‘Amber’ resurfaces as RTÉ One strips mystery drama
Four-part series finally makes it to air after financial woes delay its broadcast in Ireland
Where did Amber go? RTÉ’s drama about a missing girl has itself been missing in action. Made for the broadcaster in 2011 by production company Screenworks, it finally airs on RTÉ One over four consecutive nights starting this Sunday. Actor Lauryn Canny, who was 12-years-old when she filmed the eponymous role, is now 15.
But the delay in broadcasting Amber is not the only intriguing aspect to its off-screen backstory, which epitomises much about the grand complexity of today’s television industry.
Drama of Amber’s quality can do wonders for the credibility of a channel. And yet because dramas are so expensive to make, even the hits are vulnerable to the chop whenever broadcasters need to save a million or two. Some 690,000 people watched the fifth series finale of restaurant drama Raw last February – a tasty number, but RTÉ axed it anyway, saying the decision was “necessary in the context of current resources”.
In Amber’s case, RTÉ bosses fell out of love with the drama after it was made, but before it made the TV listings. This was not the fault of Amber, but a quirk of international accounting rules that mean the cost of a programme is booked in the period in which it is broadcast, not when the production money is spent.
Originally listed under RTÉ’s performance commitments for 2012, Amber went into limbo when RTÉ’s deficit ballooned that year, as its ad revenues plunged and it had to pay for a voluntary redundancy scheme. Amber was dropped from the autumn 2012 schedule, reappearing on the autumn 2013 schedule but with no fixed transmission date. Waiting until 2014 to show the drama will have helped the broadcaster fulfil its political promise to break even last year.
In the meantime, however, Amber found an audience, as Screenworks signed international distribution deals. It was sold to more than a dozen countries, broadcast in Australia, Canada, Denmark (where it aired as Sporløst Forsvundet) and across South America, and became available to US viewers via on-demand platforms Netflix and Hulu a year ago. BBC Four, home of Borgen and The Bridge, will shortly add the Irish drama to its list of acclaimed Scandi imports.
RTÉ Drama’s commissioning brief to independent production companies for 2015-2018 says it is looking for writers who can develop stories “that are relatable to an Irish audience yet have universal appeal”. The latter has already been proven in the case of Amber, while next week’s RTÉ viewer ratings will settle the question of whether an Irish audience can relate to it.
But the way Amber is being shown is also a little unusual, at least as far as RTÉ is concerned. When RTÉ One channel controller George Dixon last August promised “stunty” scheduling “to get the show noticed”, it sounded like he had something more daring in mind than simply “stripping” the programme on consecutive nights across a quiet winter week. Still, it has never been done for a drama before on RTÉ, and its embrace of the concept must be attributed to the influence of Dixon, who was hired from Channel 4 last year.
It is not a bad time to discover scheduling flexibility. Stripping is used by broadcasters whenever they want to build serials into “event” television. This works particularly well for shows that involve an element of mystery, as viewers don’t get a chance to lose interest in the resolution (or the lack of one, as the case may be). But it is also an appropriate tactic for the age of second screening. Fear of spoilers compels audiences to watch “live” rather than storing the whole series on personal video recorders and deciding at some later date whether or not to actually view them.
For independent producers interested in following Screenworks’ path from script to screen, RTÉ Drama’s commissioning brief sets out the task at hand. It wants original, post-watershed “drama events, series and serials” that offer “a variety in tone and attitude”, “challenge orthodoxy” and “both entertain and open up a view of contemporary life”.
It then goes on to stress the critical importance of attaching financing partners. Co-production is “a high priority”. Indeed, broadcasters much bigger than RTÉ are wary of shouldering too much of the risk on any one production, which has the effect of boosting the commission-worthiness of genres such as crime and police thrillers that easily translate across cultures. And this scrabbling for upfront production cash is typically the most gruesome part of any drama’s behind-the-scenes tale. Amber has its own particular twists and turns, but just getting made is always a story in itself.