Daring to be different
Sky Drama senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach says the satcaster needs to provide content different to that of its terrestrial rivals, rather than try to compete, and is eyeing crime, relationship series and coproductions to meet the challenge.
The four broad entertainment channels headlining the subscription offer from UK satcaster Sky have become home to some of the country’s most talked-about drama series of late.
Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire on Sky Atlantic, Scandal and Elementary on Sky Living – the hits are stacking up. The problem is, they’re mostly acquired from the US.
Under the guidance of entertainment channels director Stuart Murphy, Sky has committed to spending £600m a year on original content. It has already coproduced The Tunnel, an Anglo-French remake of the Swedish-Danish noir The Bridge, with Canal+ and Penny Dreadful with Showtime in the US.
Solo, it has commissioned shows such as The Smoke and Charlie Brooker’s crime spoof A Touch of Cloth for Sky1, while medical drama Critical is in the works.
But it’s with these originals, often critically acclaimed, that Sky is struggling to cut through against the terrestrials – and senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach believes the broadcaster has to change tack and offer an alternative to BBC, ITV and Channel 4, rather than trying to compete with them directly.
“The Tunnel was an impeccable piece announcing our ambitions for Sky Atlantic, taking an existing brand and doing something different,” Roach says, pointing to the two International Emmy nominations the series received.
“We need to show our subscribers we are offering them fantastic drama on our channels. Unfortunately, some of the subscribers are still unaware we create original content in drama, and the offering from BBC and ITV is so brilliant that we need to see ourselves not as competition, but as complementing what is there. That’s the mission statement.
“What we need to work hard on for the Sky brand is people knowing that it’s ‘Sky drama’ and attributing it to a channel. Too often when we have a successful show, people attribute it elsewhere because they don’t think we make shows.”
To that end, Sky is looking for its own take on the crime genre following the unrivalled success of ITV’s Broadchurch, while also aiming to take advantage of market gaps left by the sudden rush towards crime commissions.
“We know our audience loves crime. It’s done brilliantly on BBC1 and ITV – how can we do it differently? It’s no good for us to just do another crime show when crime is so available to the terrestrial audience,” Roach says.
“Crime has been so prevalent that the relationship shows have been forgotten, and that’s a really interesting thing. Ten years ago there were significant relationship shows on the terrestrials and that’s not happening now. That feels like an opportunity to me.”
Roach knows all about the challenges posed by the terrestrial channels, having been part of ITV2’s launch team and a producer on long-running ITV prison drama Bad Girls. He also worked on BBC’s smash hit Life on Mars while at Kudos Productions, as well as the corporation’s Waterloo Road series. He joined Sky’s drama department as a senior commissioning editor in 2013.
He believes it’s important producers start thinking about new places to uncover writing talent. In this vein, Sky is working with online drama producer PurpleGeko to produce a TV version of its Venus vs Mars drama, two seasons of which have aired online. Roach hopes to create a UK version of the HBO hit Girls with the show, and says the online world is an untapped resource in the drama space.
“The message to the production community is ‘seek more diverse talent.’ It’s an industry responsibility – it’s not about me and (drama head) Anne Mensah ticking diversity boxes. If you look at the hits YouTube channels are getting, it’s phenomenal. Producers can be too narrow. The top writers are so oversubscribed – we need ideas to come from other areas as well. We’re always excited when producers have different ways into subject matters.”
Sky, more than any other broadcaster in the UK, is known for its On Demand and catch-up services either through the Sky Plus DVR recorder or Sky Player online. Roach says viewers tend to watch Sky1 as a linear channel, while the series on Sky Atlantic are more binge-viewed as box sets – but he’s still sure Sky can create “event television” like the Broadchurch finale and is eyeing a Sky Living commission starring Timothy Spall – The Enfield Haunting – as a test case.
“I’m excited by how Line of Duty became an event for BBC2 and the Broadchurch finale became an event for ITV,” he says. “It shows we can have that emotional investment from the audience. We’d be naive to think it’s just in the on-demand space.
“When The Enfield Haunting happens as a three-parter on Sky Living in May, we’re looking at how we can use social media to make it an event. People will want to watch that live.”
Sky’s drama team is working hard on clear branding and distinct direction for the four channels under its control – Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living and Sky Arts.
Controller Adam MacDonald has spoken about Sky1 being more “life affirming,” coining “enjoy the ride” as a mission statement. “It can go to dark, difficult places like The Smoke and Critical, but ultimately the lead characters are heroic,” says Roach.
“Pushing forward, we want a place that has more humour and comedy within content. We will do emotional, challenging pieces but we will enjoy the ride a bit more.”
Sky Living remains female-skewing but has undergone a rebrand, with its pink colour scheme swapped for a silver look to help change audience perception.
Sky Atlantic, which recently came under the control of former BBC3 controller Zai Bennett, premiered Fortitude January and was previously the home of The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful. It’s also where Sky’s HBO acquisitions sit.
“We want to be ambitious with our pieces there,” Roach says. “We want them to be talk-about TV. We want the Sky subscriber to have absolute value in that channel.”
Sky Arts, meanwhile, is viewed as “more of a playground.” Roach explains: “We’re saying to the creative community ‘we enjoy working with you, come and have a play and we’ll see what happens.’”
While The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful have been successful, headline-grabbing coproductions, Roach says Sky thinks very carefully about when and where to get involved in such arrangements, preferring to fully fund where possible.
“What we like to do is fully fund our developments, working closely with indies in the UK, Europe, the US or Australia,” he says. “We want to work with creative teams to understand the idea, take it to a pilot script stage before we start talking to too many partners. What’s important to us is a singular vision that makes drama stand out; involving too many partners early on can harm that.
“Another track we can take is where partner broadcasters have developed pieces and we see an absolute appeal for our subscribers within them – with Dracula and Penny Dreadful, they were Showtime shows and we were minority partners. Penny Dreadful had a largely British cast, it was shot in Dublin and it was set in London. For our subscriber it felt like their show, not an acquisition, and therefore it’s a relevant coproduction for us.
“Those are the questions we’ll always ask when a coproduction opportunity comes to us. Is it right? Can we claim ownership in the UK and Ireland? If we can, we’re likely to go for it. If we can’t but we like the content, we’ll work closely with our acquisitions team and advise them of our enthusiasm for it.”
Sky will be hoping its slight change of strategy, and considerable ongoing investment, can bring it results throughout the rest of the year.
With Sky’s merger with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, creating a pan-European pay TV brand, now completed – producing a commissioner on a colossal scale – this could be a formidable drama player in years to come.