At the Edinburgh TV Festival, broadcasters shared their latest commissions and outlined what they are looking for to refresh their output. We present the highlights from these sessions.
BBC drama is pivoting from “crazy and noisy” high concepts to character-driven series featuring memorable protagonists, according to drama chief Lindsay Salt.
Salt said that about a year ago, the department reached “peak pitch drama” in which “the one-line pitch had become the be-all-and-end-all almost at the expense of great characters” as the broadcaster sought successors for the likes of Happy Valley and Peaky Blinders.
Rather than the cul-de-sac of plot-heavy ideas that ran out of steam after one series, Dalt said: “Our big push this year has been to find those amazing heroes and anti-heroes to take us through to the next generation.”
New BBC dramas announced at the festival included Sally Wainwright’s Hot Flush from Drama Republic; Virdee, a Bradford-based detective series based on Amit Dhand’s crime novels that marks the first commission for new indie Magical Society; and a pair of projects from Firebird Pictures: an as-yet untitled series from Mood creator Nicole Lecky, and Lancashire-set crime drama The Jetty.
ITV director of television Kevin Lygo said ITVX had “done better than we hoped” and said the broadcaster is experimenting with a mixture of windows for screening the on-demand service’s shows on ITV’s main channels.
With linear channels’ audience figures all down around 5%, ITVX has “taken up all that slack” so that ITV overall is down by just 1% - which he described as “no mean feat”.
Lygog said ITVX had enabled ITV to track completion rates as a measure of success, noting that ITVX drama Without Sin had a 92% completion rate compared to Netflix’s average of around 2%.
ITV reality chief Paul Mortimer confirmed the broadcaster has already ordered a second series of its upcoming Big Brother reboot from Initial.
He also announced a format that could be interpreted as ITV’s answer to The Traitors: “a game of trickery, secrecy and deception” set in a luxury Caribbean resort called The Fortune Hotel, from Tuesday’s Child.
Channel 4 content chief Ian Katz said the broadcaster had been “a bit more honest” with suppliers than its rivals about the commissioning slowdown, which has affected all broadcasters and streamers.
This had, he said, “led to a slight perception that the picture at C4 has been much more dramatic than elsewhere.”
Standing by his promise that C4 will be briefing for 2024/25 next month, Katz said: “We’re seeing an improvement in the third quarter this year but we’ve not yet got a real sense of the whole year… we’ll be back to commissioning this year.”
Asked about tapping into C4’s £75m credit facility to greenlight shows, Katz said this was an “break glass in case of emergency” option.
“We have got through really major market shocks over the years…other times much more severe than this one by managing our spending. It would be inappropriate for us to really pull the parachute cord like that.”
Katz also talked up C4’s strategy of prioritising digital views over linear viewing, pointing to Studio Lambert’s Rise and Fall, which captured a 20% profile of young viewers online. Despite looking like “a bit of a damp squib” on linear, it was in fact one of the broadcaster’s biggest launches of the year.
Head of docs Alisa Pomeroy said the similar catch-up success of Wonderhood’s recent three-part series Evacuation has proven a “turning point” in how C4 commissions docs.
“We’re really now thinking when we commission docs how can we shape them so that it will do well in streaming,” she said.
C4 commissions announced at the festival included Lisa McGee’s comedy thriller How to Get to Heaven From Belfast, Candour Productions doc The Push, Screendog’s The Murder Retrial [working title], Story Films’ feature-length doc The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax and a full series of Rosie Jones’ sitcom Disability Benefits from Merman and 2LE Media, which was piloted as a Comedy Blap.
Meanwhile, C4 factual entertainment commissioning editor Lee McMurray defended the reputation of the reality genre.
He said it was “TV snobbery” to brand dating formats like Married at First Sight as “guilty pleasures” and declared: “Reality TV is just as valid, as well made, as crafted, as produced with love, care and dedication, as good and as epic as any movie or serious drama or documentary.”
McMurray said that authentic casting only goes so far in the dating genre and that viewers can withstand “a certain number of people in the case who just want to be on the telly”.
Following in the wake of the success of the global format smash Married at First Sight, E4 recently commissioned Workerbee to produce a version of Australian dating show The Love Triangle.
Channel 5’s session was focused less on programming and strategy than on the broadcaster’s chief executive Ben Frow’s frank admission that he briefly resigned last year amid a “delayed reaction” to the impact of the pandemic.
“It just hit me like a brick in April last year,” he said. “I feed off people’s energy and suddenly I was at home and isolated, I felt the pressure of the business, the pressure of the indies unable to film anymore, people who if they didn’t get a commission could see their business fall through.”
Frow added that he believes “a lot of people are carrying major trauma,” saying he would shake in meetings. “I don’t know how parents did it.”
Frow said that he only told his manager, Maria Kyriacou, of his decision and subsequent u-turn.
“Success is paralysing,” Frow added. “You’re so frightened of decommissioning a show or recommissioning something else in case an alternative doesn’t work. Success if much more dangerous than failure.
“When nothing was working in 2018, we just said, ‘let’s rip the whole thing up.’ It’s truly liberating, it gives you the freedom to take risks. There’s a lot to be said for failing.”
Sky is looking for “genuine, intimate varnished access” to high-profile talent, in line with this week’s Ricky Hatton documentary from Noah Media and Sky Studios.
The broadcaster’s director of documentaries and factual Poppy Dixon said that while her team’s remit does not encompass new on-screen talent, it is “absolutely” centred on diversifying off-screen.
“We’re doing really well in giving opportunities to emerging directors, particularly female directors,” she said. “We’re nailing the 50/50 target for female directors next year, we might even surpass it.”
Upcoming factual shows include Mindhouse’s single Tell Them You Love Me and 72 Films’ three-parter House of Kardashian.
Tell Them You Love Me
Sky has also greenlit two Charles Dickens projects from actor/presenter David Harewood’s nascent indie Section 52 Films, and Humble Bee Films’ natural history three-parter Secret World of Sound with David Attenborough.
Netflix UK is inviting pitches for access docs about “iconic” women to balance out its recent slew of titles about male subjects including David Beckham, Tyson Fury, Lewis Capaldi and Robbie Williams.
Pointing to these titles, Beckham series director Adam Hawkins said: “What do they all have in common? They’re men. We’d love to have iconic British women, so if you have amazing access, then send them through.”
Pointing to the upcoming Robbie Williams doc, Hawkins said Sky is always looking for “absolute honesty”.
The broadcaster’s upcoming factual slate includes BBC Studios’ Einstein and the Bomb, 72 Films’ six-part doc World War II: From the Frontlines and Jack and Michael Whitehall’s latest series, Fatherhood with my Father, from Jackpot Productions.
The commission of Jimmy Carr-fronted entertainment show Battle in the Box – originally a Korean format – points to a broadening out of Dave’s shows, channel execs said.
The series, produced by Insterstellar, features eight pairs of comics and celebrities undertaking a series of physical and mental challenges during 24 hours in divided sections of a box with no home comforts.
The inclusion of “celebrities who aren’t comedians, but are very funny” represents a deliberate tonal move, said UKTV director of commissioning Hilary Rosen.
Chief creative officer Richard Watsham added: “We’ve looked at our comedy entertainment shows … in order to differentiate ourselves we’ve gone down a very particular off-the-wall comic tone and super served an audience of passionate fans.
“Now, we want to broaden that comic tone back out, and seek a multi-generational audience.”
The channel is also seeking drama scripts after rerouting some of its comedy budget into the genre.
This will shortly be overseen by a new team: drama commissioner Philippa Collie Cousins left in July and Rosen announced at the festival that UKTV head of scripted Pete Thorton will step down at the end of the year, after six years in the role.
Commissioning editor for scripted Sarah Asante has been reported as looking at drama for Dave.