“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.”
― Alfred Hitchcock
Take a moment. List 5 reality shows. Now, list 5 drama shows. There might be a high probability that the list of dramas would be completed quicker than reality. If one takes a look at the genres playing across traditional broadcasters, television cable & digital networks and premium streaming services, it would be observed that the percentage of dramas airing is higher than the rest of the genres. Whether it is local production dramas; drama sub-genres (crime, sci-fi, romantic, teen) or international dramas (Croatian, Turkish, Egyptian, Indian, Brazilian, and Korean), according to David Graham (1993), drama provides a high “value” to viewers. Graham argues that the high level of appreciation for the drama form combined with high repeat viewing, leading to the build-up of loyal audiences makes it the preferred genre. It can be implied that while other genres as comedy, reality, sports are used as a leisure activity by the audience, drama is consumed as “means of cultural formation” (Geraghty, 2003, p26).
TV Dramas – What is working and where?
In 2016-17, Drama dominated the rankings for highest ratings.
In 2018, an analysis of the Global Television Demand Report 2018 by Parrot Analytics reveals that among the 20 most in-demand content across Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Italy, South Korea, Switzerland, UK and US, majority is for Drama, emphasising that drama is “at the financial and prestigious core of television production” (Alvarado, 2000, p308).
In Caribbean, among the top 5 genres, three are drama genres, with crime dramas occupying almost one-tenth of demand for all content in the region. The crime drama genre accounts for 9.3% of demand for all types of content while sci-fi drama covers 5.6%.
In Netherlands, Drama is the prominent choice of genre with the audience with 4 sub-genres of Drama constituting the top 5 genres.
According to Screen Australia, when viewers were asked to mention their top favorite Australian shows, the 5 most recalled series were all dramas – The Castle, Mad Max, Home and Away, Crocodile Dundee and Offspring.
After Turkish dramas, Spanish telenovelas and Korean dramas, Norwegian TV drama series are gaining global popularity with teen drama, Skam (Shame) and political drama Okkupert (Occupied). Even though Sitcom was the most popular genre for the Norwegian audience, Drama occupied majority of genres.
What makes TV Dramas a successful genre?
Establish emotional bond – As dramas cover a long time period, it allows the audience to establish emotional bond with the characters and thereby influence their behaviour and values. In his social learning theory, Albert Bandura, Stanford University psychologist, argues that next to peer and parental role models, role-models from the mass media are of particular importance in shaping cultural attitudes and behaviour. This is exemplified by Peruvian telenovela, Simplemente Maria, which lead to viewers emulating the lead character’s success through becoming a seamstress. Dramas are important tools to provide social learning to the audience as “the emotional context of a melodrama improves retention of lessons learned by the audience” (Ryerson, p1). Hum Log (We, The People), considered India’s first social soap-opera depicted endorsement of family planning and elevation of the women’s social position through the language and behaviour of central characters. A survey conducted on the serial revealed that 70% of the audience believed women should have equal opportunities, 68% had learned women should have the freedom to make their personal decisions in life, and 71% had learned that family size should be limited.
High-production quality – Television was considered of high culture value when it made inroads in to the lives of people in 1940s and 50s. As the tv sets were smaller the shows adopted a standardised formats of close-ups and mid close-ups with simple editing cuts making the audience viewing experience mechanical. By adopting film-making techniques of long-form storytelling, high productions value, costumes and engaging stories, television has been acknowledge as a narrative art.
Focus on niche viewers – The key focus of television was always maximum reach, to appeal to wide range of audience. This was primarily due to the presence of less channels and centralisation of power in the hands of traditional broadcasters. But with the shift in the global television landscape – the arrival of subscription-based business models, the establishment of streaming services and new networks – which the scholars term as “post-television” or “post-broadcast” period – reaching niche audience has become the central focus. While earlier the “economic profitability” of television was probably based on “total number of viewers” rather than “the type of viewer watching” as suggested by Catherine Johnson (2005), now the decision seems to have reversed to “the type of viewers watching”.
Marketing – The emergence of social media was beneficial to popular serials as it led to the establishment of online fan-based communities, where discussion regarding the characters, the plot and the narrative is discussed in details. In order to ensure the engagement with the series continues even after the completion of episode, the tv series provide unexpected twists and turns, enabling drama to be a “habitual experience” (Williams, 1989, p4), leading to scholars and academicians terming cotemporary television as ‘complex tv’.
Opening of geographical borders for business – Television programs can be seen as a consumer product traded between countries, of which USA and UK have been the highest exporters, and TV drama series being the biggest product category. For countries to compete in the international TV market, they need to produce good drama. Manual Alvarado highlights more than a dozen countries that actively participate in the international market. Interestingly, these countries are also known, or have come to be known recently, for their TV drama series. Alvarado further suggests that these countries have a population size/wealth ratio that enables them to either receive a large enough license revenue or are able to deliver a large and wealthy enough audience to the advertisers. Only then, by having achieved an adequate revenue base by either or both means, will countries be able to sustain television companies that can write the costs of expensive drama production off on the basis of the first transmission.
Stories within contemporary social economic context – Dramas set in the existing socio-political and economic environment have the ability to resonate stronger with the audience. Netflix Original 13 Reason Why, based on teen suicide, aired during the time when real life incidences of teenage suicide were being addressed in the US media. Case Closed: Justice Served, a crime drama series on etv, South Africa, depicted investigation of real life crime stories from across Africa. The purpose of the series was to explore the harsh realities of crime in the society and showcase the success of the South African criminal justice system to help restore faith among South Africans.
In August 1998, UK based newspaper, Independent, published an article on the secret formula for a hit tv series, where it termed a successful tv drama for tv producers as a holy grail. Even after twenty years that question still prevails – What is the formula for a hit television drama? Many of the newspaper articles and blogs have been trying to decode it. But perhaps it is not that easy to decipher due to the frequent changing preference of the audience, the technological advancement leading to viewers changing habits in viewing content and the shift in the global media landscape. But going by the recent trends and characteristics of old (Sopranos, The West Wing) and recent tv dramas (Handmaids Tale, 13 Reasons Why, Game of Throne) across the globe, a television drama with “sophisticated scripts, complex multi-layered narratives, and visually expressive cinematography, combined with its exploration of contemporary anxieties” (Johnson, 2005, p61) along with “careful characterisation and performances” (Cardwell, p26) has witnessed a universal acclaim by critics and audiences.
Alvarado, M. (2000). The “Value” of TV Drama: Why Bother to Produce It?. Television & New Media, 1(3), 307-319.
Catherine Johnson, "Quality/Cult Television: The X-Files and Television History," in The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 58.