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‘Walter Presents’ Host Talks Challenge of Bringing Subtitled TV Shows to U.S., Italy

London-based Italian TV buff Walter Iuzzolino has changed the way a significant number of Brits watch TV with his “Walter Presents” on-demand drama service, which he curates and hosts, backed by the U.K.’s Channel 4 which offers hundreds of hours of top notch non-English-language drama. His hybrid — he likes to call it “amphibious” — brand combining linear and digital play has since expanded its footprint to Australia, and more recently to the U.S. and Italy. Iuzzolino spoke to Variety during Rome’s MIA market about the challenges of bringing subtitled shows to audiences in the U.S. and Italy and how Italian TV is taking a giant leap forward in the international arena.  

You recently launched the service in the U.S. on PBS. How’s it been going?

It’s incredibly premature because I don’t think we’ve even launched officially yet…the brand exists on Amazon Prime within the body of the PBS Masterpiece offerings…but we will also be going out on PBS linear with a dedicated slot from next year. Its going to amazing because I think that finally lots of Americans will be exposed to the quality of international non-English language shows. I think attitudes are going to change so much. When we were thinking about this, we are thinking: ‘do people even care about subtitled dramas’? But then you look at “Narcos,” you look at what Netflix have done and — even at a more basic level — YouTube consumption for young people. People now read subtitles.

Do you really think U.S. audiences are ready to watch a significant amount of subtitled shows?

It is undoubtedly a challenge, but also an opportunity because the UK and Australia have embraced them like crazy…We positioned ourselves from the very beginning that we would be mainstream and commercial. From the start, for me this was going to be about big blockbusters that were getting massive ratings in their countries of origin…not arthouse; not dripping tap type TV. And I think Americans have a nose for great storytelling. After all the great TV revolution — “Sopranos,” Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City” — happened there. And to date we haven’t had any indication that our American releases are troubled by subtitles.

You just launched in Italy via Discovery. Is your “amphibious” model any different here?

Not really, the model in Italy in most ways replicates the one we have in the UK, Australia and the U.S. There is a tie-in and a partnership with a significant local broadcaster — in this case Discovery — and we exist within their AVOD ecosystem…It’s the same logic. We use their Italian linear channel Nove to message the existence of the show. We have the premiere of the property that gets trailers, promotion and the rest…the audience can sample and watch episode 1 and the rest is all available free of charge on the D-Play streaming service. I think it’s really significant that Discovery is taking a first step towards international subtitled drama.

What about the potential stigma against subtitles in Italy, where foreign shows, and even movies, are systematically dubbed?

For me it’s an identical challenge to the U.K. which has a tinge of cultural arrogance, or cultural protectionism. The U.K. didn’t feel the need to watch something that wasn’t in English, and neither does America. In Italy it’s the same…the average Italian viewer feels: ‘why should I watch something in French?’ But I actually feel…I can’t back this up, but I have anecdotal data, that when you watch something in the original and you capture the performance in the real voice of the actor, it’s intoxicating! We have a political thriller called “Sting” which launched a few weeks ago and my mom and dad, who would never watch anything subtitled, started watching it, fell in love, and burned through two seasons in a week. Then they watched something else with the same actor dubbed and said to me: ‘we miss his original voice!” I think the Italian audience — and also others — is far more advanced than broadcasters give them credit for…I think in Italy we will start to undo the logic of dubbing which has been at the core of consumption for a very long time, albeit even in a good way. I have huge respect for the dubbing industry. But I think Italians have the right to watch stuff in original too, if they want to.

Your service in Italy will not have Italian TV. That said, what Italian TV shows do you like? What have you acquired?

When I started about 5 years ago I was desperate to find some Italian pieces that were available. The ones that I loved, like “Gomorrah” were sewn up by Sky…and I didn’t find anything from national terrestrial channels that I liked enough. They felt parochial, quite provincial, super Catholic and boring, quite frankly. I had to ask myself: Am I being unduly harsh?…I was desperate…then about 3 years ago things started changing very rapidly, a revolution partly started by the Sky, but also by Netflix and Amazon…Then only a year-and-a-half ago I acquired by first RAI show “Maltese” which I absolutely loved because while being a very traditional Mafia show it was delicate, sophisticated, very filmic. Kim Rossi Stewart gave a strong performance in it…there was a sort of sadness and nostalgia about it which made me feel this is a superior product. This is an American-style cable product. And it was well received, and to me that marked a huge change…I’ve looked at some of the brand new pieces coming out of Italy, “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Name of The Rose.” It’s spectacular stuff. I think that both in terms of co-productions and local stuff Italy has risen to the challenge. I think 2019 is going to be the year Italy hits the market with big, big productions.

What are the weak spots are in Italian shows? What’s your advice to the people who make scripted TV in Italy?

They have to continue to take risks. I understand that RAI and Mediaset need to hold on to a big mainstream terrestrial generalist audience, I completely get that. But I think that audiences are more adventurous than we give them credit for. So: ‘don’t be afraid of novelty, controversy and new faces.’

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