Since Tony Garnett’s article in The Guardian bemoaning the state of drama commissioning at the BBC (and Ben Stephenson’s response to it), there have been numerous articles written taking opposing sides. Many fear that the lack of authored drama, and indeed in ITV’s case a reduction in the number of hours of original drama across the board, sounds the genre’s death-knell.
Hang-on, haven’t we all got rather short memories? Rewind to 1998 and there’s uproar – ITV gives its Wednesday 20:00 slot, traditionally the home of ‘The Bill’, to ‘Airline’ a new docu-soap designed to help ITV catch-up with the BBC’s dominant position in this genre. Indeed, by 1999 the following docu-soaps are strewn across our television channels:
Airport (1996), Driving School (1997), Hotel (1997), Vets in Practice (1997), Airline (1998), Cop Shop (1998), The Cruise (1998), The Clampers (1998), Pleasure Beach (1998), Superstore (1998), Lakesiders (1998), The Zoo Keepers (1998), Battersea Dogs Home (1998), The Builders (1998), Paddington Green (1999), Children’s Hospital (1999), Mersey Blues (1999)
Drama has always been one of the (if not the) most expensive genres and it’s no great surprise that in tough economic times our television commissioners cut back on it. Channel controllers remember (again) that they can schedule something much cheaper (reality tv) which delivers ratings that aren’t too far off those achieved by the average drama. Of course, as ITV1 is discovering, cheaper, reality-based shows might not deliver the same demographic (ABC1s are deserting ITV at the moment) and it won’t win you many awards.
Ten years ago, as quickly as this obsession (audiences’ and commissioners’) with cheap, reality television came, so it went. By 2000 BBC1 had a major injection of cash and most of these docu-soaps disappeared from our screens, to be replaced with…. yes, you’ve guessed it, drama.
So we’ve been here before and we know that before long audiences will switch off from great volumes of docu-soaps and channel controllers will start to invest in great dramas again. And I don’t just mean more hours of the soaps and continuing drama series which deliver good ratings at a fraction of the hourly cost of a one-off or period costume serial. No, I mean they’ll invest in bold, brave, authored dramas, just as they have always done. The numbers of hours of such dramas may go up and down as our economy booms and busts but they’re always there. In the last twelve months we’ve had ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘Occupation’ (BBC1), ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ and ‘Freefall’ (BBC2) ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Affinity’ (ITV), ‘Red Riding’ and ‘The Devil’s Whore’ (C4), to name just some of my personal favourites.
However tough the commissioning process looks, however despondent I might be when I look at the current television schedules, I know that it’ll all come right again (if indeed it’s wrong to begin with?) and I’ll continue to have the pleasure of watching some great television dramas and, I hope, the pleasure of making some.