Makes new commitment to local shows

LONDON — In the U.K., paybox BSkyB is unrivalled for its portfolio of live, exclusive sports, the cream of U.S. acquisitions and Hollywood movies. But auds looking for some homegrown drama or Brit comedy are out of luck.

That may be about to change, as BSkyB — which last year generated £4.8 billion ($7.8 billion) in subscription revenues — makes a new commitment to local shows and, by extension, Blighty’s creative economy, one of the sectors earmarked by pols to help boost the U.K. out of recession.

The move represents a new attempt by the satcaster to position itself as a broadcaster as vital to the health of the U.K. indie sector as Channel 4, the BBC or ITV.

By 2014, BSkyB says it will spend $975 million a year on British production, an increase of more than 50%. This year, it will spend $617 million on local production.

“Homegrown content resonates strongly, and we believe we can bring more quality and value to existing subscribers, while also reaching out to more people who haven’t yet chosen pay TV,” says BSkyB CEO Jeremy Darroch. “Our plans will take our original entertainment to an entirely different scale.

“They will mean working with the best writing and acting talent, and will require ambition as well as sustained financial investment.”

Darroch says BSkyB, so cash-rich that its marketing budget alone is bigger than ITV’s program budget, plans to quadruple the number of hours of locally made drama, and triple the budget of its Sky Arts webs.

Homegrown comedy, the riskiest of all genres and frequently ignored by BSkyB in the past, will also receive a fiscal boost. The factual side, too, is benefiting from the new spending spree at Sky.

BSkyB routinely outbids its U.K. terrestrial rivals for U.S. shows; this month along, it has poached “Glee” from Channel 4 and “Nurse Jackie” from the BBC.

Now, BSkyB is beginning to compete head-to-head with its more well-established but financially worse-off rivals for the best U.K. smallscreen talent.

The timing of Darroch’s announcement was significant, coming as U.K. media minister Jeremy Hunt moves to give the final greenlight for News Corp.’s controversial bid for the 61% of BSkyB it does not own already — and as the paybox lobbies for tighter protection from piracy for content owners in a new communications bill.

Making comparisons among networks and what they spend on programs is an inexact science at best, because exact figures broken down into their constituent parts are commercially sensitive and so remain confidential.

Moreover, while Sky is happy to stress that it is now working with more than 100 U.K. shingles, it declines to say exactly how much it spends on each program genre.

But the satcaster now claims that its projected plans will mean it is investing more in local fare than either Channel 4 or Channel 5, which are believed to spend $588 million and $112 million a year, respectively, on British-made shows.

“There is no doubt that Sky’s increased investment in U.K. shows is an important move,” says media commentator Steve Hewlett. “But if you start to unpick the figures, the budgets are not as big as Sky claims.

For instance, the $617 million includes the cost of sports and news production, which is more than $325 million.

“I am not saying what Jeremy Darroch announced is insignificant but it is an acceleration of what Sky has been doing for a while, rather than a definite change in direction.”

In fact, under the leadership of BSkyB content topper Sophie Turner Laing, who joined the company eight years ago from the BBC, the satcaster has gradually directed more energy and resources toward original production.

Until recently her efforts have tended to concentrate on factual (“Ross Kemp on Gangs” was an early hit), drama in the shape of adaptations of bestsellers such as “Skellig” and “The Take,” and reality shows like “Pineapple Dance Studios.”

“When I arrived here, there was probably an over-reliance on U.S. shows,” Turner Laing says. “We still want the best from the U.S. — that is a very important category for our customers — but we know that our customers also value original content that is uniquely ours.”

Arguably a turning point in BSkyB’s belated conversion to the value of locally produced shows was last year’s gangster caper “Mad Dogs,” made by U.K. shingle Left Bank. Based on an original script rather than a novel, the show was watched by more than 1.5 million, and drew critical acclaim and a BAFTA nomination. A second season is in the pipeline.

” ‘Mad Dogs’ was the absolute iteration of what Sky drama should feel like — sexy, exciting and with a large twist at the end,” says Turner Laing, noting that Sky is looking to develop shows that deliver entertainment value and avoid stodginess. “It is important to get the development process absolutely right,” she says, adding that she aims to avoid the layers of bureaucracy for which the BBC is known.

Her patience has been rewarded with the once upstart Sky Arts (whose three channels are watched by 2 million viewers a month), which is providing a real and welcome alternative to the BBC for more upscale auds with a mix of music and cultural programs, comedy, docs and other offerings focused on the arts, architecture and books.

But whereas a mainstream BBC dramatic hit will get a minimum of 5 million viewers, the equivalent show on Sky is lucky to get a fifth of this figure.

With increased investment, even better positioning for Sky’s channels on electronic program guides, shrewder scheduling and a still larger marketing budget, that may start to change.

For the ambitious Turner Laing, it would seem there are no limits.

“I don’t rule out anything” when it’s suggested that BSkyB might one day poach a big terrestrial hit like ITV’s “The X Factor” or even, gulp, signature soap “Coronation Street.”

She adds: “We are trying to encourage ambition from our production partners. For Sky Atlantic (which bowed in February), we want U.K. indies to come up with shows that have the breadth and vision equal to the best that HBO can offer, which is a high bar to jump.”

As things stand, a lot of the talent working for Tuner Laing’s commissioning teams come tried and tested by the terrestrials.

Sky’s new sitcom “Stella” is written by and stars Ruth Jones, co-creator of the BBC’s “Gavin and Stacey,” in which she also played one of the leads.

Similarly, the first comedy commissioned for Sky Atlantic, “This Is Jinsy,” features a lineup of guest stars already familiar to BBC and ITV viewers, including David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Harry Hill.

Meanwhile, new panel show “Wall of Fame,” features David Walliams, half of the BBC’s “Little Britain” duo.

“Ultimately,” says Hewlett, “Sky is doing this to enrich (its) offering to subscribers. It wants to be able to say, ‘The best of TV is here.’?”

Hewlett notes the business logic behind what Sky is doing — also familiar to those at HBO: Original content helps subscription revenues by reducing churn. And, as other U.S. cabler have discovered, the increase in ratings also helps ad revenues.

“But there is also a political dimension. What they are saying to policy makers and politicians is that you don’t need massive state subsidized businesses like the BBC — and to a lesser degree Channel 4 — to generate the content that people want and enjoy.”

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