21th Century Fox’s European Pay-TV Giant Sky Ups Its Content Game

Rupert Murdoch’s recently reconfigured Sky paybox looks to have the makings to become a new force in the international TV drama landscape as it begins to flex its pan-European muscles.

At its foundation are 24 million subscribers and $16.7 billion in revenues created through the 2014 merger of the U.K.’s BSkyB and its sister companies in Italy and Germany. It has adopted a multiterritory release strategy, a la Netflix, for certain high-end (and pricier) projects and, to compete in international TV’s current scripted-content arms race, it has greenlit more complex productions aimed to travel.

“There are budgetary, logistical and temporal hurdles to be overcome before the new Sky can be viewed in the same way as an HBO or an AMC can,” cautioned London-based TV analyst Anna Stuart of research firm IHS Technology, noting that the company still faces challenges as it seeks to become a major player. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t do it.”

Some would say that with competition from Netflix and other pay-TV and streaming services growing, Sky has no choice but to raise its game.

The first big stab at a simultaneous airing of a prestige project was Arctic-set thriller “Fortitude,” starring Stanley Tucci and Michael Gambon, and co-produced by Sky with Participant Media’s U.S. cabler Pivot. On Jan. 29, the Iceland-shot show became Sky’s first aired day-and-date across platforms in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany and Austria (under the Sky Atlantic umbrella), as well as on Pivot in the U.S.

In the U.K., the first episode peaked at 2 million viewers, pulling in more than 12 times the average evening slot rating on Sky Atlantic, landing “Fortitude” in the same league as “Game of Thrones,” the channel’s top show. The show will soon air in a dozen other non-Sky territories.

In March, Sky Atlantic will go wide with corruption thriller “1992,” a program Sky Italy content chief Andrea Scrosati describes as a combination of “House of Cards” and “Mad Men.” The new series come after the 2014 success of Sky Italy’s gritty crime skein “Gomorrah,” now sold to more than 100 territories.

Sky’s bottom line points to the success of its strategy. In early February, the paybox posted its first results since the merger, declaring a 16% rise in first-half earnings to $1.65 billion. The number of subscribers grew by 493,000 to a total of 24.8 million by the end of 2014. Sky chief exec Jeremy Darroch, in a conference call with analysts, underscored the big push in drama commissions, specifying that he’s looking at how they can work across the combined businesses.

In Italy, Sky is closing the script development process on its ambitious “Diabolik” skein, an adaptation of a popular Italian comicbook about a morally ambivalent master thief who assumes different identities. The show is the first joint project for the U.K., Italian and German pay-TV platforms controlled by 21st Century Fox. Also in Italy, Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) and his co-writers have finalized the first scripts for “The Young Pope,” the helmer’s upcoming Sky skein, about a hard-line conservative American pope recruited by a Vatican fed up with liberals, per co-scribe Tony Grisoni. “No one, even at the Vatican, is prepared for how hard-line this American pope really is,” he added.

The show, a Sky Italy solo project, will probably become the highest-budget TV series ever produced in Italy, according to Scrosati, who declined to reveal the actual budget number, but points out that the plan is for Sky to shoulder less than half the cost, thanks to international pre-sales.

Meanwhile Sky’s U.K. cabler just committed to up its budget above 2014’s $913 million investment on original content — which was twice its 2011 spending.

U.K. head of drama Anne Mensah is pursuing co-productions with international partners, building on deals with HBO, Canal Plus and Showtime to deliver larger-scale series, such as its forthcoming heist thriller “The Last Panthers,” starring Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim and John Hurt, co-produced with Canal Plus and Sky Germany. And NBC recently boarded Sky’s end-of-the-world drama “Apocalypse Slough,” toplining Rob Lowe, from Working Title TV and Bigballs Films.

Ultimately, Sky may have a huge challenge ahead, but with deep pockets and top talent, it’s well armed for the battle.

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