Five years ago saw the U.K. launch of Sky Atlantic, pay TV operator Sky’s home for upscale drama series and feature documentaries, which started life based around an exclusive partnership with HBO. The channel launched in Germany and Italy shortly after.
“I think the roots of (Sky Atlantic) is that we kind of intuitively knew five years ago, and maybe even before that, that where the appetite was going to go was longer story arcs, more challenging narrative with lots of heightened textured characters,” says Gary Davey, Sky’s managing director, content. “ ‘The Sopranos’ was the poster child for that.”
The idea was to create a space for that type of show. “The great thing about Sky Atlantic is everybody gets it,” Davey adds. “There is a self-defining nature to that idea. We know instinctively what’s a Sky Atlantic show, and what’s not.”
Davey describes the typical Sky Atlantic drama series as being “kind of anti-procedural.” “So the stickiness (comes from viewers) wanting to come back for the next piece of the story or the next event in the journey of the characters,” Davey says. “The journeys of the characters are probably more important than the storyline. I think ‘Game of Thrones’ is the ultimate description of that — where you have got five or six different worlds, each with their own stories and a multitude of characters, each with their own dysfunction weaving through those story-lines. It’s fantastically complex and brilliantly executed.”
Davey says the change in audience tastes in favor of this type of content coincided with a change in consumption patterns — with more viewers watching shows on mobile devices — and that was a perfect fit for these shows. Sky launched its mobile video service Sky Go to meet the demand for this mobile consumption.
“The brief was to imagine a 22-year-old watching ‘True Detective’ on an iPad. If we get that right the rest will follow,” Davey says. “So it engaged us in a conversation with a lean-forward, tech-savvy, upscale, curious and heavy consumer of that kind of content.”
This marriage of content and technology has gone a step further with the introduction in the U.K. of the platform Sky Q, which allows users to switch content between devices in and out of the home, and makes binge-viewing even easier.
Sky Atlantic has recently added an exclusive deal with Showtime to the mix, and Sky has been ramping up production of its own high-end drama shows, including co-productions “The Last Panthers,” “Fortitude,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, and Tom Tykwer’s “Babylon Berlin,” which Davey describes as “Cabaret” meets “Boardwalk Empire.”
“To be able to put the HBO logo, the Showtime logo and the Sky Originals logo up there, and for me to be immodest enough to say ‘Hey you are looking at the three best television storytellers in the world’ — yeah, that’s where we want to be,” Davey says.
He adds that central to the success of all of Sky’s dramas is the total belief in and commitment to the project. “We’ve got to passionately believe in the idea, passionately believe in the team and passionately believe in their level of passion,” he says. “So if we have someone who comes in and says this must be told, that says a lot.”
The lineup of shows includes many that are partly or wholly in a foreign-language, and Sky Atlantic viewers have exhibited a tolerance of subtitles. Examples include French- and English-language detective drama “The Tunnel,” and Naples-set Mafia tale “Gomorrah,” which is in the local Italian dialect.
“Sky Atlantic audiences are quite receptive to it, in the sense that they know we are doing it for the purposes of authenticity,” Davey says.
He admits he had his doubts when Sky’s head of drama Anne Mensah said the Sky crime drama “The Last Panthers” would be shot in English, French and Serbian. “I think she was right in the sense that those Serbian sequences were so authentic and so gritty and so real that there was no other way to do it. If you had those actors playing those parts in English you would never have been able to suspend your disbelief.”