ITV needs returning weekly drama series that can run up for at least three months at a stint, according to executive chairman Michael Grade. He made his comments yesterday in a presentation covered by both Broadcast and Media Guardian. "I'm talking about series that run 12, 14, 15 weeks a year, every year for three, four or five years, that is where we have been weak. Short series we are brilliant at, whether it's Commander or Wire in the Blood and so on, these are terrific series but they are not 16 weeks a year, that's where we are short and we are working very very hard on that. That will take some time to come through."
Where are these series going to come from? Let's face it, independent production companies such as Kudos, Shed, Company and Carnival are the most likely candidates. Watch out for efforts from Red Planet, Monastic and Mammoth, especially as the latter's headed up by Damien Timmer and Michella Buck, formerly of ITV Productions. Aside from the BBC, the rise of the indie prodco has seen a seismic shift in the creation of TV drama over the past 10-15 years, and that's only going to accelerate.
How much of a serial element will be incorporated into these new series Grade wants? Most British returning drama series opt for character arcs that run over several episodes or even a series, perhaps with a continuing plotline bubbling under the surface. But the A story of most episodes stands alone and can be enjoyed on its own merits, without resorting to lengthy Previously on... recaps. True serials in the mould of Lost and Heroes are less common on British TV, as they demand viewer loyalty that's difficult to generate. You could argue recent hit Life on Mars was as much serial as series, but each episode largely stood alone.
Lots of commissioners talk about wanting sexy, high concept shows, the sort of thing Kudos has made its stock in trade: Spooks, Hustle, Life on Mars are all prime examples. Not every Kudos production is like that, but those are the ones that get a lot of ink, a lot of attention. Could you sustain Hustle for 16 episodes a year? Probably, but how cons are there to be run? Spooks could be expanded, but would making 16 episodes a year diminish the quality? And Life on Mars only lasted 16 episodes in total, though it has spawned a sequel in Ashes in Ashes.
It'll be a tricky task to deliver high concept, glossy shows that can also generate 16 episodes a year for three to five years in succession. That's more than the annual output of acclaimed America cable shows like The Shield, Dexter, The Wire or my new favourite, Damages. How long before British TV embraces the showrunner and writers' room method used by the US to create up to 22 episodes of slick, high concept TV drama with a consistent voice and tone? Obviously, the American method is no guarantee of success or quality, but it works across the Atlantic - why can't it be made to work here?
The stumbling block is probably going to be money. US shows employs big writing staffs on fixed term contracts, with escalating salaries. The norm for British TV is freelancer scribes with an executive producer calling the shots, and script editors inbetween, trying to keep everybody sweet. When will a UK broadcaster or indie prodco put their hand in their pocket and fund an attempt at the US system? If Michael Grade does want 16 episodes a year of high quality entertainment, ITV will have to invest a lot of money into making that happen.