Thursday, February 05, 2009

Risk Assessment

After a weekend of great movies it was a rude-fucking-awakening to be thrown, face-first, back into the dirt of UK television. If it wasn’t for the new seasons of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, the arrival of Generation Kill, QI and a selection of half-decent repeats, I’d have crawled under the sink to gulp down a cocktail of bleach and oven cleaner before the snow had finally settled.

I know there are people perfectly happy with utter cobblers like Doctor Who, Merlin, Robin Hood, Demons, Casualty and whatever load of old flannel is on ITV: They’re easy to spot because their meals are always puréed and spoon-fed to them between the basket weaving. But for the few of us who can differentiate between our right and left shoes, the current schedules leave us wanting. Luckily, the word seems to be getting out to those more open-minded that things simply aren’t what they used to be.

Ten years after The Sopranos premiered, Tuesday’s edition of The Culture Show featured a segment with Greg Dyke scooting off to LA to discover what was going wrong over here. Starting on Sunset Blvd and ending his journey high above the city on Mulholland Drive deftly illustrated that documentary filmmakers from these parts still fall back on cliché as the easy option. Given the superficial nature of the programme it was being dropped into, the piece wasn’t going to be an in-depth attempt at investigative reportage, but at least it was a start.

“British television used to be known as the best in the world but in the last decade HBO has helped America quietly steal our crown,” Dyke announces at the beginning of the segment before swanning off to the Golden Globes and the channel’s after-show party to find out why we were getting television drama so wrong over here. There the brief soundbites from actors in past and present HBO shows said it all: HBO takes risks; HBO leaves the creatives alone; HBO takes bold decisions; before Paul Giamatti, clutching the award he rightly deserved for playing John Adams, rounded off the sequence by declaring, “They’ve got a lot of balls, I’ll tell you that much.”

After that it was time for Dyke to sit down with HBO’s Co-President, Richard Plepler, and Michael Lombardo to pretty much cover the same ground. Funded by subscriptions rather than advertising, the pair’s explanations boiled down to the fact that the channel took risks in the service of the creative narrative, looked for people who had something to say and let them get on with it, and judged the success of a show by its level of quality rather than ratings. Then Alan Ball and Ed Burns chipped in, talking about how the company had helped bring Six Feet Under and The Wire to the screen.

That was all well and good, but with such an uncritical element of mutual backslapping I’m surprised that there wasn’t jelly and cake for everyone afterwards. I got that the piece was trying to position the BBC against HBO, the former getting £3 billion a year from the “public purse”, while the latter annually collects £2 billion from subscribers to pay for programming. But there was no mention that American television had already taken the crown from Britain when it came to quality drama and HBO’s contribution, including The Sopranos and The Wire, just helped keep it well out of reach.

Bigging up HBO’s successes, Dyke failed to consider that shows like the Depression-era Carnivàle, Deadwood, Rome and John From Cincinnati had been cancelled prematurely. Or that HBO’s big successes had occurred under the watch of Chris Albrecht, the company’s CEO who was eventually shown the door in 2007 after a drunken brawl in Las Vegas made the headlines. Since his departure, with the end of The Wire only Big Love and the recently arrived True Blood remained in terms of the channel’s ongoing drama, while more cutting edge and critically acclaimed dramas Breaking Bad and Mad Men had sprouted up on America’s basic cable channels.

Still, the whole venture did give Dyke the opportunity to stand in the sunlight with Los Angeles spread out behind him and declare:

“If British broadcasters want to recapture some of the lustre lost in recent years, and in particular the BBC because they’re not funded by advertisers, they must be willing to take more risks. And maybe it’s time they stopped the scattergun approach to programming and put more money into bigger projects. And in the process, maybe it’s time they give more power to the creatives – to the producers, to the directors, to the writers – because what we’ve discovered from HBO is that’s the way to make the best programmes in the world.”

Even if the piece ultimately came across as a superficial skate over the issue, now was as good a time as any to be broadcast. How can British drama be shown to take risks in the week that ITV coughed up the police drama Whitechapel and Five resurrected Minder for a new, obviously stupid, generation? Boy, did the two of them stink the place out.

I suppose there might have been a good point for making the former but I couldn’t see it, especially since Whitechapel appeared to be more about the fast-tracked, by-the-book DI in charge of the investigation dealing with a station filled with reject cops from Life on Mars than the Jack the Ripper copycat they were after. The latter meanwhile, which I watched up until the first commercial break, got it so completely wrong on every count that it was simply astonishing.


At 9:17 pm, Blogger Spec Odyssey said...

Entourage is still on, I assume you're puttimng that firmly in the "comedy" genre...

Also, I thought that Moses Jones, while still far away from the quality of US Cable channels, was still a leap in terms of direction and acting. Did you manage do check it out?

At 3:11 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I skipped over Entourage because I was concentrating on one-hour dramas rather than the a half-hour comedy format. Get into that territory and you have to mention Sex and the City, featuring three slappers and Red Rum. As for HBO putting money behind Little Britain USA... Let’s not even go there.

One thing I noticed Dyke didn’t mention was how much some HBO dramas cost. In an article in The Independent, Susanna White mentioned that Generation Kill, for which she directed four of the seven episodes, cost $52m. David Milch’s Deadwood ran to $13m an episode. If the BBC ever invested that kind of money into any one series the journalists at The Daily Mail would retreat to their bunker, foaming at the mouth, as they piled on the vitriol.

I’ve been meaning to catch Moses Jones all week on iPlayer but still haven’t got round to it yet. With time running out before the next episode I suppose I better try and make the effort this evening.

At 5:24 pm, Blogger Spec Odyssey said...

I know, I was staggered with the revenue that HBO enjoyed, (two thirds of the BBC's!) and 13 million per episode of Deadwood...that will NEVER happen over here, for obvious reasons the BBC would never do that, not even a fraction, and even if we did start some form of HBO channel over in the UK we would still be penny-pinching retards about it. Apparently the Band of Brothers stablemate "Pacific" is going to run way over the 200 million mark.

Shame Greg Dyke didn't give a crap about seeking out the formula of television programming sucess when he was actually in charge.

At 7:51 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

It was an astonishing figure that HBO accrue from subscribers. Then again they use it to make dramas that people want to see, that they can sell around the world so there’s more money coming in from that. Band of Brothers cost what, something like $120-odd million for the ten episodes? Goodness knows how much it made from worldwide sales. I remember the BBC being criticised from how much money they paid for the UK screening rights. Still, it was probably the best thing on TV at the time.

Then there are the DVD releases. I may be wrong but I think Band of Brothers is the best selling television DVD release so far, even before it came out on Blu-ray. Actually, it was mentioned a while back that the budget for The Pacific pretty much was equals the amount the Band of Brothers DVDs have brought in.

You’re absolutely right about Dyke. There he is telling everyone about how many television channels he used to be in charge of, and listening to it I really felt shouting back at the TV that the programmes they showed were mostly pants. It would have been better if he had wised up and investigated this earlier.

At 6:10 am, Blogger qrter said...

"Actually, it was mentioned a while back that the budget for The Pacific pretty much was equals the amount the Band of Brothers DVDs have brought in."

What I read was that The Pacific is being produced solely from all the money made from BoB DVD sales. Can't cough up a link, though, so I might be wrongly informed.

I wonder, what does the weekly day in day out schedule of HBO look like? As compared to the BBC, ofcourse.. We all know about the successes (although most of those are from a couple of years back)..

At 4:41 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I’m sorry I forgot that you had mentioned it. My memory just goes to hell at times.

I had a snoop over at the HBO site: in regard to schedules, following the link on the homepage.

Apart from the original dramas and comedies on Sunday nights – currently its Big Love and Flight of the Conchords - the rest of the airtime is pretty much filled with movies they’ve bought in. The homepage sidebar also lists various sports, documentaries (which include Taxicab Confessions), and the HBO Films like Recount and the upcoming Taking Chance.

So, no news and current affairs, light entertainment, soap operas, arts and natural history, or anything else that makes up the average weekly BBC schedule, like staff, production offices and studio costs. Neither do they have to shell out on inflated presenter salaries.

Odd that Dyke didn’t bring that up when he compared the figures.

At 10:08 pm, Blogger Spec Odyssey said...

Good Dog,

"Neither do they have to shell out on inflated presenter salaries"

They probably pay quite a bit for Bill Maher, but I'm fine with that...


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