the future of European TV drama series

This blog was initially posted on my Medium page.


Last week I spent two days in Berlin with the most promising European writers, directors and producers in television drama series. I was invited by the Erich Pommer Institut and MediaXchange to share my knowledge on the future of European television drama series.

As Director TV of VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster in Belgium, former Channel Manager of VRT Eén and chairman of the EBU (Eurovision Public Broadcasting Union) TV Committee I have been involved in producing various television series in Belgium and abroad. To be honest, of all genres that I have been involved with, drama is what gave me the best personal reward. It takes quiet some time from story pitch to bible, scenario, casting, pre production, production, editing, marketing … and broadcasting but in the end it is worth all of the waiting. Producing fiction is complex — especially in a small territory as Flanders where budgets are very limited (650.000 euro per episode for a war series like In Flanders Fields compared to 3.5 million for an BBC-HBO-VRT coproduction like Parade’s End )— but almost no other genre can give an audience as much pleasure. Fiction is the most travelled genre.

Unfortunatedly the future of European drama series is under pressure, for more than one reason.

First, US drama series are very dominant in Europe. Ever since the start of television, shortly after World War II, US series were very popular in Europe and remain so. From “I love Lucy” to “Peyton Place”, “The Planet of the Apes”, “Dallas”, “Desperate Housewives” and “True Detective” or “House of Cards” today, the American way of life still is the predominant and most aspirational lifestyle for most of the European citizens. Although China has it actor stars that appeal to some 1.2 billion viewers, we never have heard of them in Europe. Can you mention just one name ? Besides, the US providers have a very strong sales network that guarantee big European sales. Thus, US-European ties remain very strong.

Second, Europe also has a strong fiction output, but most series come from The Big Five, being the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. These five, who also go straight to the Eurovision Song Festival final because they are the biggest financial contributors, cover large territories with bigger television budgets. They speak a language that is a world language, have a lot of inhabitants living abroad and have a nation vision that can easily be translated into clichés. Such stories travel (more) easily abroad. It is true that in fiction there now is a sixth territory, Scandinavia, with a very strong output with series like Borgen and The Bridge, but the future will tell whether this is a lucky shot or a clever strategy. Up to now noone could explain me the success factors of these series except for having good writers, producers and directors on board. But isn’t that what all series pretend ? Then, why do so many series fail ?

Third, new players are on the market. Good (existing) content is looking for new distribution : big players like BBC, National Geographic, Fox, … and many more look for new distribution for their content that was already paid for. Every series being commissioned for by BBC, like Top Gear, can generate immense revenues being sold through the BBC First network, other video on demand players or classical linear players. Let the pound roll for many more pounds. Also, the players in (existing) distribution look for content that can spice up their brand. iTunes, Amazon Prime, Netflix, … they all commission series that are initially and exclusively aired on their platforms. But, are they really into fiction or is that just part of their marketing budget ?

Where does that leave the rest of Europe, not being hot Scandinavia or not part of The Big Five ? They are struggling ! Fiction is expensive and often watched non linear, which in most cases means a big loss of advertising revenues. Although drama series define the DNA of a television brand , why invest such enormous budgets in something so insecure ?

I am a firm believer that local stories create stronger ties with a local audience. So fiction commissioners need to come up with new business models to guarantee the future of this genre locally first and on a broader level second. If “Six feet under” and “West Wing” can appeal to various people across continents then why can’t we tell stories that at least engage a European audience and perhaps spread beyond ?

I met some 30 very promising young creatives this week. They just finished the the first module of the workshop European TV Drama Series Lab, listening to people like me, The Walking Dead’s showrunner Glen Mazzara, transmedia storyteller Brian Seth Hurst, and many others. But in the second module, in November this fall, they will be setting up a writer’s room. Noone is paying them a fee, so the only thing they can do is follow their guts. I bet they can come up with a new Borgen. I hope I will be the first commissioning the series.

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