It’s been a slow burning fuse. From its first broadcast on the US pay-TV channel HBO, it took seven years for The Wire to accumulate widespread critical recognition in Britain. But it has grown into something bigger than just an artistic success. Like some great Victorian reforming novel David Simon’s epic portrait of the policing, crime and politics of post industrial Baltimore is regularly cited by politicians and leader writers. When they start asking “Why can’t we write The Wire?,they beg question about the state of one of core cultural industries. A raft of other US drama imports from The West Wing to Mad Men all point to the same conundrum. How come American television drama has captured the high end of the market, and we seem to have abandoned it?
It wasn’t always this way. Though America dominated post-war popular television drama from Bonanza to Dallas and Dynasty, Britain still had a healthy export trade. Till Death us Do Part was transformed into All in the Family; Monty Python revolutionised American comedy. But our most important impact was not in quantity but quality. Epic historical series such as Jewel in the Crown, or experimental melodramas such as Pennies from Heaven, set a benchmark for American writers and producers
Though British television drama still basks in the reflected glow of this legacy, something major has happened in the last ten to fifteen years. Back in 1994, I wrote a tribute to Dennis Potter in the New Statesman called “The Death of the TV Author,” about the decline of the single authored play on British TV. This was partly due to a shift towards towards single films which made the director the auteur, but the most obvious cause was the concentration of commissioning In a few hand. Despite the growth of the independent sector, there was actually a centralisation of power and by then four men decided what millions would watch. The difference between 1994 and 2008 startling. Instead of being in the hands of four network controllers, most drama is now commissioned by one person.
Ben Stephenson, currently BBC controller of drama commissioning, has faced a mounting barrage of criticism since he made ill advised remarks last year about a “limited pool of talent” for TV drama. First to speak out was the former head of drama Northern Ireland, Robert Cooper, who explained that the BBC £228m drama budget constitutes a “near monopoly.” A few months later Tony Garnett, who has a 50-year track record which includes launching the careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, accused the nation’s public service broadcaster of being a cause of the decline, having “hired McKinsey and ended up a McDonald’s”. In a recent interview for the Guardian Ben Stephenson offered to meet his detractors and have “robust conservations” with them. But both Ben and his interviewer seemed to have missed the most glaring issue of all: why on earth are these questions being addressed to only one man?
Back in 1994 I was worried about the cultural power of the four network controllers. You can now forget Channel 4 and BBC2: though they can produce fantastic one offs, such as Red Riding and Freefall this year, both have basically dropped out of long-form adult dramas. ITV has fared no better. Back in the 90s the powerful regional baronies such as Granada, Yorkshire TV, LWT and Thames had some autonomy in drama production. But their amalgamation into one corporation, swiftly followed a catastrophic fall in advertising revenue, has turned ITV drama into a shadow of its former self. Whatever one’s view of public service broadcasting – and I personally support it – the combination of monopoly power in the BBC and an almost perfect internal pyramid is a recipe for disaster.
One key argument used to defend management from this mad drive to centralisation, is bizarrely, competition. We live in an increasingly competitive “multi channel, multi platform world,” they say, the BBC needs to concentrate its power to survive.
The Wire debunks this lame defence.
If we look across the Atlantic, we see a much more competitive multi-channel, multi-platform market, but with a move to “smarten up” rather than dumb down. The British cliché about US TV, “160 channels and nothing to watch” now-at least when it comes to drama-looks snooty and misplaced. Starting with the HBO a decade ago, we’ve witnessed the renaissance of ground breaking shows such as The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Six Foot Under. long form dramas that manage to simultaneously explore the depths of character, the dynamics of group or family, against the larger context of a city, profession or social milieu. On this score, a comparison with the novels of Balzac or instalment fiction of Dickens is not so far-fetched.
Not only is the quality of the output high, but so is the diversity of style and genre, and this has to be connected to the break-up of the old network cartel. In the last decade the four major US broadcasters have suffered stiff competition from free and pay-per view cable channels, turning US television drama into a seller’s rather than a buyer’s market. In such a market, the creatives have more control, and the commissioning process is more open and competitive. Certainly that’s my experience seven years ago. An American producer, Anita Addison, saw some of the episodes of a show I had devised for the BBC, In Deep, and liked it enough to take it to Paramount. Within a few weeks they flew me out to Los Angeles during the “pitching season,” and like dozens of other writers I went around to several different studios and spoke about my project for 20 minutes. That was all. I didn’t have to have a track record. I didn’t have to leave anything on the table or produce a CV: merely the presence of a producer, writer and a good idea was enough to have a pilot commissioned.
By comparison, getting a drama commission in Britain makes electing a new Pope look like an exercise in transparency. The quality of an idea will generally have little to do with getting a green light: internal politics and cabals, the mysterious variables of “who’s up and who’s down” will determine the colour of the smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney. It’s even worse for independents who have to be well up the food chain if they’re going to get “market intelligence”. As heads roll down the stairs of BBC television centre, the fate of for courtier independents is just as catastrophic. Seen this way, domestic drama production is less of an industry, and more of a court, with its favourites, intrigues, and sudden disgraces.
One reflex reaction to the decline of British television is to blame it on the drive to populism and “chasing the ratings.” But US drama proves that the descent to the lowest common denominator isn’t the only way to get audiences. Nielson ratings are still king on the major networks, but HBO has shown there’s life beyond the tyranny of “overnights”. They nurtured The Wire through many years of obscurity until it became a hit. This was a smart strategy, because with the rise of DVDs and the importance of foreign sales (the BBC recently bought all 60 episodes of The Wire), channels are more like publishing houses than broadcasters, gaining a substantial portion of their income from the “long tails” of downstream sales. To do that, however, television drama needs stories that appeal to the “highest common factor” and reward intense repeated viewing.
The fruit of all this is that distinctive genre at which the US triumphs: the long running show, which bears occasional watching, devoted following or repeat viewings. Think of an episode of any great US drama show, say ER in its heyday. In that commercial hour (46 minutes) there will be teasers and hooks and a strong standalone story to keep you gripped through the ads. But there will also be a syncopated beat of other B and C stories which unfold concurrently, sometimes over several episodes, sometimes over a season or longer. At their best, especially in Mad Men and The Sopranos, American television drama has evolved in a unique art form which explores
both the inner psyche and the social world continuously but discretely so that each fragment contains the fractal beauty of the whole.
Apart from a radical restructuring of our own broadcasting industry, what lessons can we take away? The most important, as David Simon points out, is that in US television drama “the Writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet -it’s arisen out of simple aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make, and the real economies of scale lock in when a stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. This cannot be done by one writer alone, nor can it be effectively controlled by studio execs, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keep it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the whole process.
This doesn’t lead to “writing by committee.” My experience of team writing is that not only are four minds better than one, they are four times more inventive than four minds working alone. But this requires organisation, a conductor to keep the polyphony of voices to tempo and tune, and the key figure to achieve this is the showrunner. Showrunners like David Chase, Stephen Bochco or John Wells (Sopranos, Hill Street Blues, ER/West Wing) helped carve out a special institutional space for collaboration. Time and money is invested in this. In the US, beyond your individual scripts, you are paid a salary to come into the room and help the work of others. The Wire itself is a perfect example of the result. Conceived by a former journalist and homicide detective, David Simon (see xxxx) and Ed Burns, the collaborative ethic allowed them to bring in distinct and powerful voices from film writing and crime fiction, Richard Price and George Pelecanos, without losing coherence or vision.
It’s no surprise this ethos has made American television the preferred destination for a generation of great writers who, in the independent heyday of the 1970s perhaps, would have been working for the movies. Fresh from his Oscar success on American Beauty, Alan Ball eschewed the big screen, and went on to create Six Foot Under for HBO. In the DVD commentary to the pilot of that series, he describes the response when he handed in the edgy first draft of the pilot to the head of the cable channel. Having been through the Hollywood studio mill Ball expected the worst, but the only note he had back was: “Can you make it more fucked up?”
There is nothing like the writer’s room in Britain. Though we are blessed with a tradition of great individual television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern would have been expected to write a dozen, or even half a dozen, episodes without risking breakdown . Though recently we have the imported the idea of showrunners their executive power limited, and the principle of collaboration certainly doesn’t penetrate down the lower echelons . Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given the fact that the running order can be changed at the last moment by some remote management fiat, all those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.
The crux of the problem is the not the lack of talent but the system. Drama is intrinsically subjective, but the confused aims of the various remits don’t help. Should we be chasing audiences or pleasing the regulators? How can you commission or recommission a show if you haven’t defined the metrics of success?
When I started working in TV 10m was deemed a hit primetime show on BBC1 or ITV. Now it’s five. Thanks to the growth of DVDs, PVCRs, satellite, digital, online and on demand services, the broadcast network can no longer monopolise home entertainment, and the audience are leaving en masse. The worst thing to do at such a moment of technological and cultural change is to play safe, but that’s been exactly the tactic of British television drama. It’s understandable that ITV cuts everything to the bone except soaps like Emmerdale and Coronation Street: they may appeal to a shrinking audience but at least they pull in the ad revenue. But why, in such a climate of market dominance, protected by the license fee, does the BBC need to devote most its drama budget to three soaps, EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City?
Tony Garnett calls this a “dereliction” and the output “formulaic, repetitive, machine driven, emotionally dishonest junk.” Having worked on that assembly line, I can only concur. I wrote a season opener to the hospital drama Holby the early days before it became a soap, basically to prove myself “by ordeal” as a BBC writer. For my sins, I got involved in two more episodes which frankly count as the most dispiriting experiences in my 25 years as a dramatist. As a training ground for new writers, script editors, producers and directors, soaps actively squeeze the creativity and innovation out of you. Your characters will be controlled by remorseless weekly production machine, subject to the whims of its harried personnel, or the sudden unavailability of an actor. Your dialogue, mainly confected out of a procedural clichés anyway, will be automatically rewritten in house. If you’re lucky (or unfortunate) a producer might send you an unrecognisable script the day before shooting begins with an overnight opportunity to turn it around and “make it funnier” or “more in your voice”.
It’s a paradox of our public service broadcasting that soaps dominate prime time here, while on commercial American TV they are a minority daytime interest. Soaps lock us into the form of 60s kitchen-sink naturalism , dominated by outdated platitudes of class, character and aspiration, that make the inventiveness of Potter or Bleasdale seem to come from a different age, and the hyper realism of The Wire from another planet. Even a midbrow US television drama like Damages, set in law firm, take all kinds of risks with genre and form: dream and fantasy sequences, montages, flash forwards, flash backs: and not only plays with genre and expectation, but its central anti-hero, played by Glenn Close, provides both a compelling and unpredictable portrait of the contradictions of character
Of course, one response to the dire picture I’ve painted could be defeat. Why should we even dream of competing with the US anymore? We should just accept that for some years we punched above our weight, and resign ourselves to being just another medium-sized European country, with suitably limited cultural aspirations.
But the evidence elsewhere it that our dramatic talent is still flourishing. Our reality television formats actually dominate (or is that tyrannise?) US primetime. In comedy, the US version of The Office has been a long running success, and edgy improvisational style of writing by The Thick of It inspires envy. At a mythic level, let’s not forget that British archetypes bank billion-dollar film franchises from Tolkien, Harry Potter to James Bond. And while our actors and directors regularly pick up Oscars and Golden Globes, so do screenwriters such as Ronald Harwood, Peter Morgan and Simon Beaufoy. All three were trained in British television drama. Can they, like Alan Ball, be enticed back to the small screen with the big stories? I doubt it, but someone should ask and find out why not.
Any sector that has lost both market share and talent at such a rapid rate as British television drama should really start examining its practices. By any definition, drama is about dialogue, opposing points of view, clashing perspectives, and any structure that seeks to diminish this diversity actually undermines the basis of the form. No matter how talented an individual, how catholic their tastes, they cannot begin to encompass th
e narrative hunger of millions. Though the system may be to blame, this does not absolve from responsibility those who manage it.
Last year Ben Stephen’s predecessor Jane Tranter, who until recently was BBC controller of fiction (yes, all fiction across the whole BBC) gave a speech about drama at the RTS awards. While praising the role of the writer, she spoke of the role of the executive: “In the modern world of endless media possibilities we can help a drama to succeed by encouraging it to be succinct, to declare its intent, to make its premise clear… ensuring that the heart of the drama is not only true, but is not opaquely or perversely hidden.” I came across these remarks about the same time I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on Hamlet, which demonstrates how Shakespear deliberately added a ‘wilful obscurity’ to the original revenge tragedy to increase its emotional power and depth, and couldn’t help feeling Tranter’s stand against the “opaquely or perversely hidden” was a misunderstanding of what drama is, what a writer does, and what the audience really wants.
If writers knew in advance, with no opacity or perversity, what the true heart of a drama was, they wouldn’t bother to write it. If this principle of ‘making the premise’ clear had been applied to The Singing Detective or Edge of Darkness, let alone Twin Peaks or Lost, none of them would have been made. More importantly, if the audience are held by the hand and told exactly where they are going, all the evidence points to the conclusion: they will go elsewhere, abandoning the programmatic and obvious, for unpredictable dark hearts of Tony Soprano or David Simon’s Baltimore
FROM THE PROSPECT ARCHIVE