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.