Dramatic Tension

Can high-end drama survive shrinking budgets?

LONDON -- On a crackly phone line from the set of the sci-fi drama series "The Day of the Triffids," Power CEO Justin Bodle is passionately defending the role of high-end drama on mainstream television.

"If you cut your high-end product then the schedule doesn't deliver, big advertisers won't spend big money and your whole business model goes wrong," he says. "Our view is that you have to make big shows. High-end drama is a very important calling card for broadcasters. You need to be able to pull in those top demographic AB viewers, and big lavish drama productions are how you do that.

Power, which has assembled a strong lineup including Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave for "Triffids," is no stranger to the high-end genre, and the producer-distributor has sold the show to more than 100 countries.

In fact, the U.K.-based production company is in the process of carving out a niche for itself as a global drama co-producer of choice, which is capable of offering networks a series-sized helping of sumptuous drama for a fraction of the cost it would take to make such a show themselves.

With such productions as the Emmy-nominated "The Virgin Queen," starring Anne-Marie Duff and the recent English Civil War drama "The Devil's Whore," which aired on Channel 4, under its belt, as well as "Crusoe" for NBC, Power has succeeded in building properties that well-serve its many co-production partners.

"For 'Triffids' (which will air on BBC1 this year) we got 75% of the money from international," Bodle says. "The truth is that if we went to a broadcaster and said we'd like to make a four-hour drama that will cost £9 million ($13 million), they would never ever be able to afford it."

Bodle's impassioned support for "lavish drama with a feature film texture" comes as cash-strapped broadcasters like U.K.-based ITV have publicly said that they are opting to cut their drama commitments in favor of audience-grabbing reality shows and juggernaut entertainment formats like "X-Factor." ITV executive chairman Michael Grade already has said that the broadcaster can't sustain its drama spending, and recently axed costly productions such as a new adaptation of classic colonial novel "A Passage to India" as well as some long-running Sunday night shows.

Earlier this month ITV director of television Peter Fincham also conceded that "downward pressure on our budget will make it challenging for drama."

But Bodle says he "vehemently disagrees" with this strategy.

"If you look at what happened in the U.S. about 10 years ago, when cable suddenly surged and everyone was saying it was the end of the line for network TV, the way they got advertisers to keep spending was investing in the kind of drama that no one else could compete with," he says. There is only so much revenue that "one target audience" programming can generate for ITV, he warns. "This is not economic slowdown, this is strategy meltdown."