As TV continues to go global, the overseas programming generating awards buzz this season looks more eclectic than ever. And American favorites could find themselves defeated by a show devoted to an English monarch or a drama initiated by Sky Italia starring Jude Law as a fictional pope.
In recent years two shows have defined Britain’s success at the kudos event: They are the quintessentially English, country house saga, “Downton Abbey,” and the re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes as a 21st century crime solver in the BBC’s “Sherlock.”
Now that “Downton” has closed its doors, pundits look to Netflix’s lavish “The Crown,” starring Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth, which has been delivering on its awards buzz since debuting in the fall. The show has already collected multiple Golden Globes (including drama series) and SAG awards.
(Though, in a surprise upset, it was completely shut out of this month’s BAFTA TV awards after earning the most nominations overall.)
It joins an astonishing lineup of contenders from across the pond, including HBO, Canal Plus and Sky’s limited series “The Young Pope,” Sky and Showtime’s limited series “Guerrilla,” ITV and PBS’ drama series “Victoria,” and multiple BBC entries including variety sketch newcomer “Tracey Ullman’s Show” (HBO), limited series “The Missing” (Starz), and Emmy favorite “Sherlock” (PBS). The latter is a nine-time winner at the awards, and this year enters “The Lying Detective” installment in the longform categories.
And better late than never, BBC flagship “Doctor Who” enters into the drama series race for the first time in its 54-year history. Departing star Peter Capaldi was on the ballot for the first time last year, thanks to BBC America, and returns to contention this year.
Why are non-U.S. shows so in favor at the Emmys? Anglo-American collaboration and the globalization of TV are two factors driving this high-profile for European fare.
“Today TV is a global market more than ever before. As a result British production companies are much more part of the U.S. scene,” says Andy Harries, CEO of Left Bank Pictures, producer of “The Crown.” “These days it’s routine for British producers to be knocking on the door at American broadcasters or at Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.”
“There’s a real appetite for a British voice and British production values,” adds BBC Studio’s head, Mark Linsey. “If you look at shows like ‘Luther’ or ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Sherlock,’ they have a sense of Britishness, as do ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘The Night Manager.’”
Harries suggests “Downton’s” success at the 2011 Emmys alerted Americans to the potential rewards of getting into bed with British program makers.
|“‘Fleabag’ would have been a lot harder to make without Amazon. It’s quite an expensive show for half an hour.”|
|Producer Harry Williams|
Six years ago “Downton,” then largely unknown to the U.S. TV community, walked away with four Emmys for best miniseries, directing, writing and supporting actress Maggie Smith.
“I could sense people at the Emmy awards ceremony had no idea of what the show was,” recalls Gareth Neame, CEO of “Downton” producer Carnival. “That first year we received 11 nominations but most people who attended the Emmy awards ceremony had never seen it. By the end of the evening they had go and find out what all the fuss was about.”
Over six seasons “Downton Abbey” won 69 Emmy noms and 15 awards, a record for a British show. “Emmy success was key to ‘Downton’ being such a big show in the U.S.,” Neame points out.
“‘Downton Abbey’ changed everything. It was like a silent revolution,” says Jane Tranter, the former Los-Angeles-based BBC topper who runs Bad Wolf, a drama specialist operating on both sides of the Atlantic.
“‘Downton’ was a PBS British period drama, nothing unusual about that. But it went way beyond PBS’s normal reach. The series showed that it was possible to get a big audience for something made in the U.K.”
Amazon and BBC’s “Fleabag,” meanwhile, has a tone galaxies away from the deferential world of “Downton Abbey.” British TV’s latest comedy queen, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, wrote and plays the lead role in this dark, subversive and tragically sexual show.
“Fleabag” producers Harry and Jack Williams, who run Two Brothers Pictures, believe U.S. and U.K. TV now have a lot in common.
Says Harry: “The production values are similar, the budgets are similar and we’re sharing a lot of actors.”
His brother Jack notes that not so long ago U.K. hits would be re-versioned for the American market, often with less-than-impressive results. “That’s happening less and less,” he says. “This is all to the good as it never really worked. Examples of U.K. shows like ‘The Office’ that did succeed as American versions are the exception. Today you can watch British shows in their original form in the U.S.”
Amazon also has the third season of “Catastrophe,” another spiky comedy that’s big on sex. Last year, the show garnered a surprise Emmy nom for writing in a comedy series for stars and creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney.
|Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Amazon-backed “Fleabag” is much racier than “Downton Abbey.”|
Emmy success stimulates global sales, but the arrival of streaming services, led by Netflix and Amazon Prime, have brought a new dynamic to international TV.
“U.K. producers, writers and the creative community generally have begun to think more internationally,” says Simon Cornwell, who is joint head of The Ink Factory, co-producer of “The Night Manager.” The spy thriller won an Emmy for director Susanne Bier in 2016 while the soundtrack gave Spanish composer Victor Reyes an award for music.
“British drama is demonstrably world class,” says Katrina Wood, who runs London-based consultancy, MediaXchange “Our system is still based on public service broadcasters so there is proper time and money to spend on developing projects.”
However, no U.K. pubcaster has the kind of budgets that Left Bank secured from Netflix to splash on “The Crown.” The royal series is the first British show with Emmy buzz that was funded completely by a U.S.-owned platform.
U.K. veteran “Black Mirror” will get its first submissions in the Emmy race this year thanks to a third season produced with Netflix. Standout episodes “San Junipero” and “Nosedive” are submitted in multiple categories, with “Junipero” competing in the TV movie race and its stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis both vying for supporting actress bids. Bryce Dallas Howard, who earned a SAG nom for her “Nosedive” performance, is in contention for lead actress.
The additional coin provided by streamers is a boost to both the production, and the awards campaign, budgets. “‘Fleabag’ would have been a lot harder to make without Amazon,” says Harry Williams. “It’s quite an expensive show for half an hour. ‘Fleabag’ very visibly has drama production values.”
And while U.K. shingles like Left Bank might flinch at the cost and kerfuffle of an Emmy campaign, Harries says Netflix can mastermind an entire marketing and PR blitz worth millions of dollars.
“As the U.S. distributor, AMC did all the heavy lifting on ‘The Night Manager’ Emmy campaign,” adds Cornwell.
Campaign costs can prove problematic for a pubcaster like the BBC, legally obliged to spend the majority of its income directly on British programming.
When Tranter headed drama for BBC in London, for example, “The Lost Prince” received an Emmy nomination and eventually won miniseries prize at the 57th Emmys in 2005, despite the modest amount of coin available for pre-Emmy hype.
PBS wasn’t going to pay for screeners, Tranter recalls, so the BBC dipped into its own pockets to bankroll them. “We spent around £20,000 [$26,000] on sending out screeners,” she says. “That was the first time the BBC had made a move to do something because PBS weren’t going to.”
In that case, it paid off.
“Today high-quality British shows are taken for granted,” Harries says. “They are not the exception anymore. It’s no longer a surprise when a British show can hold its own against the very best of American TV.”