As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc with virtually every aspect of human existence, one of the myriad problems said to be on the horizon is a shortage of new television. But while it’s true that relaunching the entertainment industry in the midst of all this chaos is going to be difficult, the idea that there might not be enough programming to fill schedules in the era of “Peak TV” seems a little daft.
For the last decade or more, fans and critics alike have bemoaned the overwhelming volume of television being produced, that keeping up with everything has been impossible and many worthy projects have been lost in the crowd. What this means is that beyond the mainstream hits like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, there is a vast backlog of acclaimed international programming out there, which may not technically be new, but may as well be to British audiences completely unfamiliar with it.
It’s time to dig into these archives, rather than our own. Recent attempts by the BBC and ITV to bring back their legacy shows have missed the mark completely. ITV’s decision to repeat Broadchurch from the beginning is bewildering, given the show was watched so widely the first time around and remains relatively fresh in our collective memory. Meanwhile, BBC One sticking Gavin & Stacey on their weekend lineup, a show available on seemingly every streaming service known to man, seems equally redundant and unexciting.
The weak viewing figures for those re-runs are damning proof that audiences don’t want prime time to be littered with repeats, but populated by intriguing new stories instead – for that, we need only look to our friends overseas. Since the turn of the millennium, a huge amount of great television has been produced all over the world and a decent chunk of it is yet to find a home on our shores.
The most obvious source of content during the upcoming shortfall is the United States, one of the world’s biggest producers of scripted content. A vast number of American shows have gone on to find huge viewership here in the UK, but many have never been given the chance. Our broadcasters should look towards snapping up licensing deals for these hidden gems, which would pump some much-needed life into the lockdown schedules.
For example, ABC’s anthology drama American Crime is ripe for the picking by a savvy British channel. Created by Academy Award-winning writer John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), each season tells a self-contained story delving into injustice in the US legal system, which is a particularly hot topic right now following recent shocking news stories.
A similar theme is explored in Rectify, which follows a man released from prison after 19 years on death row, when evidence belatedly emerges that contradicts his conviction. It’s another story ripped straight from the headlines that was hailed as one of the very best dramas on television throughout its run, yet never got a fair shot in the UK.
While cop dramas have quite rightly come under scrutiny in recent weeks, TNT’s Southland earned praise throughout its five-season run for telling consistently thrilling stories that didn’t comply to the cliches of the saturated genre. Featuring a stellar cast led by Oscar-winner Regina King (Watchmen), it was regarded a cut above its rivals and would be another fine choice for any of our broadcasters to acquire.
That’s to say nothing of cult favourite shows that may have found a niche audience here in the UK, but remain generally unknown to the masses. Star-studded catering sitcom Party Down, creepy Hitchock-inspired thriller Bates Motel, biting reality TV satire UnREAL, stunning Cold War drama The Americans, Toni Collette showcase The United States of Tara, and BBC America’s very own sci-fi offering Orphan Black are all worthy contenders for syndication over here – and that’s not even scratching the surface of what’s available.
For starters, we haven’t even mentioned subtitled programming from across Europe, which shouldn’t be relegated to fringe channels like More4 simply for being in a different language, doomed to come and go with little marketing push or fanfare. The recent success of Parasite and Netflix’s Money Heist is evidence that audiences are interested in these international stories, offering a window into different cultures that may prove particularly valuable while travel restrictions remain in place.
Spanish period piece Gran Hotel could easily keep the Downton Abbey crowd appeased, Italy’s gang drama Romanzo Criminale seems a natural companion piece to the likes of Breaking Bad and Narcos, while Israel’s Prisoners of War spawned the hugely successful US adaptation, Homeland.
Admittedly, we can’t say for certain whether all of these options are viable. Some may be locked in to existing exclusivity deals, while others might just be too costly to acquire the broadcast rights for. But the point remains: there is a huge amount of compelling scripted content out there, just waiting in the wings for its grand entrance on the UK stage. As social distancing measures continue to hinder our ability to nurture homegrown projects, this is an untapped resource for hundreds of hours of lockdown entertainment.
It’s either that, or we suffer through the 79th repeat of Joe Bloggs’ Most Scenic Railway Journeys.
If you’re looking for something to watch, check out our TV Guide.