In a recent article I spoke of the noticeable decline of EastEnders. This comes as news of a cast cull and old faces return to hopefully claw back viewers who are choosing Coronation Street and Emmerdale over it. The article led to quite a conversation on twitter and producer, script edtior and script consultant Yvonne Grace got in touch. She has 20 years experience of working in television; having script edited EastEnders, produced Holby City and Executive Produced Crossroads. She now runs www.scriptadvice.co.uk to help television and film writers write better scripts for the big and small screen and regularly runs workshops and short courses, and delivers Industry lectures out of her company Script Advice. In this special rebuttal Yvonne looks over what causes a Soap to fail.
There are many reasons a Soap begins to fail. But prompted by an interesting exchange on Twitter about the floundering status of one of our longest running Soaps; EastEnders, I felt I would like to add my take on the subject.
I have in my career, taken over shows that were stumbling in the ratings. Holby City series 1 was critically acclaimed but failed to gain subtantial ratings. My series; number 2, gained credit and ratings. Bafta nominated and delivering 16 x 60 minutes of drama to an audience peaking at 10 million ensured it’s status in the BBC1 primetime slot.
Then there was Crossroads. The show that I Executive Produced in it’s last metamorphosis which had a very unhappy ride in the press but did deliver to a loyal audience of 1.5 million per day for 5 days a week until it was axed in 2004 as a result of the takeover of Carlton by Granada.
Love, hate or just not care either way about the decisions and choices I made regarding the resuscitation of one, or both of these shows, there still remains a solid pattern of Things A Producer Must Do to sew up the tears and restuff the show back to it’s former plump shape. Having said that, it is not advisable to try to get the show back to the shape it was during the last season, or the one before that even. That way, lies failure in my book.
There are specific, organic, politic, creative actions that need to be implemented fast, by Producers if the sick show has any chance of recovery.
Here are some reasons shows fail:
1/ The show has been going for so long, the formula is showing through, like a worn carpet and the storylines are getting tired.
2/ It has been strapped across too many days in the week and the storylines did not have sufficient quality controls in place, so the show was allowed to be compromised as a whole.
3/ The Producers fail to notice the smoke of potential failure in the ratings, and adopt a damage limitation strategy; attempting to put out the fire of failure by (ironically) creating pyrotechnic led storylines to temporarily boost ratings. EastEnder’s Queen Vic has now been blown up more times than the lips of a collagen addict.
4/ There was not sufficient connection made between the lead characters and the audience demographic. Empathetic, arresting, relevant, dramatic character creation and the on-going development of that character is crucial to building audience loyalty and keeping it.
5/ The quality of the writing is not up to scratch anymore. Keeping the writing stable fresh, energised and creating dynamic storylines is the calorie a Soap needs to keep it fit for the ratings battle. There also needs to be an interesting mix of ‘voices’ around the Story Conference table. By that I mean an eclectic mix of writers who can deliver on time, within the strictures of the show, but who have their own way of looking at the story material, and writing an episode that is not only in keeping with the over all style of the show, but that which also has an edge particular to them.
6/ There were bad casting decisions made. A good script is ruined by bad acting. A healthy mix of new and established actor faces need to be present on the show. Actors whose talent can be nurtured along with the show, and those that can sell more pages of TV Times etc by merely being on the front cover. The show needs a mix of both.
7/ The Producers’ failed to keep a strong over-view and forward vision for the show. An Executive Producer has to keep their head above the parapet so he/she can keep the over-all intent of the show; ie: it’s tone, shape, structure, look and message intact.
There are more reasons. But I could be here all day. Television drama production is a whole lot about collaboration and working as a team with teams, but there comes a point when, the Executive Producer, has to stand up for the vision he/she is implementing on behalf of the Network and its share holders and uncategorically say, ‘ this is what we need to do now to keep us on track’.
There is an old adage that was drummed into me whilst working for Granada television. That is, to put your money on screen. Too much spending behind the scenes puts the budget where the audience (your salary payers) don’t see or appreciate it. So, with the massive exception of the writing and scripting teams, put your money on camera.
These are some of the areas an incoming Exec or Producer will look at when first taking over a failing show:
Stories and Storylining
For me, the most vital area that must get immediate attention if there are cracks appearing in the quality of the transmitted scripts, is the storylining and the script editing. Soaps live and die on the strength of their core story team. Heads may roll.
In the case of Holby City and Crossroads, it was the stories, the storylining and the writing that was the most important area to get right. Without a great script, nothing can happen. An incoming Producer will cut the dead wood from a writing stable, and overhaul the storylining and scripting process. (Well, one worth their salt will). There will be firings, and hirings. It will get messy.
On a long runner like Holby, or EastEnders, it is imperative that the show is brought to screen by quick witted, visual, clever communicators. Getting the directing body right for Soap is another essential area to focus on. There is no advantage in producing a block of episodes on time and to budget, if the director for that block is not capable of keeping to schedule, or of bringing out the best in the actors, who have to work under very tight rehearse record time frames. Directors are a key part of the Soap process and can make for a happy cast and crew, or one bordering on mutiny. I know which I would prefer!
Similarly with the stories, a show getting back on it’s feet will need a cracking cast to get it there. If the story process is getting a Spring Clean, this will have a knock on effect on the cast delivering those storylines. So nine times out of ten, heads will roll in the Green Room and there will be many a tear shed on Agents’ shoulders. This is the bit the Press love the most. A good Executive will handle that with grace (no pun intended).
Research will be done, surveys taken, the audience reaction to certain characters and storylines all taken in to account. An Exec will not want to merely deliver what his/her audience demographic obviously wants, but deliver what they didn’t know they wanted. The key to reading audience research well, is to take the obvious on board, and skew the storylines to fit the tone and over all vision decided for the show. That way, the audience stays with you but accepts the changes too.
Knowing how to handle negative press well, is a key skill to have as an Exec Producer. There is nothing worse than allowing the stain of negative publicity to sour the forward-going vision you may have for the show. So perfecting the public profile of that show is vital if the show has been damaged by failing ratings.
It’s a great job, but sometimes Executive Producers have a hard time. If the show begins to fail, it is their job to fix it. I do not worry about EastEnders, I am sure Dominic Treadwell Collins will be the man to take the show forward again, and he will have the weight of the BBC drama department behind him.
The reasons for a show’s failure are varied and complicated in most cases. And fixing a show is not just down to one person, it is a collaborative process. But as the public face of the show, the Executive Producer will have to take the weight of responsibility on his/her shoulders. Tough decisions need to be made, hiring, firing, and all amid dissenting voices. But there is a process to follow, and a Producer worth their salary will do just that. And take the praise as well as the flak.
That’s life. That’s television.
Contributed by Yvonne Grace