Time for streaming giants to improve UK TV commissions
When it comes to commissioning UK TV shows, this is the year that the major streamers must do better.
2023 is shaping up to be a tough year for the streaming production community as services attempt to cut costs in the light of declining subscription numbers and lacklustre ad revenue.
HBO Max, Starz and AMC have been particularly brutal in reacting to the slowdown, with 2023 seeing a slew of shows cancelled, or halted despite renewals.
Of course, there’s been news bucking the trend, such as Netflix’s unexpected subscriber boost at the end of 2022, aided by new Addams Family spin-off series Wednesday, Harry & Meghan, and Knives Out sequel Glass Onion. The introduction of a cheaper, ad-supported offering in the US, most of Europe, and the UK may also have helped, although figures are, as yet, not looking promising.
The streamers’ regional production hubs look to be hardest hit, with belt-tightening hitting many European countries.
By virtue of sharing a common language and a wealth of onscreen and production talent, the UK has been protected to a degree from the headwinds affecting our continental neighbours.
But the record in terms of shows commissioned in the UK by regional teams has been decidedly mixed.
It’s important to distinguish hit shows set in the UK that were commissioned by US executives (Ted Lasso, The Crown, Sex Education, etc) from those ordered here.
Netflix UK is having an especially rough time of it with multiple shows dropped (The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself) or cancelled (The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle) before production.
Last year’s spy drama Treason failed to make much of an impression, whilst the threatened series on former Take That dancer Robbie Williams appears both uninspired and ill-judged, bearing in mind his money-grabbing appearances in Qatar during the 2022 football World Cup.
This contrasts mightily with the hubristic boosterism of Netflix UK’s vice president of original series Anne Mensah last summer, when she proclaimed, “It’s kinda easy to do it in the UK. This really is ours to f*ck up.”
The Patron Saint of Mediocrity?
Disney+’s UK arm also appears distinctly underpowered with the derivative David Beckham love-in Save Our Squad, and Wedding Season, hardly setting the world on fire, whilst the commissioning of real-life French drama Oussekine (about the death of Malik Oussekine) wasn’t exactly on-brand.
Liam Keelan, vice president of original content at Disney+ (and former BBC Daytime boss) was also responsible for Amazon’s first UK foray into scripted TV with the pricey flop period fashion drama/Euro pudding The Collection (2016), so perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised.
Keelan (as then head of scripted at BBC Worldwide) pitched the show with all the passion of an accountant delivering a quarterly P&L statement: “The Collection epitomises the kind of exciting creative opportunities and business models now emerging, in particular from our strategic relationship with Lookout Point”.
Upcoming crime comedy-drama Culprits has some decent production chops, but to the jaundiced eye seems to be an obvious attempt to cash in on Netflix’s Spanish hit Money Heist.
Still, one ray of sunshine for Disney+ in the UK must be the excellent reviews for superhero comedy Extraordinary.
Whether critical success translates into viewing figures remains to be seen.
Without a Paddle
Turning to Amazon UK, the expensive Jeremy Clarkson franchise looks to be down the Swanee, leaving a gaping hole in eye-catching product to promote, although according to reports, Clarkson had little traction in the US, so they may well be relieved to see him go.
At least we can be spared any more juvenile show titles in the vein of ‘Seamen’, ‘A Massive Hunt’, ‘Suk Mahidik & Phil McCracken’, ‘A Scandi Flick’, ‘A Huge Erection’, ‘Happy Finnish Christmas’, ‘My Friend Sergei’ and ‘An Itchy Urus’.
Whatever comes next for Amazon UK, shows such as Ten Percent (the lifeless remake of French hit Call My Agent!) are unlikely to fill the void; ditto upcoming Aiden Turner (Poldark) racquet drama Fifteen-Love, which is described as an “enthralling exploration of the dangerous lines where personal and professional relationships collide, set amid the glamorous cut-and-thrust world of elite tennis”.
Best not talk about The Rig, which makes Sky Atlantic’s similarly-themed snoozefest Fortitude (almost) watchable in comparison.
Variety’s Manori Ravindran reminded us on Twitter recently of the curious case of the ‘disappearing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’:
Aside from “Fleagbag” S2, what exactly have we seen from Waller-Bridge for Prime Video since 2019, when she signed her first deal? // Phoebe Waller-Bridge Renews Amazon Overall Deal (Exclusive) https://t.co/LwPY5lWOMG
— Manori (@manori_r) January 26, 2023
At the time of writing, the Hollywood Reporter filed the news that Waller-Bridge is writing and executive producing a series for Amazon based on the Tomb Raider video game. Which sounds less than exciting, at least to me.
Tempted by Apple?
After a slow start, AppleTV+ UK is proving the exception to the rule in boasting a genuine ‘must-see’ show: their excellent adaptation of Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ spy thriller Slow Horses, which has been commissioned for (at least) two further seasons.
The streamer has also enjoyed success with Sharon Horgan’s black comedy Bad Sisters and Tom Hiddleston gothic romance The Essex Serpent. The Rafe Spall/Esther Smith adoption sitcom Trying also has fans, with a fourth season due this year.
But AppleTV+ aside, the verdict on the general performance of the UK commissioning arms of the major streamers is thus far an absolutely unequivocal “must do better”.
Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.