While the stormy seas at the British Broadcasting Corporation seem to be calming a little bit, as no one has been arrested or given a ton of money to take a hike in a few weeks (of course, if they want me to stop writing about them I will gladly take a check), one bright spot has remained throughout its difficult year: the dramas that the network develops are widely regarded as excellent by critics and viewers alike.
Ben Stephenson is a big part of that. He serves as the drama conditioning - controller at the broadcaster, a role he has filled since late 2008. There he makes decisions about what dramas make it to air. So we have him to thank for the fantastic Sherlock series. Thanks Ben for Sherlock!
Recently he sat down with the Hollywood Reporter for a fantastic interview that really took a deep look into where the BBC's drama division stands. Here are some highlights from that interview (the entire thing can be read here):
The Hollywood Reporter: The BBC has had some big drama successes with the likes of Call the Midwife. Why has drama been such a focus for the BBC and how do you feel about the state of drama at the company?
Ben Stephenson: It has been a really successful couple of years for BBC One and BBC Two. Drama goes to the heart of the BBC’s DNA. It is what the BBC has always been known for – drama and news. Last year, on BBC One, the goal was to launch the next generation of returning series, because we had lost such shows as Spooks – or MI-5 as it was known in the U.S., so we wanted to bring in a new shows of returners. We were lucky enough that we launched seven shows, and six of them are coming back. Shows such as Call the Midwife have been a big hit here and in America. It is the biggest series launch on any [U.K.] channel certainly this century and likely longer than that. And we also launched Ripper Street earlier this year, which went down incredibly well over here and in America. It is BBC America’s biggest-ever launch apart from Doctor Who for a British show. And we reinvested money on BBC Two last year for a more cable attitude towards drama. We had huge success with police series Line of Duty, which we are bringing back this year. It stars Lennie James.
THR: So where would you like to end up?
Stephenson: What it adds up to is the ambition, with which we at the BBC are able to create our drama. That takes us forward to where we want to go. The key for us, because we are publicly funded, is we don’t have any commercial remit. So we are able to work with the very best talent in the country and the world to drive the bet projects to the screen. That may well be 13 episode series like our new commission Atlantis. But it could also be single films. That is probably unique to us as a broadcaster in the world that we can tailor the shape of the schedule to the writers’ voices. That is why we have Tom Stoppard coming back to the BBC. He hadn’t written for the BBC in 20 years and last year he did Parade’s End, which is about to launch on HBO. And we have David Hare coming back. Also, Jane Campion has her first TV series with us this year. We want to create an environment, which is electric and exciting for creatives who can have real ambition.
THR: How ambitious is your latest slate of drama commissions in the bigger picture?
Stephenson: We announced about eight new shows. It is an eclectic mix. The BBC makes 450 hours of drama a year on an annual budget of around $390 million (250 million pounds), which makes us the biggest broadcaster of drama in the country. I hope what it shows is that the confidence we had last year in terms of our drama output is redoubled in the next few years. And the more success you have, the more you are driven to be ambitious and try riskier stuff. I think that is what audiences are calling out for - they like stuff that is different and exciting.
THR: You have a new BBC boss, Tony Hall, coming in this spring. Do you expect that to affect you?
Stephenson: Yes, we have a new director general starting at the beginning of April, which coincides with our [latest commissions] announcement. This is the dawning of a new era of ambition. Lord Hall comes from BBC News and has been running the Royal Opera House. Having someone come to join and manage us who has run one of the greatest cultural organizations in the world is incredibly exciting. And it feels like it raises the bar of ambition. Some of the conversations I have been having with him have been what sort of vision BBC Drama has going into the future, how we build on our success and how we retain the affection audiences have for us and how we become more ambitious and risk-taking. For me as a huge fan of what Lord Hall has done at the Royal Opera House, him coming to us is really incredibly exciting.