Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/07/20/drama_queens/

Why British TV drama is crap – and why this matters to tech firms

Platforms, platforms everywhere. And nothing to watch

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 20th July 2012 09:03 GMT

Analysis It has been years since a contemporary BBC drama caused an office discussion round here. The best American imports such as The Wire and Breaking Bad are all regular conversation pieces but I can’t remember a British one being interesting enough even to worth a mention. And you’ll know why. They’re glossy, expensive and dreadful.

But Line of Duty, a thriller about a bent detective, is pretty bold. It’s extremely tightly written, brave, and nasty with it – although the unseen gangster may may yet turn out to be Fat Bastard from Austin Powers films. He sounds like him.

Which is not to say Line of Duty is in the American league. The supporting characters are cyphers. They have little or no psychological complexity or lives of their own. A good test of a drama is how quickly you can imagine the characters having their own spin-off series. By the end of the second series of The Sopranos, each of Tony’s crew was so richly drawn you could imagine a spin-off for each one without too much difficulty. Not here. But it is a return to form.

The BBC has been showing another crime drama, though. Blackout is a vehicle for Christopher Ecclestone, and that’s where the good news ends. This is classic contemporary drama which thinks it's edgy, but where the focus is entirely on the visual style, which mimics that of a slick advertisement. The BBC is a great training ground for advertising production talent – its own (nonstop) advertisements for itself (brands, strands, idents as well as actual programmes) are top quality. As a result, much British drama boasts eye-catching cinematography and editing, but the directors don't know about story-telling. They're passing through, en route from Audi advert to (they hope) Hollywood riches.

(Hollywood demands 'emotional range' on the applicant's CV, which is why Blighty's directors and writers wedge touch-feely moments into the oddest places. Like Dr Who – as Ian Harrison pointed out here).

Blackout has another problem common to our contemporary home-grown drama: the plot is implausible on so many levels. The baddie in the show is an evil corporation that bumps off its enemies. Gina McKee is in it, I think, or is she in Line of Duty? It's hard to remember because Britain only has about eight professional actors, who must appear in everything all the time. This over-familiarity means we don't really believe them as anything but themselves.

Eccleston lives, with his family, in a trendy loft space – something BBC producers would probably quite like to do. (“Sit down, have a seat”). It is also improbably politically correct. At the end, Mayor Ecclestone declares the city to be a Chavez-style socialist republic, which is what a lot of BBC producers would like to do to W12, if not everywhere else. (“Love it. Here, sign this contract, we’re commissioning you”). But even the most politically disengaged viewer will be thinking: “Hang on: rate capping, surcharges, EU contract directives... You what?”

There’s also something else unsettling about Blackout.

Everything that can be Americanised has been: so Town Hall becomes City Hall, press officers become media aides, and when we see the city, it’s an American city: a helicopter shot shows us the tops of skyscrapers that could be any generic American finance district.

Now you’re wondering – all very interesting, but what’s this digression doing at El Reg where I expect to see news of TV technology platforms and business.

The answer is: quite a lot.

The bottom line

The new BBC Director General has a mandate to increase income from sales overseas. The BBC Trust has (correctly) identified that the BBC’s sales division, WorldWide, needs to do much better. Damn right it does. Although the top line is £1bn a year extra on top of the £3bn the BBC earns from the compulsory licence fee, this is misleading. It isn’t £1bn programme makers can spend. Profit margins are tiny at 15 per cent, which bears thinking about. WorldWide sells merchandising, finished shows and formats. The profit margin on merchandising is around 30 per cent, the finished shows are a sunken cost and formats are an intangible, which should have a profit margin of 100 per cent minus a long lunch and a few trebles (all round).

So the idea of WorldWide is a good one – and should reduce the licence fee. But in reality, the licence fee payer is really propping up a spectacularly incompetent sales operation.

What the success of The Wire and The Sopranos taught us is that you don’t need to generalise the details for it to be a hit. The Wire’s dialogue is difficult to follow – subtitles help – but the dense conversations are not insurmountable obstacle. Living in the United States, I quickly discovered how much people love the peculiarities that anchor something in a local context, and give it a specific flavour. Blackout is made-for-export, but has all the British quirks written out. It’s as if a committee went through it and removed anything – apart from the miserable weather, for the sun never shines – that says: “This is from Britain.” Apart from Ecclestone, it exports everything that’s bad about British TV drama – including moody cinematography as a compensation for crap writing. Out of Line of Duty or Blackout, which one will add more to the BBC’s bottom line? Let’s hope it’s the former.

A glossy new platform – but where's the tasty content?

There’s another reason the American dramas are so good and ours are so poor. Recently, I described how copyright material needs technology, and vice versa, and has produced a ‘virtuous circle’ to the mutual benefit of both technology companies and creative industries – something that’s now slipped off the rails. (Google gives nothing back).

Well, one nice part of this is the way new technology allows creative people do break new ground. In fact, it is improvements in technology that allow programme-makers to break new ground, and on US cable channels, they have done just that. The Sopranos' sound design, with its overlapping dialogue and sound effects, has been compared to that of Citizen Kane – the film you can famously watch with your eyes closed because Orson Welles knew all the tricks of radio. But this was possible because of the much-improved sound reproduction on TVs, which have become home theatres.

Similarly, The Wire is a good example of creators stretching the audience, knowing that they have DVD and TiVO to allow you to replay the important bits you might have missed. What results is the opposite of ‘dumbing down’. We’ve seen talk ad nauseum for over a decade about ‘TV platforms’ but with only lip service paid to the idea that content is king, and the TV technologies are unsellable without it. As if we need any more proof, Sky’s decision to unbundle its Sky Movies service and pipe it through YouView is now seen as the saviour of the BBC-spawned set top box venture. YouView was supposed to be a bit of technology that kept the UK's terrestrial public service broadcasters up to date in the internet age. It's now the gateway for Sky to expand into homes that don't want cable or a satellite dish. If the PSBs think this is jolly unfair, then they need to make better programmes: more Sherlocks and LoDs

Asked recently, professional TV critic AA Gill said that the reason British drama is rubbish is because the BBC or ITV doesn’t spend enough. American drama clocks in at $3m per episode while the BBC tries to make do on $1m. But this can’t be the whole picture. The culture of advertising, the treating of the audience as dummies who are impressed by camera angles, the patchy writing, the right-on-ness, and much else all make a new British drama well worth a miss. And in any case, $1m is a fair old whack: Christopher Nolan launched his career with a film that cost £3,000 and is completely gripping. The talent net has to widen, commissioning committees must be moved on.

So perhaps Line of Duty is the end of an era, and the start of a better one. What do you think? ®