‘I can’t stomach more than five minutes of Maltese TV’

The ascendancy of American television drama as the quality entertainment choice du jour has only brought the shortcomings of local television into starker focus. Does it all come down to budgets, or are there other, more intrinsic factors to blame, TEODOR RELJIC asks?

Mark Doneo: “When it comes to creativity and technical excellence, we’ve turned the clock backwards yet again”
Mark Doneo: “When it comes to creativity and technical excellence, we’ve turned the clock backwards yet again”
Scare tactics: Rajt ma Rajtx
Scare tactics: Rajt ma Rajtx
Tezara Camilleri in 'Il-Klikka'
Tezara Camilleri in 'Il-Klikka'

Has the globalisation of audio-visual entertainment left us spoilt for choice, or has it spoilt our choices?

Anybody interested in long-form televised drama must be at least dimly aware that we’re undergoing something of a renaissance in that field at the moment. Coupled with the flowering of digital distribution options, as well as – it must be said – the facility of pirate networks, anybody with a decent TV service provider, or even just an internet connection, can be privy to the cream of the TV show crop. And what a crop it has been, these past couple of years: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, True Detective… the list goes on, and even incorporates non-US hits like Sherlock (UK) or The Killing (Denmark).

But though the ‘TV renaissance’ has already yielded more than enough quality dramas to last us a lifetime – I myself still have to get around to watching the already-minted classics like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under – it has also led to a glut of predominantly US/UK shows on the international airwaves (and, erm, pirate networks).

And for a place like Malta, which counts English as an official language, the decision to just ignore local produce in favour of international offerings is all too easy… and that’s before we even get into its intrinsic merits.

Money talks

It’s a disconcerting fact that while the inferior – to not say cringe-worthy – quality of local television drama has become something of a given, those who notice it waste little time dwelling on it since they can easily avert their eyes elsewhere. So it continues to putter on in the background, by virtue of a persistent percentage of casual viewers who will tune in regardless.

So what’s its biggest problem? Is it the fact that Maltese audiences will be small by proxy, thereby leading to an over-reliance on sponsors to get by? Or is the problem in fact budgets, period?

“As anything else it all boils down to budgets,” Pierre Portelli of Watermelon Media, who were responsible for ‘Angli’ and ‘Ic-Caqqufa’, said. “TV stations expect a high standards and production houses do their utmost to deliver but low budgets and time constraints pose a huge challenge,” he added, while playing down the impact of sponsors, “because most of the revenue comes from direct advertising in prime-time”.

“There is some dependence on product placement but it's no big deal. The worst situation is related to cash flow because production houses depend on the inflow of cash to pay their current expenses.”

However, Charlene Azzopardi of DarC Productions – responsible for ‘Rifless’ – isn’t so cavalier about the role sponsors play in the equation.

“Sponsorship can deliver a consistency of audience, time of day and environment that is expensive to replicate through the traditional media. If the creative idea for the credits is engaging and relevant to them, viewers of all ages welcome sponsors as supporters of their favourite TV programmes,” she said.

Steven Dalli and Justin Farrugia of Sharp Shoot Media (‘Rajt Ma Rajtx’) were even more direct. “Sponsors mean money and ultimately a better budget to produce and pay off a drama. Lack of sponsorship means the premature closing down of a project.

Veteran television producer – now department manager at One Productions – Mark Doneo was more suspicious about this, pointing to the fact that product placement in Maltese TV – an often mocked feature of local TV drama – unfortunately comes as a “ready, rude solution” given the compromised financial landscape local producers have to work under.

“Producers stretch their euro as much as they can to the point where it’s ridiculously evident on screen. They end up channelling their creativity into making money from alternate sources,” Doneo said.

This picture is not encouraging, especially when we consider that local productions have to compete with the international scene, even among Maltese viewers. Pierre Portelli suggests that more international collaboration may be the key.

“What I believe is needed is the opportunity for joint productions with foreign producers. When Watermelon Media produced the international format ‘Divided’ with top European producers Endemol we had the opportunity to learn and aim at high levels of production,” Portelli said, adding that while budgets play an important factor, “there are some basic rules of production which shouldn’t be ignored”. However he remains largely optimistic about the future, pointing to the fact that cheaper technology has helped to train more film and television technicians, while initiatives like the Valletta 2018 Foundation’s scriptwriting workshop Storyworks may paved the way to a more polished approach towards screenwriting.

Doneo, however, claims that any improvements have been worryingly negligible. Conceding that technological developments may have helped local TV shows to look sleeker, he bemoans the poor basic storytelling that still plagues local productions, claiming that when it comes to, “creativity and technical excellence, we’ve turned the clock backwards yet again”. 

“I hate to sound pessimistic, especially since most of the talent out there are colleagues and friends of mine, but I can’t stomach more than five minutes of any local drama at the moment,” Doneo said.

“If I strip everything away and convince myself that everything is being done properly, I still can’t fathom or accept why so many dramas take ages to say whatever they have to say. You watch an entire episode and you learn absolutely nothing of the story. It’s either just exposition or filling up time.”

He added that while it may be true – as some may argue – that local Maltese drama remains popular, this kind of “blind support” may turn out to be toxic in the long run.

 “It might give the false impression that things are being done right. But I sincerely and seriously beg to differ.”

On the front lines

Another person who may beg to differ is a source we spoke to on condition of anonymity. A former producer for a prominent local TV drama, the source suggests that the problems run deep.

“These TV projects are what you might call a labour of love for their writer/producers. Or at least they start off that way and end up as a massive ego trip, and god forbid you should ever point out to them that their expectations are unrealistic,” the source said, recounting how they, “genuinely worked with people who seem to feel that they are owed something by the cast – even though most actors are paid €50 per episode or less and come to set after their normal employment hours”.

According to the source, a complete lack of perspective – both in terms of budgets and raw talent – was also evident on set.

“People would tell me something like ‘We have to do it this way, it’s going to be like that scene in Grey’s Anatomy/Desperate Housewives/Prison Break’. Which is all well and good, but these productions have a budget to do whatever they want,” the source said, adding that while budgets will always remain a problem locally, “solid writing or acting could make up for a lot of that”.

“Often in my experience, scenes would still be unwritten (not unpolished, but completely unwritten) while the episode was already being filmed. Many times the actors only received their scripts a couple of days before. That would be difficult enough for professional actors, but when you’re casting people based on who looks best, with little regard to acting ability, this is a major problem.”

An actor from a separate TV production who also spoke on condition of anonymity corroborated the slapdash professional environment in which local TV productions seem to operate. 

“I got the role because they saw a photo of me on Facebook. My poor Maltese speaking ability and lack of a driving license were ignored. They then made a big deal out of the fact that I sounded funny and got me a pick up truck to drive that I had to turn down. I was also promised a load of stuff in sponsorship deals, but never saw a thing. I was told we’ll be given clothes, and all that jazz. But in fact, my own wardrobe ended up being used for fight scenes, explosions and so on,” the source said.

A long slow death?

The blogging team behind EyeSkreen – a local hub for film and TV criticism – recently set out to chart and examine ‘The Long, Slow Death of Maltese TV Drama’. Penned by Franco Rizzo – a former director of the since-concluded One TV drama Il-Klikka – the two-part blog series one key polemic at its core: why is Maltese TV drama lagging behind other local art forms such as music, literature and theatre?

‘Is it possible that there’s no better subject material for TV drama other than personal and familial intrigue (‘Katrina’, ‘Hbieb u Ghedewwa’, Ic-Caqqufa’, ‘It-Tfal’, ‘Midinbin 2’), implausible crime scenarios (‘Klikka Season 3’, ‘Rifless’), facile comedy (‘Becky ir-Ritorn’), overused scare tactics (‘Rajt Ma Rajtx’) and so on and so forth?,’ Rizzo asks in his blog post.

Judging by the above, this uninspiring collage is a result of too little money and too many unchecked egos.