Sky in late July announced its fall original TV line-up. New comedy shows include Gates, script-edited by Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous); Starlings, executive produced by Steve Coogan; and Spy, starring Brit TV mainstay Robert Lindsay about a father and son who are both secret agents. Fall dramas include the return of Strike Back, the first co-production between Sky and HBO/Cinemax, and a new version of Treasure Island, starring Elijah Wood, Eddie Izzard and Donald Sutherland. Mad Dogs, Sky’s psychological thriller, returns for a second season in January. And Naveen Andrews (Lost) stars in Sinbad, Sky’s biggest original drama commission yet, due to air fall 2012.
These new Sky shows are part of the $951 million annual push into original TV production announced by Jeremy Darroch, CEO of BSkyB. In a TV economy in which cash from other broadcasters is drying up, Sky’s move into home-grown programming is a welcome UK boost. Until now, Sky has mainly relied on movies and sports to drive subscribers. and it has relied on U.S. shows such as The Simpsons, Lost and 24 to attract customers. This is about to change. Original drama hours will more than triple to 60 hours a week by 2014. Sky currently spends $619 million a year on original content. BSkyB has huge financial resources to support its programming ambitions. The company reported a 10% rise in revenue in the year-end to June 2011 to $10.7 billion. Enders Analysis, the London-based research house, predicts BSkyB’s revenues will rise to $13.2 billion in 2015, exceeding the combined revenues of rivals the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Sophie Turner-Laing, managing director of entertainment and news, tells me that Sky Studios will be at the heart of this programming push. “We so wanted to have entertainment produced on site,” she says.
BSkyB is not just making new shows for its Sky1 general entertainment channel. It is also developing bigger projects for its Sky Atlantic channel to sit alongside U.S. imports Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and Blue Bloods. Three U.S. networks, including at least one cable channel, are vying to buy Hit and Miss, Sky’s first original program for Sky Atlantic. Chloe Sevigny stars as a transsexual hit-woman in Hit and Miss, which is currently filming in Manchester. The show is executive produced by Paul Abbott, who wrote BBC drama State of Play.
Sky is pushing hard into original TV partly because it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract new subscribers. Sky has spent heavily on Hollywood movies and sports to reach its current 10.1 million customers. It wants to add entertainment to attract those who have resisted Sky so far. The move will allow Sky to appear better value to new and existing customers. And, in particular, attract more women, who aren’t so keen on premium sports and movies. Sam Chisholm, a previous Sky CEO, has described BSkyB’s lack of women customers as the “female handbrake” holding it back. Backed up by the $1.8 billion Sky spends on marketing each year – which includes subsidising all its set-top boxes — the broadcaster hopes to release the female handbrake.
David Elstein, former BSkyB director of programmes, says the broadcaster has reached the point where it has to show not just more but better programs as well. “It took HBO 20 years to reach that stage so BSkyB is on track,” he said. “There is a limit to what return you get from spending on sport, there is nothing more to be done on movies, there are no new channels to induce into the Sky package, technology investment has peaked. But Elstein remains bullish on its long-term prospects. ”BSkyB will see itself competing with HBO, AMC and Showtime in terms of drama and perhaps comedy, rather than the BBC and ITV.”
Meanwhile just completed is Sky Studios, the pay-TV behemoth’s new $379 million TV facility that opened in July. What a difference from two decades ago when Rupert Murdoch said his whole Sky TV enterprise was being launched on “a wing and a prayer. His News Corp would eventually craft a $14 billion bid for complete control that is now a very public failed deal. Sky Studios from its turretted exterior to its cathedral-like interior has taken 5 years to build, according to broadcast operations director John Lennon. It contains 8 TV studios, each the size of a soccer pitch. Every floor is devoted to a separate activity, from studio production on the ground floor including the set of Sky Sports News to 45 edit suites on the middle floor to the top floor’s master control room coordinating up to 130 live feeds coming in from around the globe. An eventual team of 1,300 will be working there. Sky Studios is the brainchild of James Murdoch, so it’s not surprising that the building is carbon neutral in keeping with Murdoch Jr’s environmental zeal.
Given its obviously huge financial resources, Sky is being scrutinized by executives at rival TV channels. Brit TV could become a two-horse race between Sky and the BBC when it comes to attracting talent, warns one former ITV executive I spoke to. ITV could have the most to lose if advertisers deem that BSkyB’s audience is becoming more upmarket than ITV’s. Sky is already the home of classy HBO shows, having spent a rumoured $244 million on securing an exclusive multiyear output deal with the U.S. channel.
But independent TV producers who have worked with BSkyB were quick to applaud Darroch’s announcement. According to TV producer Andy Harries — whose Left Bank Pictures makes Mad Dogs and Strike Back for BSkyB — the broadcaster could achieve the same ratings for its UK TV programs as free-to-air rivals BBC1 or ITV1 within 10 years. One of the attractions of working with BSkyB, Harries said, was its “no-nonsense” approach to ordering new shows, which he described as “clear, refreshing and dynamic”. It’s a point acknowledged by Turner-Laing, who said that the second-best thing you can get from a broadcaster is a fast “no.”
Turner-Laing said that BSkyB plans to co-produce future shows with pay-TV operators in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere in Europe. She identified Starz and DirecTV in the States, as well as Showtime in Australia, as potential partners. The kind of drama that Turner-Laing is looking for is what she calls “chewy television” — not intellectual but intended to make you think for a moment. “What we’ve said to the British production community is that you’ve got to rise to the challenge of making shows that could sit alongside The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire.”
One question is how much of the extra $358 million programming investment will be earmarked for Liz Murdoch’s Shine Group. News Corp bought Shine — the UK’s 6th-largest independent TV company — in February for $675 million. Shine productions include dramas The Tudors and the original UK Life On Mars. News Corp wanted to secure its own European production pipeline in the same way that Time Warner bought Shed Productions. The UK is seen as a good place for road-testing new unscripted formats such as Shine’s Masterchef, which airs on Fox in the U.S. Some independent producers used to selling programs to BSkyB fear that having Shine on board could cut them out of the picture. Turner-Laing says producers are being alarmist: “We are totally driven by the best ideas. But if somebody comes in with an identical show as Shine, then we would go with Shine.”
Rivals have suggested that BSkyB’s actual investment in new drama and comedy will not as big as the headline figure suggests. BSkyB declined to break down the $951 million, only saying that “it will be spent in the UK making TV”. For a start, the current $619 million figure includes the $66 million annual cost of producing Sky News, as well as the estimated $246-$279 million it spends filming soccer and international cricket. This brings the amount left over for new TV drama, comedy and arts programs to around $279 million a year. Of this, BSkyB currently spends $131 million a year on drama. Compare this to the $2 billion the BBC spent last year making original content for its TV channels including news and sport ($459 million on drama alone).
Turner-Laing also stresses the timing of Darroch’s original content announcement had nothing to do with the News Corp bid. According to Turner-Laing, Darroch just wants to make Sky more attractive. “Anything that delivers higher value for customers was top of Jeremy’s list,” Turner-Laing says. Sky’s entertainment boss insists the 50% increase in original programming spend is irrevocable. However, BSkyB can be hard-nosed when it comes to results. If the new content drive does not translate into good ratings and adds new subs, there will come a point when BSkyB stops throwing good money after bad.