With an ever growing number of platforms pursuing scripted content in the United States, the number of shows being produced on an annual basis has skyrocketed to more than 400. Given the wealth of content available in the so-called “peak TV” era, commissioning networks have been keen to push diversity, so as to ensure they are serving as much of a broad audience as possible.
In addition to giving rise to the likes of Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat and Empire, this trend has also seen a number of LGBT-centric shows being commissioned. Gay characters on American prime-time television is nothing new, but in the past these characters have rarely been given any truly deep story-lines (with a number of notable exceptions, such as Graham Patrick Martin’s portrayal of Rusty Beck on TNT’s Major Crimes or Jack Falahee as Connor Walsh on How To Get Away With Murder).
The wealth of new shows – ABC’s When We Rise and The Real O’Neals, Freeform drama series The Fosters and USA Network’s short-lived Eyewitness – offer complex, intricate representations of LGBT people.
When We Rise, from Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, chronicles the gay rights movement in the United States, from just after the Stonewall riot in 1969 to the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional.
A half-hour comedy, The Real O’Neals, which recently wrapped its second season on ABC, charts the lives of a Catholic-Irish family in Chicago, Illinois, just as the parents’ marriage is coming to an end and after their youngest son comes out as gay.
The Fosters was originally developed for Freeform under its former auspices as ABC Family. It portrays a family comprised of a mix of foster, adopted and biological kids being raised by a lesbian couple. Freeform recently picked up this series, which attracted ire from conservative groups for featuring a gay kiss between two teenage boys, for a fifth season.
Finally, Eyewitness tells the complicated story of two teenage boys, Philip and Lukas, both of whom are still in the closet. During a brief tryst at a cabin in the woods they witness a multiple homicide. They can’t tell anyone, however, as it would mean revealing why they were there – a decision that ultimately places both of them in grave danger. USA Network opted not to order a second season of the show, which is based on a Norwegian format and recently won the GLAAD award for Outstanding Limited Series.
Despite these varied stories, offering a complex view of LGBT life, not a single one of these shows have secured a UK deal, and the aforementioned How To Get Away With Murder recently lost its UK broadcaster. Why have these scripted dramas and comedy, which prominently feature LGBT characters, failed to cross the Atlantic? To get an answer to that very question, I spoke with a number of industry contacts, on both the broadcaster and distributor side of things, about each show.
Perhaps it shouldn’t need to be said, given the UK’s history of showcasing homegrown LGBT drama with shows like Queer As Folk, Banana, Cucumber and Tofu, as well as numerous story-lines in prime-time soaps, but there is broad agreement from buyers that the fact that these shows prominently feature LGBT characters is not the primary factor that they have not yet secured UK deals.
(That said, a source at a major studio expressed frustration over the situation, explaining “these kind of shows always have trouble travelling internationally. We [in the United States] sometimes forget that the rest of the world is not always as forward thinking as we would like to think”. Said source also lamented the fact that UK broadcasters were being “hypocritical” in demanding diverse scripts from local producers, but almost never bought similarly themed shows from the U.S. when they hit the international market.)
In the case of The Real O’Neals, several UK buyers came to the same position; namely that their hesitation was not because it was a comedy where the main character was gay, but that it was not yet at scale. “At its core The Real O’ Neals is a traditional family sitcom in the same mould as The Middle”, Brad Wood, Director of Acquisitions for Comedy Central UK and MTV UK told TVWise. “Brand new US comedy has become an increasingly difficult genre to launch and tends to be approached with more caution than in the past. UK audiences are pretty liberal and accustomed to seeing a broad range of backgrounds represented – especially in their comedy – so I imagine most broadcasters are monitoring ongoing US performance and [waiting for] that all important third season renewal before committing; as seen with The Goldbergs and Black-ish in recent years.”
When We Rise was always likely to be a tough sell, I’m told, given it is an event drama, rather than a returning series. “Fundamentally, part of the job of acquisitions is that, because it’s not possible to fill all your slots with commissioned content, you have to find cost effective ways of supporting the schedule”, said one senior buyer, who spoke to TVWise on the condition of anonymity. That being the case, they argued, repeatability was important or in the case of an event drama that it be “highly promotable”.
Another concern that may be holding up a UK deal is a feeling that the show was too “culturally specific”. Given the nature of the acquisitions market and the fact that none of the Hollywood majors (CBS, Disney, Fox, NBC, Sony, Warner Bros.) have output deals with UK broadcasters, the studios are required to sell shows piece meal, which leaves them having to navigate the various target demos and content requirements of the around 20 primary UK buyers. As such, if a show is very “U.S. centric” and is therefore perhaps less likely to connect with UK audiences, buyers are more likely to hesitate.
A UK deal for When We Rise is not exactly off the table, however, with rumours circulating last month that Channel 4 was looking to acquire the show from Disney Media Distribution. “When We Rise does feel like more of a Channel 4 piece than anything else”, a buyer at a rival UK broadcaster noted. Netflix UK is also considered a possible home for the miniseries, but there does not appear to be any deals on the horizon at the time of publication.
The Fosters is in a tough position, less because of the nature of the show, which one buyer described as “sweet”, and more due to the commissioning network. Something of an open secret amongst UK buyers is that ABC Family/Freeform shows simply do not work for them. MTV UK toyed with a couple back in the day, eventually dropping both The Secret Life Of The American Teenager and Pretty Little Liars due to poor ratings. Channel 4 has bought a number of these shows and have come to one conclusion: “[ABC Family/Freeform’s] dramas just don’t work for our audience, but a number of their comedies, especially Baby Daddy and Young & Hungry play well for us”, one source admitted.
Part of that is down to demo, and, as mentioned above, the needs of UK buyers. ABC Family was targeting family shows and as a result of that shows produced for them are aimed at such an audience, which very few UK broadcasters are targeting. The Fosters falls firmly in that “family friendly” category. Now, there has been some change since the Freeform rebrand. With the network now targeting a demo they describe as “Becomers”, their newer offerings such as Shadowhunters and Between have become more appealing to UK channels also targeting 16-34s, such as E4 and Netflix UK. And so, in that sense, The Fosters could be considered a casualty of its origins. From what I hear from multiple UK buyers the only possible home for The Fosters is Netflix UK and even they are not looking at acquiring it at this time.
Eyewitness is an interesting one. Unlike, some of the other LGBT shows we’ve noted this is serious drama and takes an admittedly extreme look at what can result from being too afraid to come out of the closet. It is also the most heavily serialised show we’ve examined, with the complete ten episode run telling one intricate story. That immediately makes Eyewitness a tough sell for some of the smaller channels, who by and large are only looking for procedurals, which can easily be repeated out of sequence, maximising the cost effectiveness of the acquisition.
But there is nevertheless a smaller group of UK buyers (ITV Encore, Channel 4 and Sky) who are willing to take a risk on serialised shows, so what’s the hold up? Another complicating fact for Eyewitness is that it is based on a Norwegian show. The popularity of Scandi shows in the UK means that buyers are rarely prepared to swoop for an English language remake, especially after The Killing bombed on Channel 4. “[Remakes of Scandi drama] always tend to suffer by comparison”, one of my sources noted. “When you’re looking at stuff that gets remade, you want it to really prove it’s got legs”. There’s some evidence for that conclusion, given that while no UK broadcasters have picked up the U.S. remake, Channel 4 recently acquired the Norwegian original series for their foreign language VOD service Walter Presents. Following USA Network’s decision to cancel Eyewitness, a UK deal is considered unlikely, but as it’s distributed by NBCU, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of it showing up on their flagship UK channel, Universal.
Despite what the data would seem to imply, every UK buyer (except one who made a bit of a dick of themselves when asked about this topic) was keen to state outright that the LGBT topics, and thus any homophobia, was, in their view, not the reason these shows have failed to land UK deals. Instead the fragmented nature of the acquisitions market, individual broadcaster needs and the “quality of the content” were the prime factors. While addressing the “hypocrisy” cited above, one buyer said that while they saw the point that was being made, commissions and acquisitions have different jobs and it would be “inappropriate” to confuse the two. “But, while there are reasons in each specific case, I can understand that in the macro it doesn’t look good”, another buyer for a major UK broadcaster added. Doesn’t look good indeed.