The critically acclaimed US television drama could not be made here. We have writing talent in abundance, but its output is controlled by a stifling monopoly—the BBC. Plus, an interview with The Wire’s creator David Simon
Read Prospect’s interview with The Wire’s creator David Simon, in which he explains why writing is a team sport in the US
It’s been a slow burning fuse. From its first broadcast on the US pay-TV channel HBO in 2002, it took seven years for The Wire to accumulate widespread critical recognition in Britain. And it has grown into something bigger than an artistic success. Like a great Victorian novel, David Simon’s epic portrait of the policing, crime and politics of post-industrial Baltimore is now cited by politicians and leader writers. But the success of this show and a raft of other imports such as The West Wing and Mad Men begs a question about the state of one of our key cultural industries. How come US television drama has captured the high end of the market and we have abandoned it?
It wasn’t always this way. Although America dominated postwar television drama from Bonanza to Dallas and Dynasty, Britain had a healthy export trade. Till Death us Do Part was transformed into All in the Family, and Monty Python changed US comedy. But our most important impact was not in quantity but quality. Epic historical series such as Jewel in the Crown or experimental melodramas such as Pennies from Heaven set a benchmark for US writers and producers.
But something has happened in the last ten to 15 years. In 1994, I wrote a tribute to Dennis Potter in the New Statesman about the decline of the single authored play on British television. The most obvious cause of this decline was the concentration of commissioning into a few hands. Despite the growth of the independent sector, just four men decided what millions would watch. The difference between 1994 and 2008 is startling. Instead of being the responsibility of four network controllers, most drama is now commissioned by one person.
That person is Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama commissioning. He has faced mounting criticism since last year, when he made ill-advised remarks about a “limited pool of talent” for television drama. First to speak out was the former head of drama in Northern Ireland, Robert Cooper, who said that the BBC’s £228m drama budget constitutes a “near monopoly.” A few months later producer Tony Garnett, whose 50-year track record includes launching the careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, accused the BBC of being a cause of its decline, having “hired McKinsey and ended up a McDonald’s.”
But everyone missed the glaring issue: why are these questions being addressed to only one person? In 1994, I worried about the cultural power of four network controllers. Now you can forget Channel 4 and BBC2: they can make decent one-offs, such as Red Riding and Freefall this year, but both have basically dropped out of adult dramas. ITV has fared no better. In the 1990s the powerful baronies of Granada, Yorkshire TV, LWT and Thames had some autonomy. But their amalgamation into one corporation, followed by a catastrophic fall in advertising revenue, has turned ITV drama into a shadow of its former self. Whatever your view of public service broadcasting (and I support it) the near-monopoly of the BBC in drama commissioning is disastrous.
One argument used to defend management from this drive to centralisation is, bizarrely, competition. We live in an increasingly competitive multi-channel, multi-platform world they say; the BBC must concentrate its power to survive. Yet across the Atlantic, we see a much more competitive market, with a move to “smarten up” rather than dumb down. The cliché about US television, “160 channels and nothing to watch,” now looks snooty and out of date, at least with drama. Starting with HBO a decade ago, we’ve had The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under—ground-breaking dramas that explored the depths of character and the dynamics of group or family, against the larger context of a city, profession or social milieu.
Not only is the quality of the output high, but so is the diversity of style and genre. This has to be connected to the break-up of the old US network cartel. In the last decade the four major US broadcasters have had stiff competition from free and pay-per-view cable channels, turning US television into a seller’s rather than a buyer’s market. The creative people have more control and the commissioning process is more open. In 2002 an American producer, Anita Addison, saw some episodes of In Deep, a show I had devised for the BBC. She took it to Paramount and they flew me to Los Angeles during the “pitching season.” I went to studios and spoke about my project for 20 minutes. I didn’t need a track record—the presence of a producer, writer and a good idea was enough to have a pilot commissioned.
In Britain, however, the quality of an idea will have little to do with getting a green light. Internal politics and “who’s up and who’s down” will decide. The fate of independent producers is just as bad, turning domestic drama production into a court, with its favourites, intrigues, and sudden disgraces.
One reflex reaction to the decline of British television is to blame it on “chasing the ratings.” But US drama proves that the descent to the lowest common denominator isn’t the only way to get audiences. Nielsen ratings are still king on the major networks, but HBO nurtured The Wire through years of obscurity until it became a hit. With the rise of DVDs and the importance of foreign sales, channels are earning a large proportion of their income from the “long tail.”
In Britain, The Wire was first shown on the FX cable channel in 2005, but BBC2 recently screened all 60 episodes. The fifth series got around 600,000 viewers per episode, 100,000 more than the sitcom that had previously occupied the slot. Total DVD sales for The Wire in Britain are forecast to go past the 1m mark by the end of the year. But to reap these rewards, shows must appeal to the highest common denominator.
The Americans excel at making shows which bear occasional watching, devoted following or repeat viewings. Think of an episode of ER, say, in its heyday. In those 46 minutes there will be teasers and hooks and a strong stand-alone story to keep you gripped through the adverts. But there will also be a syncopated beat of other B and C stories which unfold concurrently (see the diagram on p52), perhaps over several episodes, sometimes over a season or longer. At their best, especially in Mad Men and The Sopranos, US television dramas have evolved into an art form which explores both the inner psyche and the social world continuously but discretely, so that each fragment contains the fractal beauty of the whole.
Apart from a radical restructuring of our own broadcasting industry, what lessons can we take away? The most important, as David Simon points out in the interview (below), is that in US television drama “the writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet—it’s arisen out of aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make and economies of scale kick in when stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. They cannot be written by one person alone, nor can they be effectively controlled by studio executives, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keeping it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the process.
This doesn’t lead to “writing by committee.” My experience is that four minds are four times more inventive in a team than if each works alone. But this requires a conductor to keep the voices to tempo and tune, and the key to this is the showrunner—the head producer who has creative control of the series. Showrunners like David Chase (Sopranos), Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) or John Wells (ER) helped carve out a space for collaboration. Time and money is also invested. In the US, beyond your individual scripts, you are paid a salary to come into a “writer’s room” and help the work of others. The Wire is a good example of the result. Conceived by David Simon, a former journalist, and homicide detective Ed Burns, the collaborative ethic allowed them to bring in voices from film writing and crime fiction—such as Richard Price and George Pelecanos—without losing coherence.
This ethos has made US television the preferred destination for a generation of great writers. After winning an Oscar with American Beauty, Alan Ball eschewed the big screen and created Six Feet Under for HBO. In the DVD commentary to the pilot, he describes handing in the edgy first draft to the head of the channel. Having been through the Hollywood studio mill, Ball expected the worst, but the only note he had back read: “Can you make it more fucked up?”
Although we are blessed with a tradition of great television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern could have written a dozen episodes of a show alone. We have recently imported the idea of showrunners for the resurrection of Dr Who and Survivors, but their power is limited, and the principle of collaboration doesn’t penetrate the lower echelons. Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’
s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given that the running order can be changed at the last moment by management fiat, those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.
And there is a bigger problem. How can you commission a show if you haven’t defined the metrics of success? Should we be chasing audiences or pleasing regulators? When I started working in television an audience of 10m was deemed a success for BBC1 or ITV primetime drama. Now it’s 5m. Thanks to the growth of DVDs, personal video recorders such as Sky Plus, satellite, digital, online and on-demand services, the broadcast network can no longer monopolise home entertainment and the audience are leaving en masse. The worst thing to do at such a moment is to play safe—yet that has been the tactic of British television drama. It’s understandable that ITV cuts everything to the bone except Emmerdale and Coronation Street—they need the advertising revenue. After The X-Factor, these soaps are the channel’s best performers, bringing in audiences of around 7m and 9m respectively. But why does the BBC devote most of its drama budget to three soaps: EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City?
Tony Garnett calls this a “dereliction” and the output “formulaic, repetitive, machine driven, emotionally dishonest junk.” Having worked on that assembly line, I can only concur. I wrote a season opener to the hospital drama Holby City before it became a soap, to prove myself “by ordeal” as a BBC writer. For my sins, I got involved in two more episodes which count as the most dispiriting experiences in my 25 years as a dramatist. Soaps squeeze the creativity and innovation out of you. Your characters will be controlled by a remorseless weekly production machine, subject to the whims of its personnel, or the unavailability of an actor. Your dialogue, mainly confected out of procedural clichés anyway, will be rewritten in-house. A producer may send you a script the day before shooting begins with the instruction to turn it around overnight and “make it funnier” or “more in your voice.” It’s a paradox of our public service broadcasting that soaps are primetime viewing here, while on US television they are a daytime interest. Soaps lock us into 1960s kitchen-sink naturalism and outdated platitudes of class, character and aspiration. In comparison, the inventiveness of Potter or Bleasdale looks like it comes from a different age, and the hyper-realism of The Wire from another planet. Even a middlebrow US drama such as Damages, set in a law firm, takes risks with form: dream and fantasy sequences, montages, flashforwards, flashbacks. It plays with genre and expectation, and its anti-hero, played by Glenn Close, provides a compelling portrait of the contradictions of character.
One response to all this is to admit defeat. Why should we dream of competing with the US? We should accept that we no longer punch above our weight and resign ourselves to being a medium-sized country with limited aspirations.
But our dramatic talent is still flourishing elsewhere. Our reality television formats dominate (or is that tyrannise?) US primetime. In comedy, the US version of The Office is a success, and the edgy improvisational style of The Thick of It inspires envy. And our actors and directors pick up Oscars and Golden Globes, as do our screenwriters such as Ronald Harwood, Peter Morgan and Simon Beaufoy. All three were trained in television drama. Could they, like Alan Ball, be enticed back to the small screen in Britain? I doubt it.
Any sector that has lost both market share and talent at such a rapid rate as British television drama should start examining its practices. Drama is about dialogue, opposing points of view, clashing perspectives. Any structure that diminishes this diversity undermines the basis of the form.
Last year Ben Stephenson’s predecessor Jane Tranter, who until recently was BBC controller of fiction (yes, all BBC fiction), gave a speech about drama at the Royal Television Society awards. She spoke of the role of the executive: “In the modern world of endless media possibilities we can help a drama to succeed by encouraging it to be succinct, to declare its intent, to make its premise clear… ensuring that the heart of the drama is not only true, but is not opaquely or perversely hidden.” I came across her speech as I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on Hamlet, which demonstrates how Shakespeare added a “wilful obscurity” to the original tragedy to increase its emotional power and depth. I couldn’t help feeling Tranter’s stand was a misunderstanding of what drama is, what a writer does, and what the audience wants.
If writers knew in advance, with no opacity or perversity, what the true heart of a drama was, they wouldn’t bother to write it. If this principle of “making the premise clear” had been applied to The Singing Detective or Edge of Darkness, let alone Twin Peaks or Lost, none of them would have been made. More importantly, if the audience is held by the hand and told where they are going, they will go elsewhere, abandoning the programmatic and obvious for the unpredictable, dark hearts of Tony Soprano or David Simon’s Baltimore.