British drama, global budgets: how co-productions are changing the way TV gets made

British drama, global budgets: how co-productions are changing the way TV gets made

Television’s “golden age” has not come cheap.

As writers, directors and actors aim to create ever more ambitious drama series, small screen budgets have skyrocketed. According to Time magazine, four of the top seven most expensive shows ever made – Game of Thrones, Sense8, The Get Down and The Crown – are on air right now.

The Crown on Netflix last year cost a reported $130 million to film. The last season of Game of Thrones on HBO was priced at $10 million an episode.


The rise of co-productions

TV bosses call them “co-productions”. A British broadcaster like the BBC will team up with another (usually American) broadcaster and an independent production company. All parties will invest money in the series and have a say in how it’s made. The broadcasters will then have first rights to the show in their country, while the production company will make its money back from DVD sales and other licensing deals.

“There’s been a real trend, as I think viewers will have noticed, for British dramas to become much more global,” says Gareth Neame, the producer behind ITV’s global blockbuster Downton Abbey. “The production values in TV drama really are outstanding now, whether it’s The Night Manager or SS-GB or Taboo.

“In many ways we were at the beginning of that journey with Downton Abbey, making something that has gone to every territory in the world.” (Downton was a co-production between ITV and US broadcaster PBS).

“These shows are more and more expensive to make. A significant part of the funding will come from the BBC, but certainly not the majority, because these shows are just so much more expensive than they used to be,” says Neame.

Take The Night Manager, the multi-award-winning spy thriller starring Tom Hiddleston. The series, made by independent production company The Ink Factory, cost a reported £3 million an episode to make, at a time when UK broadcaster budgets for primetime dramas do not typically exceed £700-£800k an hour.

The BBC could never have paid for The Night Manager on its own. Instead, the corporation and Ink Factory joined forces with US broadcaster AMC, the network behind Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Both the BBC and AMC pumped money into the project; both reaped the rewards.

The benefits for the BBC are obvious – they get to spend more money and make a ‘great British drama’ that can stand alongside the big US shows – but what does AMC get out of the deal?

“It’s almost taken for granted here that when something is BBC it’s extremely well done,” AMC chief executive Josh Sapan told the Telegraph. Even in the US, the BBC brand stands for quality drama, and the British connection allows American broadcasters to tell stories that work on a global scale.

“They have a phenomenal track record,” he added. “Maybe I’m just an anglophile, but they’re a delight to work with.”

Netflix and the BBC – the perfect match?

Even without the flattery, these kinds of deals make sound business sense; the broadcasters are not in direct competition for viewers, so can invest money knowing they will not be treading on each other’s toes.

Taboo, for instance, aired on BBC1 in the UK and cable channel FX in the US a week later. Series two of The Missing aired on BBC1 in October 2016, but co-producer Starz only started showing the series in February this year.

However, here’s where it gets more complicated, because it’s not just traditional broadcasters who are looking for the next big deal. Streaming services such as Netflix have money to burn when it comes to creating content, and as well as creating original series on their own, they are in the market for global partners. 

Recently Netflix revealed that it would be working with the BBC on Troy: Fall of a City, a new epic historical drama from David Farr, screenwriter for The Night Manager. The two broadcasters are also collaborating on a star-filled adaptation of Watership Down, featuring everyone from James McAvoy and John Boyega to Olivia Colman and Gemma Arterton.

“We’ve been working much more in partnership with the BBC on many projects, and directly with the production companies who also partner with the BBC,” says Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix, when asked why the service wanted to work with the BBC on Troy: Fall of a City. “It’s a much better, healthier model to know going into a production of that size that we can put more effort, more money, more resources into making it a big global show, than the producers making it smaller and then hoping to sell it later.”

Having access to Netflix’s $6 billion programme budget is only part of the equation, adds Sarandos: “Outside of the UK, the great programming that the BBC produces gets sold into sometimes very niche corners of the world, smaller networks where they often don’t get seen by a big audience,” he says. “Netflix has the ability to bring 94 million households to these shows overnight, and are able to create a very big brand for the BBC.

“In exchange for that, we get access to this great pool of storytellers and great pool of IP [intellectual property] that the BBC controls.”

Each deal is different, but the British broadcaster will have first rights to broadcast in the UK, while Netflix can release the show how it chooses elsewhere.

It’s important to remember here that there is a difference between a ‘co-production’ and a show that a streaming service simply buys the rights to.

E4’s comedy Chewing Gum, for example, is not a co-production, yet it is marketed as a ‘Netflix Original’ outside of the UK because the streaming service has bought the global rights. Similarly, when US users search for Channel 4’s Catastrophe on Amazon, they’re told it’s an ‘Amazon Original Series’.

Both these series may be tagged ‘Original’, but they are not co-productions – the streaming services have no direct say in the making of the show. There are murmurings of discontent about this ‘Original’ claim among UK broadcasters, nervous of not getting the credit for the shows they helped create.

However, controller of BBC Drama commissioning Piers Wenger is confident that when it comes to co-productions, the additional funding allows British series to flourish on a global stage.

“We can put more money on screen, whilst also keeping editorial control, as we know how much drama means to our audience,” he says. “We make 450 hours of drama each year and with our current BBC Drama partners including HBO, AMC, SundanceTV, WGBH, FX, BBC America, Starz, Netflix, BBC First [in Australia], UKTV [in New Zealand], Arte [France], we can make drama that might not otherwise get made.”

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