Lisa Campbell, Director of the Edinburgh Television Festival, casts her expert eye over the commercial TV highlights from 2017
Return of the new
When it comes to world events, 2017 is a year many would rather forget. Real life was at times so surreal it surpassed even David Lynch for unadulterated weirdness.
Lynch’s eagerly-awaited Twin Peaks on Sky offered the perfect trippy escape from a world gone mad: “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.” It’s what we were all thinking. The series was one of a raft of returns, remakes and spin-offs that characterised 2017, series such as The Crystal Maze, Streetmate, Wife Swap: Brexit Special, Coach Trip: Road to… and The Price is Right on Channel 4; Blind Date and more recently Will and Grace on Channel 5; and The Voice Kids and Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule on ITV – familiar formats and familiar faces providing comfort and security in an uncertain world.
Among the most successful reinventions of a format is ITV’s Love Island. The third season aired in the summer on ITV2 with an average of 2.5 million viewers, up 1 million on the previous year. And with one episode capturing 1.8 million of 16–34s, it was a hit show for this key demographic in 2017.
Another noisy reinvention was The Great British Bake Off which moved to Channel 4 but kept the successful ingredients of puns and buns, with bread week providing the most scope for the show to out-innuendo itself thanks to ‘tight balls’, ‘wonky balls’ and a bread snail that prompted schoolgirl-like giggles.
More bizarre than even Noel Fielding were the Ofcom complaints – not about said sauciness, but at the offence caused when the comedian and host clambered into a fridge. Well things did need to cool down a bit…
From phallic loaves to the real thing now, with ITV’s The Real Full Monty. The broadcaster cleared the night for the feature-length factual show which gathered eight male stars to bare all. It attracted a not entirely unsurprising 5.4 million viewers, with the one-off marking the 20th anniversary of the iconic film, but also raising awareness of men’s cancers.
Elsewhere in factual, access documentaries continued to prove popular. From UKTV’s Inside the Ambulance which places cameras on paramedics to take viewers closer than ever to the work of frontline lifesavers; ITV’s Inside the London Fire Brigade which used special fire cameras to show the range of emergencies they tackled, to Channel 4’s Confessions of a Junior Doctor and Extremely British Muslims, the team behind the latter gaining privileged access to Birmingham Central Mosque for over a year, ensuring valuable insights beyond the usual headlines.
Crime documentaries continue to be ratings winners, and in 2017, ITV launched a new Crime and Punishment strand. Among the highlights were the Sir Trevor McDonald-fronted An Hour To Catch a Killer charting ‘T he Golden Hour’ – the initial period of an investigation when every decision made by the senior officer can be the difference between whether or not the murderer is caught and convicted – and Gordon on Cocaine, with Gordon Ramsey meeting everyone from anti-narcotics officers to assassins to highlight the trail of criminality, cruelty and death driving its global trade.
Factual highlights for Channel 5 meanwhile included Rich House, Poor House while one-off documentaries including The Accused and Raped: My Story received critical acclaim. Channel 5 is continuing its strategy of investing in originations over acquisitions, which has helped it achieve its highest annual ratings share in 13 years and attract new and young upmarket viewers. Channel 4’s The Trial: A Murder in the Family, was a ground-breaking hybrid of drama and documentary, stripped across one week; while A+E Networks launched one of the most successful and innovative crime series in 2017 with Live PD. The series pulls in 30 live feeds from six cities across America, giving an “unfettered and unfiltered” look into a typical Friday night for the men and women in blue. The feeds are transmitted via 4G technology to a New York-based studio where ABC News’s chief legal analyst Dan Abrams, alongside detectives, provides insight and analysis.
Crime drama, while perhaps not as prevalent as previous years, included some standout series including Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star. The stylish, Tim Roth-fronted thriller set in the Canadian Rockies saw an average of 1.74 million viewers tune into each blood-splattered, alcohol-soaked episode. Equally cinematic but infinitely more glamorous was Sky’s Riviera, a crime story set among the superyachts and vast villas of the South of France. One of the most-talked about and subsequently most-awarded dramas aired on Sky was the gripping Big Little Lies from HBO. However, Sky’s biggest-ever audience came courtesy of global juggernaut Game of Thrones with 5.2 million cumulative viewers tuning into the series 7 finale and yet more breath-taking battle scenes.
These popular series have also helped UKTV Play become the broadcaster’s fastest-growing brand with a 75% increase in views year-on-year, buoyed also by the likes of Taskmaster: Champion of Champions, Dave Gorman: Modern Life is Goodish, Dara O Briain’s Go 8 Bit and Hayemaker Ringstar Fight Night.
In June, UKTV signed a three-year TV rights deal for Dave with Hayemaker Ringstar, which will see five fight nights broadcast free of charge per year. And we can also expect plenty of laughs from Cartoon Network, which is marking its 25th anniversary in the UK in 2018 with a range of activity including a new season of the BAFTA award-winning The Amazing World of Gumball, alongside some new Cartoon Network Originals, including: Apple & Onion and Summer Camp Island, based on the original short created by British animator and illustrator, Julia Pott. Turner is also building on its strategy of creating a full 360 experience around programming, from games to apps.
2018 is a major sporting year for other commercial channels with Sky Sports and BT Sport bringing us all the action from key events spanning rugby, football, cricket, tennis, darts and more – as well as Discovery’s Eurosport, with a lot more to come from there now it has the Olympics from 2022. And we can be assured of more drama and emotion courtesy of ITV as we watch the World Cup, no doubt angst-ridden, live from Russia.
Another drama blockbuster was ITV’s Broadchurch which saw some 10.7 million tune into the third and final series. Thanks in large part to powerful performances from David Tennant and Olivia Colman, it was an emotional farewell for many fans who took to Twitter in their droves to mourn its loss.
Liar was another enormous success for ITV. A compelling, psychological thriller starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it ended with a dramatic finale which left some 9.1 million emotionally wrung-out viewers in its wake, not unlike Little Boy Blue. Written by Bafta-winning Jeff Pope, it centred on the devastating impact on a city of the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007, amid a wave of gang violence. Based on such a tragic true story, it delivered blistering blows.
Lashings of laughter
Some much-needed humour was duly provided by Sky’s Bounty Hunters, the channel’s biggest sitcom launch since 2011; Channel 4’s Catastrophe starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney and E4’s Chewing Gum with inimitable star-of-the-moment Michaela Coel; alongside the more recent Roast Battle UK which played over five nights on Comedy Central in January, achieving the channel’s best-ever rating for a UK commission. UKTV’s strategy of upping original commissions is also continuing to reap rewards with notable series including Red Dwarf, Emmy-nominee Taskmaster and Murder on the Blackpool Express. Starring Johnny Vegas and Sian Gibson, the comedy drama has been watched by over 1.8 million viewers, helping to drive Gold’s biggest growth in 13 years.
Global events like football aside, there’s a growing trend for more localised content as British broadcasters respond to the growth of international SVODs such as Amazon and Netflix. Among Sky’s 50 original productions for 2018 is a focus on top British talent, with major new dramas including Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose, and Suranne Jones and Lennie James in Save Me. Meanwhile David Morrissey and Zoe Wanamaker star in Britannia – described by one critic as “Thrones meets the most debauched year you ever had at Glastonbury” – which launched to more than 1.6 million viewers.
Channel 5 is also focusing on homegrown programming such as Wild Britain and Yorkshire Housing, alongside high-profile US acquisitions Will and Grace and The X-Files, while ITV continues to showcase the nation’s best performers in Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and The Voice, but is also telling uniquely British stories in continuing dramas such as Vera, Unforgotten and Victoria. There’s also upcoming comedy drama Action Time, which follows a team of special agents working for the British government. Meanwhile new Channel 4 chief Alex Mahon said the broadcaster would be investing in content reflecting a “gritty, urban” nation to better reflect all views in Brexit Britain. If that all sounds a bit serious, it’s also offering uniquely British comedies including the brilliant Derry Girls and the upcoming Lee & Dean about two cockney builders. A sitcom based in Stevenage and full of cheap lager and bad poetry? It doesn’t get more British than that.
Taken from A Year in TV 2017-18 – click here to download your copy