Spurred by a mixture of desire and obligation, Channel 4 is almost doubling its drama output from this autumn.
For the first time, the channel will show a regular hour or episode of original drama every week, with ten new series scheduled over the next 14 months.
A combination of more money, new licensing requirements to commission more home-grown programmes and the leadership of chief executive Michael Jackson has brought about this increased commitment to the genre.
The icing on the cake came last week, with the announcement that the Beck’s lager brand from Scottish Courage had signed a 2m sponsorship deal covering C4’s new drama.
The brewer, enticed by the prospect of being associated with a collection of quirky new series on a channel that appeals to young men and light viewers, is hoping Channel 4 can do for drama’s image what it has done for film.
Nick Theakston, head of broadcast at Scottish Courage’s media agency MediaVest, says: “Channel 4 presented us with a big idea. It has had a lot of success in films and they can push the dramas a lot more.”
Polly Cochrane, Channel 4 controller of marketing, says: “We have looked at sponsored preview screenings, where a new drama is given the same status as a film.”
The first of the Beck’s sponsored dramas, a satire on the music business centred on a young Glaswegian band and called “The Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star”, starts on November 10. Other series in this sponsored programming strand, which will probably be given a regular weekly slot on Tuesdays at 10pm, include an upbeat gay soap called “Queer As Folk”‘ Psychos, a black comedy set in a psychiatric hospital, a hospital drama called Trauma One, and a female detective drama called The Disappeared.
Channel 4 has not had a regular drama output in the past, preferring to concentrate its efforts on four or five big series a year. A Channel 4 spokesman says: “For years ITV made so much drama that it’s been very difficult for Channel 4 to compete.”
But following the decision by Chris Smith, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, to phase out the funding formula between Channel 4 and the ITV companies, there is more money available for programming. The funding formula was originally intended as a “safety net”, which was supposed to ensure that ITV would meet any financial shortfall that might prevent Channel 4 from meeting its remit to provide minority interest programmes. But one unexpected consequence was that Channel 4 had to make significant payments to ITV.
It has been claimed that this extra money, about 90m per annum, will provide an estimated 10m extra for drama. Aside from wildlife documentaries, drama is the most expensive television to make, costing about 300,000 to 800,000 an hour.
In February, the Independent Television Commission announced a newly clarified remit for C4 to cater for minority tastes, and an increased requirement for more originally commissioned programmes. There is also a new commitment for production outside London – including a minimum requirement of 30 per cent by 2002 – to nurture new independent production companies.
But aside from having the means – and now the obligation – to make new British drama, there is also the influence of C4 chief executive Michael Jackson, who commissioned the hit series This Life while at BBC2. After ten years at the BBC, where he was controller of BBC2 and then director of television and controller of BBC1, he was poached by Channel 4 in May last year.
One of Jackson’s first moves was to appoint Gub Neal, who was responsible for hits such as Cracker while at Granada Television, as the new head of drama. With Jackson’s backing, Neal is injecting some risk back into the genre. As Cochrane says: “It’s not soft and fluffy drama. It’s something with the potential to take the mainstream with it.”
But with this emphasis on innovation and experimentation, will these new series get the ratings?
The really big audience drivers and revenue earners for Channel 4 are largely US imports with a broad appeal, shows like Friends, Frasier, ER and Ally McBeal, and mass market series like Brookside.
Laurence Mundy, joint managing director of Drum PHD, which brokered the Guardian Film on Four sponsorship, says: “If the broad audiences fall, but C4 retains youth and the upmarket viewers that carry high premiums, then the channel will continue to be successful.”
So far C4 has made a good start to the autumn schedule, with its all-time share slightly up on last year from 10.2 per cent to 10.8 per cent. However, its last home-grown drama, Ultraviolet, a thriller about vampires in the contemporary world, achieved disappointing viewing figures. Its share of viewing fluctuated between 18 to 10 per cent, with an average audience of 2.5 million.
Scottish Courage will be hoping that even if there are some misses within the offbeat stories of the forthcoming drama season, there will also be some that have the potential to become the cult series of the future.
As David Crawley, media and communications manager at Scottish Courage, says: “We are buying into the new management at Channel 4 and its approach to contemporary drama. If we can get associated with the next This Life, we have nailed it.”