In 2010, when U.K. paybox BSkyB announced it was adding comedy to its commissioning slate, few observers thought the satcaster would end up laughing.BSkyB’s previous attempt at building a portfolio of homegrown comedy had failed to produce a single hit. Yet against the odds, BSkyB now boasts a comedy slate to be reckoned with. Shows such as supermarket sitcom “Trollied” and the surreal cultish “This Is Jinsy” would not look out of place on the schedule of archrival BBC or Channel 4, another competitor with a reputation for great laffers. “Every comedy we greenlit two years ago has gone to a second series,” says BSkyB content chief Sophie Turner Laing. The success of the satcaster’s comedy initiative speaks volumes for how far the BSkyB has come in terms of putting big money behind local fare. “You need a certain scale,” BSkyB COO Mike Darcey recently explained to the U.K.’s Royal Television Society, “and a brand and credibility both with consumers but also with talent, and fundamentally you need a business model that can invest in content, put it somewhere and monetize it in a way that pays back. “It’s taken us 20-odd years to get to a point where we think we have a strong enough business model to be able to invest in high-end content across drama, comedy and the like and feel that it works.” Embracing factual, drama, arts, natural history and now comedy, the paybox has lured A-list U.K. TV talent, including natural history icon David Attenborough, Steve Coogan and John Simm to star in a lineup of shows that are changing perceptions of what the paybox stands for. Within three years, BSkyB’s entertainment budget is set to reach £600 million ($938 million) a year, up there with Channel 4 and above Channel 5, though some distance behind the BBC and ITV. This figure is less than half the amount the company spends on soccer rights, reportedly some $2 billion but is unquestionably a substantial sum. The payback for BSkyB, where the rate of subscriber growth is slowing down, involves keeping existing customers on board and enticing new ones. With new competitors like Netflix U.K. beginning to flex their muscles, BSkyB needs no reminding of the maxim that content is king. Turner Laing claims a 20% increase in the viewing of Sky’s entertainment channel portfolio in the past year, proof, she says, that more of the paybox’s consumers like more of its content. Additionally there is an opportunity to take a share of the distribution spoils of any shows that have international legs. Bizarrely, quirky comedy, “An Idiot Abroad,” starring Ricky Gervais, was acquired by Science Channel in the U.S. Meanwhile, Turner Laing’s acquisitions team remains fixed on bringing “the best of the U.S.” to U.K. auds. As ever her buying brigade will be out in force at MipTV in Cannes, though not even BSkyB’s deep pockets guarantee a 100% strike rate. “I would have liked to have bought ‘Homeland’ (snapped up by Channel 4) but we didn’t have the budget,” Turner Laing says.
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