Shilpa Ganatra speaks to Sebastian Cardwell, the man spearheading the station’s innovative approach to TV’s dominant genre.
There must be something in the water at Channel 5. In 2020, it won Channel of the Year at both the RTS Programme Awards and the Broadcast Awards. The RTS’s judges remarked that it was “a confident broadcaster reaping the rewards of years of steady growth and development – a channel that increasingly now both surprises and delights”.
That momentum careered into 2021, as The Drowning – the four-parter about a mother who befriends a child she believes is her missing son – became its most-watched drama to date. A record 5.1 million tuned in for the first episode.
The Drowning’s success is no fluke. The channel has been dabbling in drama since its flagship show, Big Brother, was cancelled in 2018. The following year, Channel 5 gave us Cold Call (seen by 2.6 million viewers), and in 2020, a year which also saw it air Penance and the second series of Blood, The Deceived, written by Lisa McGee and Tobias Beer, attracted an audience of 3.3 million. Later still, the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small did even better, with the first episode delivering a consolidated audience of 5 million. But is the best to come?
The man who commissions the broadcaster’s drama is Sebastian Cardwell, deputy director of programmes for Channel 5’s parent company, ViacomCBS Networks UK. He says: “Each programme has grown the audience more, so people are starting to equate Channel 5 with drama, which they wouldn’t have done a couple of years ago.
“It’s certainly more upmarket than when I joined the channel, when it was acquisitions-heavy.” Cardwell began his career at the BBC before moving to Channel 5.
He switched from acquisitions to become commissioning editor, then controller of digital channels, taking up his current position in February 2020. “I know the ins and outs of the channels and who does what and what works and what doesn’t work – although every day you learn new things,” he says.
The idea to move into original dramas stemmed from conversations with director of programmes Ben Frow. Despite the risk, they felt it was worth a shot, especially once their first steps into the area were successful (or at least, like 2019’s four-parter 15 Days, showed the genre’s potential).
“We’ve seen that the dramas have punched above their weight compared with the other content,” he says. “Dramas are more expensive to make, but they score highly in terms of viewers, they get talked about, and they drive viewers to My5 as well, which, in this changing landscape of TV, is important to us.”
The move is bold, not only because of the cost but also because competition in this area is so stiff. Across 2020, eight of BBC iPlayer’s most-watched 10 programmes were dramas.
This January, ITV outdid itself as The Pembrokeshire Murders became its biggest drama in six years, and, in October, Sky Atlantic’s The Undoing launched to more viewers that the first season of Game of Thrones. It’s a tense battle, with as much jeopardy as the genre suggests.
Yet the devil is in the detail. Ask Cardwell what the biggest challenge of entering the market is, and he says it’s finding slots within the melee; he suggests one reason for The Drowning’s success was being scheduled on an otherwise-quiet Monday evening.
“The worst thing would be to spend all that time and money making a series, and then go up against an absolute beast of a show, a mega hit from one of our better-funded competitors,” he says. “That would be really disappointing.
“We’re a counter-scheduling channel. We know that there are certain competitors we can take on, and certain competitors we’ll be silly to take on.”
It helps that part of the strategy at Channel 5 is to set itself apart from the other UK public service broadcasters. This makes it easier to sign up the shows that are right for it.
Cardwell explains that the channel aims to work nimbly with production companies and so keep the process efficient. When needed, it shapes the show to make it exactly right for its heartland audience.
“Ben always talks about the audience as being a mother and daughter sitting on a couch in Middlesbrough who watch TV together,” says Cardwell. “I kind of agree with that. We know that we’re not metropolitan, we’re not cool, we’re not London.
“Our strategy from the start was to move into the domestic thriller space. Then, we have the returnables, the All Creatures stuff that we think is populist and will appeal to the Channel 5 viewer, and possibly beyond.”
Of the 10 or 11 original series it hopes to air each year (coronavirus willing, of course), a couple will be options “that push us into a slightly more differentiated direction”, he suggests. “It makes us look forward-thinking and it’s good for press – which is important in drama.
“And we can’t just keep doing mystery thrillers. There’s nothing worse than dramas becoming homogenised and a bit boring. It’s about finding areas in scripted that we can move into, where we take those viewers and nudge them into another world.”
To that end, Channel 5 is keeping an eye out for more family sagas, literary adaptations and, given the knock-on effect of the pandemic, rags-to-riches stories. “There are also stories of yesteryear, like Lynda La Plante’s Widows and Hitchcock suspenses, to take inspiration from.”
One much-anticipated curveball series is Jodie Turner-Smith, of Queen & Slim fame, playing the lead in Anne Boleyn, a thriller about the ill-fated queen. Though the casting is unconventional, Cardwell notes that it’s not a particularly risky move as the star carries her own profile, and Anne Boleyn has proven a popular subject for the channel.
“Inclusion and diversity is something we talk about a lot, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera,” he says. “We have all sorts of initiatives going on at Channel 5. We’re encouraged, as commissioners, to work closely with our production companies to ensure we have diversity in all of our shows.
“Within drama, there’s one project in particular that I’m hoping to get off the ground in the next six months that could be a big leap forward, and an interesting way of looking at diversity in a way that appeals to heartland audiences.”
As with most of the shows that he is working on, it’s still in development and at the mercy of the book-balancers. Though the amount that the channel spends per hour has changed little since Channel 5 was bought by Viacom in 2014, clearly more is being diverted into drama.
The broadcaster has had to become more creative to make that money go further, says Cardwell: “We use tax credits where we can – we’re currently filming Teacher [about a schoolteacher accused of having sex with one of her pupils] in Hungary because the credits are double those of the UK.
“We’ve buddied up with Acorn [the British content streamer owned by AMC] for Dalgliesh [a new adaptation of PD James’s bestselling books], and All Creatures Great and Small was shown as part of PBS’s Masterpiece slot in the US.
“We’re very good at being economical, and we’re very successful at it in all the genres, because that’s just life at Channel 5.
“We don’t have the big budgets of our competitors, but we still make shows that compete and beat them. That’s what we do day in, day out.”
With Intruder earmarked as the next Channel 5 thriller to hit our screens – the story of a couple whose lives are turned upside down after a break-in, starring Elaine Cassidy (No Offence, Fingersmith) and Tom Meeten (The Ghoul) – the high drama at Channel 5 shows no sign of easing.