Drama heads at Media Production Show

MPSDrama commissioners from four major networks were upbeat about formats, content and funding during a panel session at this year’s Media Production Show

Heads of drama Polly Hill (ITV) and Beth Willis (Channel 4) joined Pete Thornton, senior commissioning editor at UKTV and Sara Johnson, vice-president of scripted at Fox, in a debate about the commissioning landscape for UK drama. 

Hill opened with a comment about the resurgence in popularity in drama generally: “I don’t know why people have turned back to scripted – I think it’s fantastic for independent producers. It’s only a good thing in terms of the creative ambition. It’s an exciting time to be making drama.”

Willis underlined the importance of each channel having its own voice: “At Channel 4 we always try to find that edge. We hope the viewers will be very clear about what channels we can give them and the choices they make.”

Crime drama is always a talking point during discussions on scripted content, with its popularity showing little sign of waning. Hill explained: “I think there’s always an appetite for crime drama – it sells really well. We’ve got a lot of thrillers in that genre. [We have] less procedural drama although we are trying to find new ways to tell that story. 

Cleaning Up, a forthcoming drama (previouslly known as Clean Break) starring Sheridan Smith as an ordinary woman caught up in insider trading, was filmed last year. Hill name checked the project when saying: “It is magical when you get something that exists outside the genre - for example, Cleaning Up. 

“And strips work really well [episodes ‘stripped back’ to be shown nightly over one week]. We do all shapes and sizes of that. 

Willis was also clear about what she thought really worked for her channel, citing four-part dramas in general as a keystone at the moment and citing the yet-to-be filmed Adult Material (also starring Sheridan Smith) as an example. But she also clarified that they are committed to the current batch of returning shows including Humans and Ackley Bridge. 

When asked about the proliferation of playwrights now working in television, Willis mooted “It’s not all about plot. The harder part is making characters and worlds feel real, and playwrights will do that.”

She was upbeat about the question of co-productions and funding, as a debate surrounds whether it is sustainable long-term. 

“There’s no set way any more. I can’t think of anything in the last year we haven’t been able to get the money together for. 

”It could be a co-production, could be funded with a distributor. And we fully fund a lot ourselves.” 

Hill was equally positive about the impact of SVoD original content and co-productions, saying: “We’ll all change and adapt with the industry – the more audiences consume great drama, the more we can make in a mainstream space. It’s great that the co-productions are there.”


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