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2015: a year in commercial TV By Lisa Campbell

In a recent speech to parliament on diversity in the TV industry, actor Idris Elba, one of Britain’s most successful exports, noted:

'In terms of real estate on this earth, we’re a small island. But in terms of culture, we’re a huge continent.'

Our creative and cultural prowess means Britain PLC is indeed booming: actors such as Elba are hot property in Hollywood; British series are increasingly showered in awards and snapped up by voracious global channels and platforms; and the value of the independent production sector has just topped a massive £3 billion.

Bringing drama to life

The big story of recent years has been the UK’s quality drama and in 2015, it continued to engage audiences, provoke debate, smash ratings records and contribute to international programme sales being at an all-time high.

Attracting the most anticipation at the start of 2015 was Broadchurch with a series of tantalising trailers marking its return to ITV. And with writer Chris Chibnall describing its finale as 'the cheekiest cliffhanger yet — a real shocker', we can expect similar fervor ahead of series 3 this year.

More frenzied excitement came courtesy of season 5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, its dramatic, and for many, devastating finale proving to be one of the TV moments of the year. Not surprisingly, it saw Sky Atlantic clock up a record audience of 3.1 million.


Just as shocking at times – the fork scene springs to mind – was Sky Atlantic’s chilling thriller Fortitude – noteworthy too for the level of investment Sky is committing to homegrown drama. It is Atlantic’s most successful original commission to date and has been sold to more than 100 broadcasters. Alongside such big-budget originations and its HBO deal, Sky has announced a huge deal with Showtime to air a raft of new hits, not least the return of one of the best TV dramas of all time, David Lynch’s iconic Twin Peaks.

Topping the list for Channel 4 is Humans, its biggest drama in 20 years. This was a sci-fi series for the non-geek that cleverly played on our fears of future technology. And thanks to Gemma Chan’s utterly convincing performance, got everyone asking: ‘ Would you have a synth?’

Like the other major broadcasters, C4 has pledged to boost diversity on- and off-screen, with CEO David Abraham singling out Humans for putting diversity at the heart of mainstream programming.

'Channel 4 aims to appeal to the tastes of younger audiences – they are significantly more diverse than the over 65s, so it’s only right we reflect this natural diversity,' he said at a recent C4 event, promising the same would be true for its biggest hits, including Gogglebox and First Dates.

Likewise, the dramas Cucumber, Banana and Tofu fell into this camp. Fifteen years after Queer as Folk exploded onto screens, writer Russell T Davies returned to explore the passions and pitfalls of 21stcentury gay life. Reflecting C4’s remit to innovate and adapt to changing viewing patterns, the three shows were interlinking and tailored for their C4, E4 and 4OD audiences respectively.

The channel’s recent co-production deal with Netflix and new online drama platform Walter Presents mean Channel 4 is well-placed to meet the current, unprecedented global appetite for drama of quality and scale.

Sadly, 2015 also meant having to say goodbye to some much-loved drama, not least ITV’s Downton Abbey. However, Julian Fellowes provided the perfect send-off to his Edwardian blockbuster – the most-watched drama of the year with 10.9 million tearfully tuning in.

ITV also scored winners in soaps and sport. With storylines including Deirdre Barlow’s heartbreaking death and a live episode marking

ITV’s 60th birthday, Coronation Street was at its most moving and most thrilling, securing its place as 2015’s biggest soap.

More hair-raising live action came courtesy of England v Wales in the Rugby World Cup with a massive 9.7 million tuning in to ITV. Sadly, England didn’t perform quite so well but at least more edge-of-the-seat sport is guaranteed thanks to ITVs coverage of Six Nations and EURO 2016, not to mention more top-flight football courtesy of Sky Sports and BT Sport.

Coronation Street
Coronation Street

Enduring power of entertainment

In entertainment, Britain’s Got Talent remained on top, and despite (or, perhaps, because of…) some ruffled fur over a performing dog, the final was watched by 12.7 million proving the continuing power of the big ent shows to capture the nation’s hearts.

Meanwhile, reality TV shows no sign of losing its appeal. UKTV celebrated its most successful year after record-breaking viewing put it neck and neck with Channel 5’s and Sky’s portfolios, partly driven by the success of Dave’s runaway hit Storage Hunters UK. Its Celebrity Special version was its biggest hit of the year, narrowly beating another gem, Dave Gorman's Modern Life is Goodish.

But back to reality and A&E has successfully adapted its huge hit Dance Moms for Lifetime in the UK, with Jennifer Ellison presiding over the tribulations – and the tantrums – and the genre’s enduring popularity is welcome news for C5 which supercharged the Big Brother franchise with great aplomb. Alongside stablemate MTV’s breakout hits, Geordie Shore and Ex on the Beach, these series create stars,

controversy and acres of coverage, which of course, means ratings.

Channel 5 successfully created a social experiment of a different kind with 10,000 BC tasking individuals to live Stone Age-style, and whether it’s driven by sheer admiration or schadenfreude, it seems audiences can’t get enough of following ordinary people to inhospitable places. Stand-out hits include Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild on C5 and Bear Grylls’ The Island on C4, the latter planning to further tap into the trend with the ambitious Eden in 2016/17.

Of course, the go-to channel for survival fans is Discovery with Emmy-winning fare such as Deadliest Catch and Naked and Afraid – the latter saw the launch of an ‘XL’ edition, as if a basic lack of water and mosquito bites in er, awkward places, weren’t bad enough.

Keeping the nation informed

The big current affairs story of the year was of course the general election, a perfect illustration of the power of television with more than one third of voters saying they were influenced by the TV debates in the run up to voting, according to a BBC report.

ITV rose to the challenge of covering a seven-way debate, watched by 7 million viewers, while C4 also achieved the impossible by making politics appealing to younger audiences with a fresh approach. Its Alternative Election Night was an irreverent take on events, while its comedy Ballot Monkeys saw parts of the episode written on the day of transmission for topicality. It was hugely ambitious but it worked. Another creative approach came via a play, The Vote, set in a polling station and broadcast live on More4.

Elsewhere in factual, true crime continues to be the big story, with perennially popular fare including 24 Hours in Police Custody and The Murder Detectives on C4; Britain’s Worst Crimes and Police Interceptors on C5; to the wall-to-wall crime series on Crime and Investigation Network. And it isn’t just male viewers tuning in. In the US, Investigation Discovery became the top cable channel for women at the end of 2015 and numbers are rising.

Meanwhile, the global success of the podcast Serial is resulting in a more dramatic style of storytelling in TV documentaries – The Jinx on Sky Atlantic last year, and Making a Murderer on Netflix this year are two high profile examples. That trend is set to continue, not least given both their addictive nature and the widespread, international press coverage these series produce.

Still doing it for the kids

Finally, let’s not forget the kids – or the teens and students if we’re talking about the award-winning Adventure Time. The Cartoon Network favourite was given a new friend this year with the launch of the funny and endearing We Bare Bears while Disney’s spin-off of '90s classic, Boy Meets World, goes from strength to strength, with Girl Meets World in production on an eagerly-awaited third series.

Looking back at the highlights of British commercial television over the past 12 months, it’s little wonder that this tiny nation has become the darling of the world stage.

  • Lisa Campbell
    Lisa Campbell
    Director of the Edinburgh International Television Festival
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