if they have potential to be sold globally – although it can be appealing to have a certain ‘Britishness’ about the characters and setting – there is a high global demand for English-language drama. But it needs to fit the format which is proven to sell worldwide for scheduling reasons, ie more episodes.
Soaps already have a sort of writers’ room – it’s essential for keeping continuity and for everyone to be aware of where each character has been and where they’re heading. Soap writing has always been rather collaborative by necessity – this is further evidence that collaboration is the way into longer-running shows.
Tax credits are making it more viable to produce programming in the UK rather than outsourcing production overseas. This is good! Since changes in 2002, it hasn’t been so financially viable to do so, but things are changing for the better once again.
Information collected from Video on Demand-style TV viewing prove that there is a higher appetite for drama than previously thought – that’s why broadcasters don’t completely fill their schedules with cheaper programming such as Come Dine With Me! More and more revenue is being generated digitally from drama viewed this way [NOTE – this is supported by an article in Broadcast, re All3Media’s digital content], so it makes sense to commission more. It is easier for viewers to follow a longer drama series, or catch up on one that’s already started when word-of-mouth increases interest, with VOD viewing.