Demand remains high for procedural drama, but the supply from the US is slowing. Stewart Clarke investigates how the procedural genre is being reinvented and how international producers and distributors are increasingly getting involved in a genre that was once the preserve of the studios
While Breaking Bad, House of Cards and True Detective exemplify the golden age of TV drama, a look at the ratings in many international territories reveals that it is not this new wave of dark, demanding and edgy scripted series that get the biggest audiences, it is the common-or-garden story-of-the-week procedurals.
While Netflix viewers are binge-watching House of Cards to see if Frank Underwood can hold on to the US presidency, millions more are tuning into to see Patrick Jane (The Mentalist), special agent Seeley Booth (Bones) or Dr. Gilbert Grissom (CSI) work through, and solve, their latest cases.
There is, however, a problem in the world of procedurals: there aren’t enough of them. Michael Edelstein, president of NBC Universal International Television Production, brought together the studio and RTL and TF1 for a unique procedural copro deal (see box below). He also played a key part in the launch of CSI, the granddaddy of the procedural genre, while director of current programming at US net CBS.
Edelstein says the dynamics of the US markets mean fewer procedurals are coming to market. “There is a disconnect between what the audience in the US is watching and what audiences in Europe respond to,” he says. “In the US there are far more viewing options than in most European countries. The likes of RTL and TF1 take a huge portion of the audience, but in the US a cable channel could beat a broadcaster on a given night.” In that environment, the NBCU exec says, channels want to “create content that, if you miss an episode, you are out of the conversation”.
Procedurals rarely fit that description, with their reliable storylines, and steady flow of cases, all resolved in an hour.
“I call it boring programming and I love it, it’s great, because it repeats,” says Jens Richter, CEO of FremantleMedia International and formerly part of the ProSiebenSat.1 group in Germany, a procedural hotspot, alongside France. “We do boring drama and uber serialised. They work for different platforms, and you launch them in a different way, but both can fly.”
The FremantleMedia sales boss adds that while movie talent continues to move to TV, this A-list group does not want to do episodic cop shows. “If you are the cool writer and maybe come from the theatrical space, you want to do movies in TV form, so you want to do serialised stories over the arc of the season,” he says. “For a writer that is the bigger challenge; it is more fun creatively.”
FremantleMedia is developing procedural dramas out of the US, and the procedural, by and large, remain a US phenomenon.
“Not only do you have bigger creative pot of stories you can pull out in a city like New York,” says Richter, “but it is also that the viewers want to see America in those slots. That is what they want to see, and that is what you want to give them.”
One of the few international hit procedurals not hailing from the US is Crossing Lines (top), which came out of Germany-based Tandem Productions, now part of the StudioCanal group. The series has sold well around the world and, defying the logic that SVOD platforms want only binge-friendly serialised drama, all three seasons of the show have been sold to Netflix.
Tandem rebooted Crossing Lines for season three with a new cast. It is also behind Spotless, US cable net Esquire’s first drama commission. “[Spotless] has big character arcs and satisfactory moments at the end of each episode,” says Tandem Productions boss Rola Bauer. “It has that story-of-the-week but with a hybrid narrative.”
French studio Gaumont is ramping up its European production and one of its new continental division’s offerings will be Crosshair, a hybrid procedural.
“European broadcasters are looking for [procedurals] because they don’t find them at the US studios anymore,” says Gaumont vice-CEO Christophe Riandee. “The US market is so competitive that all kinds of channels and broadcasters need content they can use to brand their service. One way of doing that is to use an existing brand, which is why you see old TV series getting revived and so many shows with superheroes that the audience recognises. The other way of doing that is with ultra-edgy serialised shows with complex characters that explore the dark side of humanity. In Europe, broadcasters are looking for procedurals, and not just the CSI type, but also those like The Blacklist, with complex characters who have backstories.”
When Tandem sought to make a Europe-based procedural, it still hauled in US talent, in the form of Ed Bernero, who had honed his craft as exec producer on CBS series Criminal Minds and its spin-off Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.
Likewise, Gaumont went over the Pacific Ocean for its European procedural. The 13-part Crosshair series comes from Ken Sanzel, the showrunner behind US hits including CBS’ Numb3rs and Blue Bloods. The show will, Riandee says, be more akin to The Blacklist, with strong episodic and serialised elements. “It’s about an ex-CIA agent operating in Europe, and when it starts he is questioning everything he has done and all of the choices he has made. You have the procedural element with the action and case of the week, but also a very nice arc that plays out over the season.”
UK-listed Entertainment One’s procedural Rookie Blue is unusual in that it hails from Canada, where it is on Global, and is also shown in the US, on ABC. As the number of procedurals available to broadcasters in their American output deals falls, eOne Television International president Stuart Baxter says opportunities for other distributors open up. “The big broadcasters do huge volume deals with studios to get programming for their primetime slots, and as the US networks commission fewer procedurals they now need to find them elsewhere,” he says. “We have Rogue [DirecTV], Haven [SyFy] and Rookie Blue (below).”
Not only do procedurals repeat in a way serialised shows do not – “There are platforms that haven’t been invented yet that will be carrying CSI in years to come,” CBS distribution boss Armando Nuñez recently told TBI – they can be stacked together, and offer schedulers a flexible option that will deliver predictable ratings.
Only the very top serialised shows, however, stand a chance of becoming international hits. “Procedurals play almost anywhere, and there are more potential buyers as they deliver the broadcaster better economics over the long term,” says Baxter. “With serialised, unless you have one of the very top shows it won’t fare well internationally.”
John Grisham adaptation The Firm, a procedural hybrid with a story-of-the-week and ongoing conspiracy narrative arc hailed from eOne. It was produced for Global in Canada, Sony’s AXN and NBC in the US. ITV Studios, meanwhile, worked with NBC on an adaptation of British series Prime Suspect, which it made as a US procedural. In both cases, the series didn’t get beyond a first season, and the aforementioned Rookie Blue is a rare case of a returning procedural on US network TV that hails from beyond the States.
Prime Suspect proved, however, that the procedural is not the exclusive domain of the studios. ITV Studios has several UK shows in the genre on its books, including Lewis (above) and Endeavour. In terms of UK-originated story-of-the-week and procedural shows, the aforementioned sit alongside the likes of BBC Worldwide’s Death in Paradise.
“People think serialised shows are sexier and they do often get more buzz, in part because of the platforms they are on, but procedurals are as important as ever,” says Ruth Clarke, executive VP, global content and coproductions at ITV Studios. “Lewis and Endeavour have sold in over 150 countries and keep returning and filling people’s schedules. They offer a sense of reliability and stability.”
She adds that there is a shortage of procedural drama in the market at the moment, but that the phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that these shows get talked about a lot less than serialised in the press, at industry gatherings and by viewers.
“There is a shortage and absolutely an opportunity,” she says. “We talk to international buyers and then task producers with developing new things. We also go through the catalogue and see what we can reinvent.”
While there is a clear business, scheduling and ratings case for procedurals, it does not help their case that TV industry and the media spend so much time talking up the noisy serialised shows. “I just watched Narcos on Netflix and loved it,” one big European acquisitions chief recently told TBI. “Would I put it on a flagship free-to-air channel? Of course not.”
With a host of international producers now developing in the contemporary procedural space, and the likes of NBCU, TF1 and RTL joining forces, the pipeline of shows is about to fill after a dry spell. And, with the US channels still favouring serialised, the next global hit stands every chance of having a European flavor.
RTL, TF1 and NBCU create their own procedure
Germany’s largest broadcaster RTL, has output deals with NBCUniversal and Sony Pictures Television. However, with the flow of procedurals from the US slowing, it forged an alliance with its French counterpart TF1 and NBCU, and the trio are taking matters into their own hands to bolster supply. In April, the two broadcasters and US studio announced a copro deal to make US procedurals that will bow on RTL in Germany and TF1 in France.
“Multiple buyers were coming to us and saying they wanted more procedurals.” says Michael Edelstein (left), president of NBCU International Television Production. “I know how to make procedurals, and my team in LA know how to make procedurals, so we thought, why not do it ourselves? We then agreed the creative parameters for what we wanted in the first round, agreed the genre of the first show, and then set about developing multiple ideas.”
TF1 and RTL both have output deals with NBCU and audiences with similar procedural-loving tastes, so the alliance of two like-minded broadcasters and a studio well-versed in making and selling those genre shows made a lot of sense.
When TBI speaks to Joerg Graf (right), RTL’s executive VP productions and international acquisitions, he reels off the previous night’s ratings, which saw the main RTL channel win the night with Bones, the procedural about to enter its eleventh season on Fox in the US.
“Everyone talks about True Detective or Fargo, and the art and the writing in those series is at a high level, but there is also a problem because you need time to watch them,” says Graf. “They are not popcorn, relaxing TV, which people like. In Germany, the big mainstream audience, and especially females 30-plus, love procedural crime. Our challenge is it is no longer part of our big US output deals.”
Even thought there are two European copro partners in the pact, the resulting shows will not hark back to earlier days of Euro-coproduction, with each party demanding a certain number of actors from its territory, or location shoots in its country. Graf, who like Edelstein sits on the creative board of the new initiative, says: “By definition that approach is a no-go. These shows should look like any other from Disney, Universal or Fox and should be produced like a House or CSI.
Viewers should have no idea this is a coproduction; we only want shooting in Europe or European actors if it makes sense to the story.”
Without revealing costs, the RTL exec is also clear that this is about making procedurals at the same budget and quality as a show made for a US broadcaster. In reality, that equates to about US$3 million per episode. The resulting series are likely to run to 12-14 episodes, making the scale of the financial commitment, which will be met entirely by the three partners, clear. One difference to the US model of getting shows on air, meanwhile, is that there will be no pilot and pick-up process: they will go straight-to-series.
Each of the partners will benefit from secondary sales, with NBCU’s team distributing. France and Germany are, understandably, off the table, with RTL and TF1 taking all rights across all windows, giving the broadcasters genuine exclusivity on their home turf.
A couple of scripts are being worked on, and while the partners won’t divulge any details, the first project will almost certainly be a crime drama. The expectation is it will be announced early next year with a view to making the broadcaster’s autumn schedules. If things go according to plan, there will be two more shows in 2017.
With hybrid procedural-serialised series coming through, the RTL-TF1-NBCU initiative will likely spawn more widely-watched, classical procedural shows. “We like the idea of 100% self-contained episodes, because this is what is missing,” says Graf. “The challenge is to do that and evolve the storytelling and film and edit it in a 2015 style, so that it has a modern feeling.”