Sunday, July 09, 2006

USA v GB

I don't think I'm alone in preferring to watch American drama shows rather than British. With the odd exceptions of perhaps Spooks, Hustle and Shameless, the rest leave me pretty cold.

I'm wondering if this is just a matter of my personal taste or are the networks indeed churning out mindless middle of the road pap at an alarming rate. Opinions would be appreciated.

Take 'Life on Mars' for instance. The TV execs are creaming themselves about this show. I know, I've heard them.

Me? I thought it was meh? Interesting concept, nice juxtaposition between the seventies and the naughties. But to me the individual episodes were weak on actually having an interesting story. I lasted two and half episodes.

I don't mean to slag off the writers. God knows it is difficult enough to get anything on TV past the never ending committees of taste arbiters. But it worries me that some execs are going about like this was the best show since ......the last one that didn't bomb.

I've recently seen trailers for a new show called 'SORTED' a drama series about postmen.

Yep. Postmen.

I can almost see them now, going through the check list of situations where a diverse group of people can be brought together


Cops - been done
Firemen - been done
Hospital - been done
Coastguard - been done [ it has, remember Harbour Lights? No?]
Factory - been done
Boatyard - been done
Postal sorting office --------BINGO
Bingo - been done


I know nothing about the show. I may even give it a try. But I doubt it. I may not have the busiest life in the world but I'm pretty sure I can be busy enough not to wait in to see a drama series about postmen. No offence to postmen.

Where are the shows like 'The Avengers' 'The Saint' ' The Professionals' ' The Duchess of Duke Street' ' Secret Army' Auf Weidersein Pet' [Yes I know that was a drama series about Brickies but it had the intriguing fish out of water twist]

I feel like Peter Finch in 'Network' ''I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell ' I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more'!

The USA seem to be able to deliver shows like Lost, 24, The West Wing, The Shield, CSI, Law and Order, Missing, Desperate Housewives and Num3ers, almost at will.

Yes they produce a lot of crap too, but not in primetime.

I recently read about the head of ITV berating the advertisers for playing hardball on the money they pay. The cost of an advertising slot is linked to a formula dependent on ratings. So.... uhhhhmmmm....rather than moaning about the amount of money the advertisers are paying how about making some decent programmes? That will improve the ratings and guess what.....the advertisers will have to pay more money as per the formula.

Duh?

Jimmy McGovern recently said you could guarantee that an ITV drama slot at 9 pm would be shit so you wouldn't even bother looking. That's one of the most respected writers in the business.

Judging by the current crop of BBC dramas I think we're talkng about the relative smells of fecal matter.

I've got a high concept idea out there right now. I've even written the pilot. Of course I'm not telling them I've written the pilot because the cheap bastards will then try to option the package including script for the same price as the bible and storylines.

Chances of success for the project? Slim.

Will I keep trying to get these kind of things made? Fuck yeah!
Because I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!

21 comments:

Lee said...

My guts practically fell out my arse when I saw the promo for Sorted. On the other hand, I think the BBC have had a good year, so far. I loved Life on Mars, Hustle was very entertaining, Doctor Who got through the difficult second season pretty well, and I'm really looking forward to Robin Hood, and new Spooks later this year. I've completely given up on ITV.

Perhaps one of the reasons these shows have been successful, and why those of us with active torrent clients warm to them, is that they are trying to forge a showrunner/team-writing methodology (at least according to inteviews and DVD commentaries - it could all be puff for all I know). Kudos in particular seem keen on this, and with Jordan, and Pharaoh and Graham setting up their own indies, we may not have to live with the constant stench of shit much longer.

Good luck with the pilot!

English Dave said...

Thanks Lee.

But I would say that Jordan was responsible keeping EastEnders going as well as creating Hustle. So the jury is out.He's 50/50 at the moment. I await his first independant production which happens to be a spin off of Holby City. A generic cop show called Holby Blue. Wow! Great imagintion shown there.

Ashely Pharaoh is responsible for some of the worst tripe seen on TV, like Heartbeat and Harbour Lights.

As a team.......well they can't do much worse I suppose.

Lee said...

Ashely Pharaoh is responsible for some of the worst tripe seen on TV, like Heartbeat and Harbour Lights.

Really? If he is it's to his credit that he's so ashamed he's managed to keep the knowledge off the imdb and wikipedia. Unless no-one's told me that Nick Berry and Ashley Pharoah are one and the same person. I've certainly never seen them together in a room.

English Dave said...

Tis true. Along with that God awful thing about about brothers with a removal van. I doubt if even he can remenber the name of that series -=


Personally I have litttle confidence in Jordan, Pharoh, Abbot, Mellor or any of the favorites to give me something I actually look forward to watching.

UK drama right now is sh1t.

Don't care what channel.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

I don't get UK TV out here in Europe except BBC Prime which sucks mostly so I've been getting US TV dramas out on DVD and I have to say they are just AWESOME television. Lost, Prison Break and 24 are what I'm into now although I'm waiting for the next DVD's on the first two. The writing is brilliant, not only in terms of plot but also dialogue which can suck enormously on TV. I imagine the truth lies in the amount of money and writing talent that they throw at these shows. Watching these shows is a great lesson in the importance of creating obstacles, putting your characters through hell, after a while I could predict that as soon as the character would catch a break then wham! the setback would come. No protag would ever catch an easy break and it makes for great, highly addictive drama. I've just spent my weekend watching 11 episodes of 24 and I can't wait to see the next ones!

English Dave said...

Exactly schmucks.

The major element missing from UK drama is story. In US drama it is the major component.

UK drama tends to be talking heads whining about something we don't really care about.

Wow I've opened my own can of worms here. I think I need to lie down.

David Bishop said...

As an exercise a few weeks back [before the summer silly season of sport and reality TV swallowed the schedules], I went through the Radio Times in search of some homegrown drama to watch. Excluding soaps, I think Channel 4 had almost none for the whole week. Same with BBC2 - that seemed to be Bill Oddie, gardening, and Bill Oddie in a garden. Strange.

Lee said...

Is is because our writers aren't good enough, or that producers can't write, or that networks are spineless, that there's no UK equivalents of Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, Deadwood or The Shield?

And why is it that US shows, when broadcast in the UK, struggle to find audiences? Why do people, when given a choice, prefer Casualty over House (I don't think it's a BBC vs Five thing)?

Lee said...

David, I did the same Radio Times examination almost a year ago, and found:

"we have five national television channels, all broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Between them, they have eight hundred and forty hours of airtime to fill. Looking through the schedules for July 30th to August 5th, first run British drama occupied twenty-two of those eight hundred and forty hours. And what grand drama it is: two and a half hours of Coronation Street over four nights, two hours of Eastenders, over four nights, three hours of Emmerdale over six, two and a half hours of Family Affairs, and a further two and a half hours of Hollyoaks. Fuck me. If you like your drama badly written, histrionic, lazily produced, lamely acted, and with no sense of pace or a narrative goal, then you must be as happy as a pig in shit, because almost 60% of drama in this country is created just for you."

And there was NO DRAMA AT ALL on BBC2 that, or the previous, or subsequent week. Homegrown or otherwise.

English Dave said...

Lee and David, excellent points. I reckon in any week,if you exclude soaps and the perennials like Casualty, The Bill and Holby you'd be lucky to find a dozen hours of drama over all the networks.

There has been a major change recently in heads of drama. Nick Elliot has gone from network centre, Gareth Neame from BBC, but will things change? Maybe. The problem is that the BBC has become very ratings conscious. Safety seems to be the watchword. I think it's quite sad that Casualty is held up as a ratings winner with 9 million or so viewers. A few years ago that would have been considered only so/so. They blame viewing fragmentation, computers, dvds, you name it. The one thing they don't blame is the quality of the programming.

And yes I can't understand why anyone would prefer Casualty over House as well!

The UK networks have to wake up and start producing programmes with the same script, acting and production values of the American shows [which are largely fuelled by an influx of movie people like Jerry Bruckheimer]or we are doomed to endless Rosemary and Thyme, Cutting It,and the latest from the highest paid writers in the land Holby frickin' Blue.

Dan said...

Checking through my Sky+ I'm not surprised to find it's full of US drama. With the exception of the aforementioned Life On Mars, Hustle, Spooks(series 1 & 2 only, the others disappointed) and The Street, most UK drama leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.

I often return to the british classics in my DVD collection - Tinker, Tailor - Edge of Darkness -The Perfect Spy etc. Does this style of story-telling not sit well with producers anymore? Even by the production values of today, it's still great viewing and the writing/acting is superb.

English Dave said...

Edge of Darkness was a great series Dan and one of Troy Kennedy Martin's too rare forays into television.

One of the problems I see is that in every meeting I go to the producers have one mantra. They want long running returning series. It's good for them. It's also financial manna from heaven for the writer as the format fee is your pension.

Maybe that is why the mini series is being squeezed out?

Dan said...

I'd go for quality over quantity every time. I was watching the 'Ricky Gervais does Alias' programme last night and he said he only ever saw 'The Office' as a two series comedy. I guess he knew the public would demand another series but then all too soon get fed up with it.

I'd like to think that was a creative decision he and Stephen Merchant made and stuck to their guns despite pressure from producers. Maybe I'm being naive here but it seems a good one to adopt if you're in that fortunate position to call the shots.

The same should go for some of the dramas we're subjected to. But, like you say, money makes the world go round.

Danny Stack said...

GBH is being repeated on More 4 on Saturday nights. 1st ep last week. I missed it when it was first shown in the early 90s but so far, so great!

As the last half hour crept up (of a 90min first ep), there was this unsettling but compelling sense of threat and menace, not from Lindsay's character, but about what was going to happen as a whole.

Lee said...

Repeated? Damn! I bought the DVDs last week.

A high-water mark for everyone involved, in my opinion.

English Dave said...

I've noticed that classic DVD's tend to be on sale shortly before the classic is repeated. Buggers!

So long as the extras make up for it I suppose.

David Bishop said...

GBH extras: commentary tracks on two episodes, one of them featuring Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay [bear n mind, many of the episodes are 90 minutes long]; 25 minute interview with Alan Bleasdale.

Lee said...

Damn shoddy DVD, actually. Crappy transfer, won't play on one of my machines, and they get one of the episode titles wrong in the menus!

Very slack.

OnMeJack said...

Sturgeons Law '90% of anything is crap'

The problem with comparing UK and US is quantity as well as quality, whether it be TV or Film.

Yes the West Wing was brilliant, and i have every faith in Studio 60, approriately considering the Network reference.

However the sheer volume of pilots produced to shows commisioned is huge and even potentialy great shows like Warren Ellis Global Frequency dont make it past pilot, whilst other shows like Arrested Development or Deadwood fight to stay on air.

The point being the American networks can afford to make 100 new shows of which 10 will be any good and 1 will make it to transmission in the UK and we will be in awe.

UK broadcasters can make 10 shows of which 1 will be any good period. Though none of those new shows will be on ITV. Especially with ITV's commitment to slashing costs and budgets.

Piers said...

The pressure to start moving to a showrunner methodology started a few years ago in the UK, but the problem was that there weren't many writers available who actually wanted to produce.

This is starting to change - thank goodness - but I don't think we'll start seeing proper quality long-form drama until a broadcaster actually springs for an office and an actual honest-to-god writers' room.

And lots of caffeinated drinks, natch.

"UK drama tends to be talking heads whining about something we don't really care about."

Agreed.

There's an interesting difference between producers in the UK and US in what they look for in a spec.

The UK producers say "Show us you can write dialogue and character by delivering an original spec with a fresh voice. We can teach you structure. But dialogue and voice can't be taught."

The US producers say "Show us you can write structure and character by working with someone else's show, because those are the most difficult thing to get right. And the showrunner's going to do a dialogue pass before it goes to the network anyway. Maybe after five years in the trenches you can start pitching your own pilots."

I know which approach I think produces the better television.

English Dave said...

Onemejack - absolutely correct. American TV is ruthless, especially in prime time. We are not. Take New Street Law. The ratings were dismal yet it has been recommissioned. Why? Because that was the deal originally struck. Two series come what may. The the yanks would agree to that!

Piers excellent points. Funnily enough I've just come back from a forward planning session where a bunch of writers, story editors, script editors and producers were sat down in a hotel for two days. Admittedly only about 4 hours were actually devoted to story but to hear all these creative minds sparking ideas off each other gave you an idea of the benifit of a 'writer's room'

I posted previuisley about a show I work on that started off with a bunch of non TV writers. Due to difficulties with the demands, including structure, very few of those remain.

I find it quaint that producers tell writers 'never mind about structure, we'll take care of that' when it is pretty obvious from what's on view that many either can't take care of it, or don't seem to know what it is in the first place.