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

Spiralling production costs and big budget US series mean the only way British broadcasters can compete is by finding willing partners to back their vision

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

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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.

How do British broadcasters compete with that kind of cash? How do they keep coming up with stories that can thrill viewers – and not look cheap by comparison?

The answer? If you can’t beat them, join them.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

The Last Kingdom – co-production in practice

Series two of historical drama The Last Kingdom, currently airing on BBC2, is co-produced by the BBC and Netflix with production company Carnival Films. Producer Nigel Marchant, who worked with Gareth Neame on the show, says that it’s a series that simply would not have been made if it weren’t for the fact that multiple partners could come on board.

“The books [by Bernard Cornwell] have been around for a while; one of our development team took them to us,” Marchant explains. “Ten years ago we certainly couldn’t have made that show. We couldn’t have given it the scale and resources we give it now. That’s what’s changed in television. You look at the budgets and production values of The Crown or some of the HBO shows, and you have to compete in that marketplace. It becomes less about a single broadcaster and more about co-productions.”

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It’s not a blank cheque, of course. With every investment comes another set of executives to satisfy, another group of people with a say in the making of the show, right down to casting decisions and script cuts. The danger, as producer Gareth Neame points out, is that too many voices can spoil the enterprise. 

“You can get into terrible trouble in co-productions if the partners are not aligned in the right way, or have very different creative ideas,” he says, “and we have encountered them on certain shows.”

In the end, it is up to the producer to fight their corner and defend their vision.

“I can remember one anecdote from Downton Abbey,” Neame recalls. “The very first episode in the first series was all about the fact that Lord Grantham had no son to inherit; he only had daughters. There was this expression used, the ‘entail to the will’. A lot of people pointed out that nobody knows what an ‘entail’ is and we’ll have to explain it. We added more references in to the script, but when we watched the episode back it was completely clear what it meant. All you had to know was that only men could inherit, and there wasn’t a man. So we cut all the references out. 

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“But when we took the show to America, I had the same thing all over again. PBS said we couldn’t have all this stuff about ‘entails’, because no American will know what it is. I said, ‘You’ve got to understand, nobody in Britain knows what it is either!’

“Often when we’re doing a British story, Americans will assume that we’re completely versed in all these things, and we have to explain to them that, no, we don’t know any more about it than you do. Just trust your instincts, trust the story.”

Keep calm and carry on being British

There are some genres, Marchant suggests, that work better for international audiences than others: “Period works very well in a global sense, because it’s a bit alien to all of us. Sci-fi is the same thing; they’re genres that aren’t specific to a nation, whereas contemporary drama often feels much more specific. I think the fact that the history of The Last Kingdom is so deep, it makes it more universal.”

However, isn’t there an implicit danger here? If the people holding the purse strings are thousands of miles away, will creators end up just trying to make series that they can flog abroad rather than focus on UK viewers?

“That’s something to be wary of, but it will never work,” counters Neame, “and I’ll come back to the example of Downton Abbey. You could not find a more expressly British drama if you tried. The story was not changed to make it more appealing internationally, and it was because it had that integrity that it did so well.”

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British drama is being bankrolled from abroad like never before, and while that poses fresh challenges for the people making the shows, viewers at home just might be all the richer for it.