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Industry Focus: The New Frontiers of TV Drama
21 Jan 2011 : by Eamonn Cleary
When Harvey Met Bob
In a world of smart phones, personal blogs and viral advertising is there a danger of the more traditional way we watch drama becoming lost in the mainstream? If video killed the radio star, could it be said that Youtube is murdering the TV star?

The meteoric rise of online content is still viewed with scepticism by many, but you only have to scroll through the news feed on Facebook or Twitter to find the hot videos people are talking about around the water-cooler. The relative ease in which someone can track down their favourite episodes of shows online is surely, in some way, damaging new creative projects?

However, this is a unique situation for, on one hand, while Bit Torrents, streaming websites like Hulu and Justin.tv, and (to a lesser extent) Youtube are harming production revenues, one could argue that the same technology that enable these sites to operate can actually strengthen a show by giving it a global profile, thereby turning regional programs into world wide brands. Apart from this and the obvious potential of direct marketing through social network sites, dramas are becoming more and more interactive. ‘Aisling's Diary’ was one of the first TV programmes to spot this potential, through the social networking site Bebo.

The show’s line producer, Martin de Barra explains how his team made a success of the multi platform approach: “The key to making a programme like Aisling's Diary is to make it in small blocks of 3 minutes; each episode being easy to watch on a mobile or iphone etc, and it fits into the easy digestible computer ethos of a show like this,” he says. “Combined with the Bebo pages and online presence it began to be a real community for people. What really helped is the format originally came from the internet - Sofia's Diary (the UK version) is the first web series to move to a broadcaster - so all the expertise in growing and keeping a web audience already existed in CR Entertainment.”

Episodes of the RTÉ teen drama were aired both on television and online. As well as the traditional format show there were webisodes that continued the story. Fans could become ‘friends’ with the show’s characters and leave messages on their Bebo account pages. They could also see bonus content and exclusive clips. This brazen embracing of the internet’s potential is surely a sign of things to come, and while it’s unlikely that ‘Fair City’ fans will be trying to ‘Poke’ Zumo Bishop, the move towards this medium has surely begun with the introduction of the RTÉ iPlayer.

RTÉ Drama Commissioning editor, Jane Gogan spoke to me about the iPlayer’s role and demogrpahic, saying: “The technical quality of the player is really high now, and I think particularly for younger viewers, things like the Hardy Bucks and Love/Hate, (the younger skewed dramas) have done really, really well whereas the older skewing dramas would have less pick up because older demographics aren't so quick to watch something online.”

Nonetheless, services like the RTÉ iPlayer and the many manipulative functions of Sky Plus have already changed the way people use their televisions. And this in turn is going to change the way broadcasters distribute their content. With reality TV and variety shows still dominating what we watch on the box, and an avalanche of high quality shows pouring in, (both legally and illegally) from across the Atlantic, what can production companies over here do?

One noteworthy solution which has become apparent is the rise of the one off drama with projects such as Karl Golden’s ‘Belonging to Laura’ and Great Meadow Production’s ‘When Harvey Met Bob’ two of many TV movies enjoying recent broadcasts. In a time of TV binges and reality shows saturating the airwaves, there is something refreshing in watching a stand alone show. There is no complicated story arc spanning years, you don't need to watch a catch up show every 6 weeks just to remember all the character's names and it has an ‘event’ quality, an almost fleeting grace, like an eclipse or a cup final; where you know you could easily record it, but somehow watching it live makes it better. But is there any profit in these projects?

Robert Cooper, producer of the Live Aid feature TV drama, ‘When Harvey Met Bob’ paints a picture of a financial struggle: “I think most people who make them are doing it for love rather than money,” he says, describing TV movie filmmakers. “It is very difficult to raise anything other than shoestring budgets for most TV movies. Also, in the case of When Harvey met Bob we are donating all the back end to Famine Relief, so it was definitely a labour of love for all involved!”

Another business model becoming popular amongst production companies in the UK and Ireland are joint productions, with a kind of globalized approach to drama, one of the things we are seeing much more nowadays are TV dramas that are deficit funded or co produced shows such as ‘Single Handed’ and ‘Love/Hate’. These shows may have struggled to find financing in the past but have now found new options by taking on international partners, partners who would have the financial backing to make below cost shows and recoup their costs later in syndication.

Furthermore, advances in technology don’t just affect the way we watch television, we have also seen a number of positive changes that they can bring to the ground level of a project; changing the way film and television productions actually shoot their projects. More and more productions are choosing fully digital camera setups, such as Genesis, (used on The Tudors) and RED (used on Belonging to Laura and Single Handed.)

Darran Tiernan spoke to me about the huge impact RED technology had on TV drama production and costs: “RED was a game changer. It is a fantastic all round camera. Its images are good, its workflow is easy and budget wise it makes sense,” he explained. “The time is coming when pretty much everything we see will be shot digitally. The delivery system is changing rapidly too, TV Stations have online players and Rental companies are streaming movies on demand.”

This shift towards shooting digitally will have direct consequences on the future of how we watch our programmes. The links in the chain can already be seen; Digital Cameras with imagery to rival film stock that, in turn, have workflows outputting directly to Youtube. This is not coincidence, it's merely future proofing. The world has undoubtedly changed up a gear; it's no longer about whether you have HD or not, it’s about LED or LCD, or even 3D. Podcasts are becoming VoDcasts and, ironically, the bigger their flat-screens get, the more willing people seem to watch content on their phones or on their laptops.

It is safe to say, we are witnessing a watershed moment in the television industry. Producers, directors and broadcasters alike are faced not only with new technology but with a new attitude towards how we watch our favourite shows. This is new territory for everyone; there are no rules and no reason why both the internet and traditional broadcasts can't live in unison. This is perhaps best explained by RTÉ’s Jane Gogan who tells me that: “I can see a time when [the RTE Player and Broadcast channels] become indistinguishable, at a certain point traditional broadcasting will unite with the internet and the links will become invisible.”

Welcome to the new frontier!



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