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Sky’s Drama Department Productions Grab Global Viewers

From polar bears to poltergeists, Sky’s focus on exclusive high-end TV drama is helping the satellite broadcaster retain its momentum in the face of keen competition.

In common with Netflix and Amazon, Sky is plowing large amounts of coin and marketing heft into television fiction. The accent is on high production values underpinned by celebrated writers, actors and showrunners. Often there is a pan-European canvas to work on.

A year ago, Sky’s much-hyped Arctic thriller “Fortitude” was the first show to premiere simultaneously in around 22 million homes across Sky in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany and Austria. “Fortitude” has sold to 170 territories. Work is under way on season two.

Meanwhile, “The Enfield Haunting,” above, starring Timothy Spall, broke audience records for the Sky Living channel in Blighty.

At Sky Deutschland, its first-ever original drama, “100 Code,” achieved 1.8 million views for the local Sky Atlantic network.

With production centers in the U.K., Germany and Italy, Sky’s pan-European structure has provided fresh impetus to Sky’s commitment to original scripted content. It allows the pay box to pool resources and bet on big-budget fare like Sky Italia’s keenly anticipated “The Young Pope,” co-produced with HBO and Canal Plus.

The eight-parter tells the story of a fictional American pontiff, with Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino the series’ creator and helmer. Jude Law and Diane Keaton are the stars. “The Young Pope,” destined for a pan-European fall showcase on Sky, is believed to be the most expensive TV drama ever to come out of Italy.

“For us the breakthrough show was ‘Gomorrah,’ which was bought recently by SundanceTV,” says Andrea Scrosati, content chief at Sky Italia, says. “It demonstrated that we could make high-end TV with movie-style production values. That was something not always true of Italian TV drama in the past.”

Sky Italia aims to produce two dramas a year, but within five years the ambition is to make at least six shows, some for local audiences but others with international appeal like “The Young Pope.”

“Our mantra is, ‘Stay local but look global,’” says Sky’s U.K. head of drama Anne Mensah.

Whether or not flagship dramas, rather than hugely costly live sports events, helps win new subscribers is a moot point. But Sky’s growing reputation for stylish fiction seems to play a part in preventing cord-cutting and bolstering subscriber loyalty.

In Blighty, Sky dabbled in domestically commissioned drama from the early days on air. Back in the 1990s, the Sky One channel even had its own soccer soap, “Dream Team.” Critics derided the show’s increasingly outlandish storylines and it was axed in 2007.

Today’s drama portfolio is unquestionably more ambitious. With online rivals like Netflix threatening Sky’s supremacy, plus competition from deep-pocketed British Telecom in the U.K., the paybox’s commitment to expensive storytelling is set to continue. However, compared with her U.K. free-to-air competitors ITV and the BBC, Mensah’s team is tiny, consisting of just six people. Development is kept to a minimum and so costs are kept down. This year Mensah plans to commission up to 12 series.

In Germany, Sky Deutschland recently announced its second original drama, “Babylon Berlin,” set in the country’s capital during the Weimar Republic.

“We always knew that it was important to create our own exclusive content tailored to Sky Deutschland subscribers, but we have only recently started to go into this area,” says Marcus Ammon, senior vice president, film and entertainment. His faith in “Babylon Berlin” is such that two seasons were greenlit from the outset.

“The bar for high-quality drama has got higher and higher,” Ammon says. “We need to anticipate where the next ‘Game of Thrones’ will come from.”

Perhaps Mensah, who spent a decade at the BBC’s drama department before moving to Sky four years ago, is already working on such a show.

“The worse thing people could say to me is, ‘I thought your drama was boring,’” she says. “Or, ‘It was a bit like something I could get somewhere else.’ Were that to happen I wouldn’t be doing my job.”

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