K7 headed to Content London at the end of November to see how the event would top off what’s been a challenging year for TV drama. It was a week where the challenges posed by the economic turndown, strikes, AI and more, were laid out clearly. But solutions were also proposed and hope for the coming years stated.
Here’s our key takeaways from the event:
Commissions and budgets under the microscope
In the opening ‘Future Content Trends’ presentation, attendees were presented with the stark fact that the percentage of all global TV commissions in Q4 2018 which were scripted was 80% – as of Q3 2023 that figure was just 50%. Budgets and hours commissioned in scripted have indeed fallen severely.
On the bright side – that number will no doubt rebound somewhat next year now the strikes have ended. Indeed, in MGM+’s strategy panel the streamer’s head Michael Wright said the plan was to return to the pre-strike commissioning rate next year, although maybe without so many of the mega budgeted series that we saw during the very heights of ‘peak drama’: “you’ll probably see us adding shows as opposed to making more expensive shows.”
The message from UK broadcasters was also optimistic. In the ‘Commissioning: UK Drama’ session, scripted heads at Channel 4, UKTV and Channel 5 all said they actually planned to ‘double down’ and commission more drama rather than less. Channel 5 owner Paramount’s Sebastian Cardwell said the channel is looking to increase its hours of drama from 70 this year to 100 by 2025, while Hilary Rosen, director of commissioning for UKTV, spoke of plans to begin commissioning original drama for the previously comedy-focused Dave channel.
Can coproduction stabilise scripted?
It was however difficult to ignore the bigger picture in London, and the fact that TV drama is in a very different place from even two years ago. Presenting the DQ Drama Trends Report, Drama Quarterly editor Michael Pickard declared linear commissioning ‘dead’, and that co-production was the only way for national broadcasters to commission the type of high quality drama viewers are now used to. Danny Wilk, president of Big Media Holdings, was quoted in the same session:“to get the glossy shows will require more of a group effort – with lots of people chipping in.”
And chipping in they are. Another anticipated highlight at the event was the drama heads of European pubcasters ZDF (Germany), NPO (The Netherlands), VRT (Belgium), SVT (Sweden), DR (Denmark), YLE (Finland), RÚV (Iceland) and NRK (Norway) unveiling the first eight projects from their highly ambitious New8 co-production incentive. Each will co-fund and air all of the shows. The commissions ranged from big international, fact-based, globetrotting stories bringing together characters from different parts of the world, to smaller, more local and intimate shows.
Early standouts for us included VRT’s selection This is Not a Murder Mystery, a fictional account of artist René Magritte turning detective after a number of fellow artists fall victim to a mysterious killer while staying at a decadent English estate, and ZDF’s Kabul, based on the 2021 evacuation of the Afghan capital, from both the perspective of ordinary Afghans, soldiers and foreign diplomats attempting to flee.
Other co-pro ties discussed during the week included the BBC and CBS, the BBC, Australia’s Stan and streamer Acorn TV, and France’s ZED and Australia’s SAM Content. Working together in smart ways and on projects which can translate between countries will indeed be crucial in the coming years.
Content trends post crisis: more crime, less high concept
So we know how drama will be produced as the industry (hopefully) recovers, but what kinds of stories will be told? Again with budgets stretched, the feeling was that pricier sci-fi, fantasy and period shows are on the downturn, while more cost-effective crime, procedural and romance series with contemporary settings would increase. In the ‘Future Content Trends’ session, statistics touted that between 2019 and 2023, crime and thriller series increased from 21% to 28% of all scripted commissions, and romance from 10% to 17%. Meanwhile sci-fi/fantasy fell from 21% to 15%.
With commissioners more and more risk averse, brand name IP and big name stars will be a strong preference, maybe signalling tough times for new talent and ideas. “My fear is that fewer buyers will invest in new voices in the coming year. I hope I’m wrong because I think it’s essential. A lot of the creativity of our industry comes from new voices being given the opportunity to tell their stories,” said Laura Kennedy, CEO of production company Avalon.
The industry grapples with AI
The ‘Prompt Start’ Artificial Intelligence strand was a big selling point for the conference this year, as attendees equally terrified and intrigued by the prospect of AI packed into Hall One for the afternoon of sessions on Tuesday afternoon.
The reassuring sentiment overall was that – for now – the main uses of AI in our industry will be automating the more mundane parts of our workflows. For creators, a human will still be needed to ‘steer the ship’ and guide the ‘creativity’ of the AI.
Chad Nelson, creative director of Native Foreign, showed off his witty David Attenborough-spoofing animation Critterz (pictured) – an impressive project produced in just days with the help of AI.
In particular, we were impressed by the practical demonstration of powerful AI lip sync/dubbing tech – able to near perfectly sync the mouths of actors to an overdub. How much will the international saleability of non-English language drama be increased when it can be seamlessly dubbed and lip synced into any other language at the push of a button?!
The speed of expansion of AI capabilities is the most staggering aspect of all this – by this time next year who knows what it will be able to accomplish? The overarching message of the sessions was to get acquainted with AI, learn how to use it, and how to use it responsibly. In the words of Professor Richard Baldwin, ‘AI won’t take your job, it is somebody using AI that will take your job’.
Scripted formats hotter than ever
Other big talking points at the event included the increasing prominence of scripted formats, which in a risk-averse industry can provide a reassuring solution for commissioners wanting stories which have already proved their appeal elsewhere. The ‘French Formats Go Global’ session saw Newen Connect tout that 40% of the international revenue for comedic crime procedural HIP (High Intellectual Potential) had come from its format sales. The show now has remakes commissioned in Slovakia, Greece, the Czech Republic and the US.
Newen CEO Rodolphe Buet said it took just days after the smash hit debuted in France for international channels and platforms to begin inquiring about the format rights. As we explored in our industry standard ‘Tracking the Scripted Giants’ report, the importance of formats in scripted is indeed increasing at an exponential rate.
Streamers extend IP, rights sharing olive branch
Finally, in Netflix’s session, director of content acquisitions strategy in EMEA, Lina Brounéus, attempted to reassure attendees that the streamer was becoming less zealous in terms of hoarding IP rights: “We don’t own everything globally in perpetuity. We do a lot of second-run licensing, we co-produce, we look at things at all different stages… I think that’s a big evolution and a big step forward.”
Meanwhile Boat Rocker Studios senior VP of creative affairs Jessica Pavao spoke on international streamers’ new openness to sharing rights and offering series to other channels and platforms: “shows will be de-platformed, repackaged, increasingly sold overseas via distribution.”