Friday, 26 March 2010

RIP The Bill...

But do we care? And should we?

ITV announced yesterday that, after 27 years on the air, they are cancelling The Bill. It had been on the cards, if truth be told. In light of the big, bad economic climate, ITV Drama have made a lot of changes over the past year, axing or “resting” shows such as Heartbeat and The Royal. The Bill itself was cut from two episodes to one, shifted to 9pm and revamped to reflect the new slot.

It didn’t work.

With ratings rarely reaching 4 million, it was only a matter of time before the axe swung. Of course, articles in the media today have all mentioned how those ratings have fallen – the show was reaching 7 million in 2002 – as if that’s the reason it’s been axed. Hardly fair. The fact is, audiences for drama (and pretty much everything else) have been falling steadily for years, and any comparison between a show’s ratings now and anything beyond a year or two ago is meaningless.

Still, “tumbling ratings” makes better copy.

Almost all BBC and ITV drama these days reaches around 4 – 6million (anything that isn’t axed that is), with 6 million being really pretty good. Only the soaps and a handful of shows are at the 8-9 million mark. That’s where EastEnders is these days. In 2002 it had closer to 12 million. That hardly means no-one wants to watch it any more. It just means audiences have changed and fragmented as the number of channels, and the take up of those channels, has increased. Oh, and the internet has taken over the world and brainwashed everyone. Nothing new in that story.

Anyway, I'm not here to argue whether The Bill should have been axed or not. The fact is, in all those 27 years, through all the different revamps it went through (and there were a LOT. It was originally an hour long series, which then morphed into a twice-a-week 30 continuing drama, then 3 x week, then back to 2 x 60 mins, and finally 1 x 60 mins, but moved to 9pm).

Anyway, I digress. The point is, in all that time I never saw an episode.

Not one. Ever.

And I remember when it started. Fact is, as I've said before, although I lurve television drama, I'm not into procedural shows. They just don't interest me. Never have. From The Bill to Silent Witness, Starskey and Hutch to Walking the Dead, Hill Street Blues to NYPD Blue and everything in between, I've just never really got it. I think it's probably because they are more story than character. Now, before you all shoot me, I know there are probably a MILLION examples where that is not true. And I love sci fi, and that's often more story than character. Same for big action films. So, it’s not the only reason why they don’t work for me, but… I dunno. I’ve just never got it. So, as a drama, I won’t miss it.

But as a writer? Should we care?

"ITV intends to use the multimillion-pound saving from axing The Bill to create shorter run drama series for the 9pm slot", says The Guardian. So that's all right then. Except... Except… Except even if I never watched the show, even if I never would have been interested in writing for it, there is a hierarchy in writing jobs in television. That’s just the way it is. And soaps and continuing drama are part of that. And The Bill in particular had a fairly unique place in that balance of shows. And whether you like it or not, going through Doctors, EastEnders, Emmerdale, The Bill, Casualty, etc, learning your trade, is an important way of getting commissions under your belt, getting experience, getting a name and getting a break. Then you can think of your stripped-across-the-schedule-five-nights-at-9pm-authored drama. Until then, these shows are the first port of call and your way in. They are also hugely useful in teaching writers about writing for television, within the “safety net” of script editors and producers who know what they are doing and who can guide you as your take your first steps. And the loss of The Bill affects that hugely.

Firstly, it takes away 52 hours of that a year. 52 chances for emerging writers. Or indeed any writers.

Secondly, the place that The Bill has in the balance of Continuing Drama shows was important. Need your first TV credit? Go to Doctors. If they’ll take you. Or radio drama. Or children’s TV. Or Hollyoaks…. And, er… God, I’m finding it difficult to find an example of where you could go on ITV… Anyway, you get your break. Somehow. You get some commissions. Then you graduate to some of the other CD soaps – EastEnders or Emmerdale.

Wanna progress to one hour drama? That’s where The Bill, Casualty and Holby come in. One hour drama is a very different beast. Different rules, different rhythm. And procedurals are a different beast again, with a story of the week and regular character and serial arcs jostling for space in a different way than they do in something like Casualty. In that sense, surely The Bill was a great training for all those other series procedurals like Waking the Dead, etc. Has axing The Bill now made it that much more difficult for writers who want to write those shows to make that leap from soap? Was The Bill a bridge between the two?

Even if ITV are replacing The Bill with “shorter run drama series for the 9pm slot”, I can’t see them replacing it with 52 new hours of drama. Writers are gonna lose out in terms of quantity of work available. Secondly, what they put on is much more likely to be written by established writers. Of course it will. It’ll be new. More risky. So, the role The Bill had in the development and training of writers in the UK will be lost.

So, no, I wont miss The Bill.

But I do think axing it has made things that little bit more difficult.

What do you think?

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