Byline: Gideon Spanier
DRAMA is back in fashion on television. Broadchurch, a dark detective series, which ended with a gripping whodunnit on Monday, is the latest big hit, winning an audience of more than nine million -- the highest figure for a new week-day drama series on ITV since 2004.
After years when talent contests and dumbed-down "reality" shows dominated the schedules, broadcasters have re-discovered that serious drama with high-quality production values has mass appeal.
It's not just about the BBC and ITV. Everyone from pay-TV operator BSkyB to online upstart Netflix is investing in its own original shows.
Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama, says this wave of investment reflects the fact that drama makes an emotional connection with viewers.
"Drama defines a channel," he says.
"You only have to see the reaction when Broadchurch or Sherlock hits the air. What drama gives audiences beyond other genres is heart and immersion -- it takes you to another world and makes you care passionately.
That's the great attraction for audiences and channels."
The BBC has always supported drama but Stephenson says there has been a marked change. BBC2's drama spending has doubled in just a couple of years and the BBC's annual drama budget has risen to about [pounds sterling]230 million.
ITV's willingness to invest has been a revelation. Downton Abbey, which debuted in 2010, showed ITV could reach upmarket viewers who would normally shy away. That gave chief executive Adam Crozier the confidence to commission more.
Three of the top five most-watched dramas so far this year have been on ITV: Broadchurch, Mr Selfridge (another new series) and Foyle's War. Arguably ITV is going through its best period for drama in 30 years. Over on the Beeb, Call The Midwife got the highest ratings for a BBC drama in a decade last year.
Drama is proving so popular because viewers are fed up with reality fare and like escapism, especially in tough times. Glossy American hits such as Game Of Thrones and Mad Men and complex Scandinavian thriller The Killing have also raised expectations. Farah Ramzan Golant, chief executive of All3Media, the independent production company behind shows such as Midsomer Murders and George Gently, says: "What's interesting is that in such economically challenging times the bar has been raised and now, more than than ever, broadcasters are looking for quality programming with high production values."
For both broadcasters and producers, there are strong commercial reasons to like drama. A successful format can return for many series, the original show can be repeated many times for years to come (unlike a live talent show which is immediately dated), and it is eminently exportable. Midsomer Murders is aired in more than 200 markets around the world.
It is with one eye on the export market that Crozier has beefed up his programme-making arm, ITV Studios. When ITV buys in shows from, say, All3Media or NBC Universal -- maker of Downton Abbey -- it misses out on much of the overseas profits. But when ITV Studios makes its own shows, such as Prime Suspect and mini-series Titanic, and then sells them around the world, it reaps far more of the benefits. …