Sky reaches for the stars - and drops into Dublin

‘Send us your ideas,’ broadcaster’s content chief Zai Bennett tells Irish TV producers

 

Sky has money to spend making television – but not just any television.

“It’s a really stupid and straightforward thing to say, but we work in pay telly, so we have to give people telly that’s worth paying for,” says Zai Bennett, the man in charge of one of Sky’s very important wallets.

His mission is to “create value” for subscribers, all in the name of reducing troublesome churn. But how will he make shows stand out in the age of peak TV? Big stars, “top-end” talent and “national treasures” are all key parts of the equation.

“If you work with some of the best people in the world, they you have a bit more of a shot of creating something people will love,” Bennett says. Sky 1, in particular, is “not a place that breaks new talent”.

Packed room

Bennett led a Sky delegation to Dublin this week, outlining to a packed room of Irish television producers at the Marker Hotel how Sky would like to hear their ideas for specific types of shows, including dramas with “cinematic values” for Sky Atlantic, “great artist on another great artist” documentaries for Sky Arts and “big scale” entertainment formats and “grown-up” comedies for a more ambitious Sky 1.

It would quite like to get its hands on Chris O’Dowd’s follow-up to Moone Boy, thanks.

“We want to have people’s absolute favourite shows of the year,” says Bennett, whose title is director of programmes for Sky Entertainment in the UK and Ireland. “We don’t necessarily need them to watch absolutely every show, every day, every minute, and that’s a very different way of looking at it than a commercial, advertiser-funded broadcaster.”

There is no Irish-produced show on Sky currently, and none forthcoming that can be confirmed just yet.

‘Irish talent’

“We’ve had lots of Irish talent in front and behind the camera on lots of our shows – Penny Dreadful, Moone Boy and 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy – but there’s nothing specific I can point to right now that’s coming up. So this is a reminder that we’re open for business. Please send us your ideas.”

The timing of the Sky event has also been influenced by Bennett’s decision to refocus Sky 1, so that rather than “doing lots of bibs and bobs, but not very consistently”, it does “fewer sorts of telly, but bigger and better”, so audiences know what to expect from the channel.

Sky 1 director Adam MacDonald has a “shopping list” of the types of shows he wants to commission, such as 9pm dramas with either an action-adventure or comedy flavour, 10pm comedies that are “darker” than what it has done before, plus “competitive elimination whittles” – telly-speak for any entertainment format where someone gets voted out at the end of the episode.

MacDonald would also like to make Sky 1 more “male friendly”, with the caveat that this doesn’t mean pitches that are “exclusively guns, cars and explosions”.

Sky Atlantic, which Bennett ran before being promoted to his current role, is also in the market for the first time to make year-round original dramas that are more “challenging” than the Sky 1 variety.

‘Clear hero’

“There’s not a clear hero and a clear villain in a Sky Atlantic drama,” says Bennett. He’s quite excited by the prospect of Melrose, a five-parter starring Benedict Cumberbatch and adapted by David Nicholls from the Edward St Aubyn novels. Like the Ardmore-shot Penny Dreadful, this is a co-commission with US network Showtime.

To date, Sky Atlantic has really been best known for being the European home of HBO and Showtime’s own shows, the biggest of which is Game of Thrones, which returns in July and attracted more than six million viewers per episode in its last run – a number subdued by piracy, but still a record one for Sky.

Brace for the impact of Showtime’s Twin Peaks and related hype when it lands in May, while later in 2017, HBO’s New York porn industry drama The Deuce looks set to educate viewers about the full horrors of the 1970s moustache.

“Nothing wrong with having the best cable shows in the world on the one channel. Quite happy with that,” says Bennett.

Still, there are obviously high hopes for its original commissions and co-commissions, such as the imminent Showtime co-commission Guerilla, the creation of Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, which is set in 1970s London and co-stars Idris Elba. All six episodes will be available from April 13th.

‘Homegrown things’

“Our customers say they love homegrown things. That doesn’t mean they have to be set somewhere geographically close – Fortitude is set in the Arctic – but the storytelling is British and the talent is British . . . or Irish.”

For scripted drama and comedy, he sees Sky’s competition as “much more Netflix and Amazon”, he says. “It’s not the terrestrial broadcasters.”

Sky lives in a less “linear” world than the free-to-air channels, and recent changes to its TV platform interface have effectively recategorised linear television as just one more option amid many on-demand ones.

Bennett says overnight television ratings are “meaningless to us now”, and that it’s not uncommon for 50 per cent of the audience to time-shift their viewing. But he clarifies that it’s still very important to keep linear channels open for business.

“The channels are the shop window. Why wouldn’t you have them?”

Online-only

He speaks as the former controller of the now online-only BBC Three, a decision that he thinks was “a bit mad”. He left the BBC for Sky a month after BBC Three’s fate was confirmed.

While he won’t say how much money he has to spend at Sky, the pay-TV company is “incredibly well-funded” and can make dramas with high episode price tags.

As the sports rights market becomes ever more inflationary and unpredictable, there are suggestions that Sky – the subject of a proposed takeover by 39 per cent shareholder 21st Century Fox – will lend much more weight to scripted entertainment in future. No pressure then?

“I’m always happy to spend more money if they want to give it to me. The entertainment side of the business has to be on fire, but then every part of the business needs to be on fire.”