An Inartful Deal?

06 Jun 2019  |  Stephen Arnell 
An Inartful Deal?

Stephen Arnell debates whether the BBC dropped the ball in co-producing Good Omens with Amazon Prime

2019 appears to be the year when the BBC’s deal-making chickens could be coming home to roost.

To many industry-watchers, the co-production agreement between BBC Studios and Amazon Prime for the 6x60 fantasy series Good Omens seemed ill-judged – at the very least in terms of the optics.

The BBC has co-funded (to an undisclosed amount) Good Omens, lending the lustre of their brand, and most likely giving some creative input into the show, which in all probability helped encourage an impressive roster of on and off-screen talent to sign up for the production.

This includes cast members Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch, Frances McDormand, Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, showrunner (and co-author of Good Omens with Terry Pratchett) Neil Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon (Line of Duty, Sherlock).

The sting in the tail for the BBC is that Amazon Prime dropped every episode of Good Omens a minimum six months before the show debuts (presumably on a weekly basis on linear, box set on iPlayer) on BBC2.

Without knowing the exact terms of the deal, this appears to be a strange move by the Corporation, as currently a whopping 39% of the UK population already have access to Good Omens via Amazon Prime – and these subscribers are the most likely to watch this type of show.

There seems little value to BBC licence fee payers, especially since reviews have been decidedly mixed, with Rachel Cooke in The New Statesman describing the show in the following terms:

“It’s all terribly, tweely English, a bit like those Children’s Film Foundation productions some of us used to watch on telly in the school holidays in the early Eighties."

Camilla Long in The Times also observed:

“It feels like it's been directed by 12 people, none of whom has ever directed anything before, featuring actors who have apparently never acted before.”

On the positive side, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman was a satisfied customer:

“Much of the fun in Good Omens comes from the over-the-top fantastical elements and how the various surprise cameos (and others best left for their own discovery) make everything feel buoyantly, giddily surreal in a tale well told.”

In six months, the show may also feel past its sell by date, considering the amount of publicity oxygen which has been swallowed up by the Amazon release – it’s unlikely to generate anything like the same copy in November/December 2019 for BBC2.

One person who disagrees with this viewpoint is Good Omens director Douglas Mackinnon, who gamely stated:

“I don’t think people will feel short-changed when they see it on the BBC. In a way, it’s kind of a bonus: the BBC license fee payer is going to get a huge show for a very small amount of money. They are getting a great deal out of it.”

BBC Studios' Head of Comedy Chris Sussman also weighed in, with the possibly counter-intuitive observation that:

“Amazon is putting in the lion’s share of the money, so they get that right, the teams not concerned. When the show launches on Amazon, they’re going to let everyone know about it and put a lot of money into telling people about it.”

Which again, might not really help Good Omens when it appears on BBC2 this Autumn.

Amazon look to have come out the winners in the negotiation, as they could easily have funded Good Omens on their own – after all, they are apparently stumping up $1 billion for their upcoming Lord of the Rings series.

As said, the still prestigious BBC brand probably helped in promoting the show to upmarket Amazon Prime viewers across the globe.

Coming off the back of the BAFTA-rule bending hit Killing Eve and its UK transmission date of Saturday 8 June, months after the BBC America launch on April 7, it does give an impression of the BBC on the back foot with windowing.

In contrast to this, BBC1’s current hit Gentleman Jack has only aired slightly behind HBO in the US, whilst McMafia (2018) and the hit The Night Manager (2016) both launched In the UK before their US transmissions on AMC.

Last year, the underwhelming would-be epic Troy: Fall of a City co-production launched simultaneously in the UK on BBC1 and on Netflix for the rest of the world (later appearing on Netflix here after a decent interval), which at least gave the BBC bragging rights as an exclusive British premiere.

Whether Good Omens is a one-off blip or the shape of things to come in BBC co-productions remains to be seen, although if it is, Auntie may be well advised to think twice.

Another BBC fantasy series co-production, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, is due to debut this Autumn on HBO in the US.

Back in February this year, BBC1’s teaser trailer for the show stated that it will be ‘Coming Soon’.

This may mean that His Dark Materials will launch here before HBO, but the present thinking is that it will be broadcast around the same time as in the States.


Stephen Arnell is a broadcast consultant.

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19 Jun 2019 

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