Premium international TV drama is having its own golden age, and now factual TV giant Discovery wants a piece of it. The U.S. company is partnering with Britain’s Channel 4 to launch high-end foreign-language drama service Walter Presents in Italy in September, Variety has learned.
The rollout is the first in mainland Europe for Walter Presents, which bowed in the U.K. in 2016. It’s a hybrid service, with some of its series being broadcast in linear fashion on Channel 4 and a library available on-demand online. Walter Presents is also available in the U.S. as an over-the-top service and in Australia through pay-TV service Foxtel.
For the broadcast partners, which are worried about losing audience share to streamers, the arrangement with Walter Presents means having a foot in both the traditional and digital camps, and keeping viewers in the same ecosystem. Discovery is Italy’s third-largest broadcaster, boasting a family of channels; it plans to run some Walter Presents series on its Nove and Giallo linear networks, and offer a catalog of shows on its stand-alone Dplay streaming service, using the Walter Presents brand.
“The ability to strip it from the linear channel Nove to Dplay was what really excited us, … its success in working across platforms and following the audience from one to the other,” says Marinella Soldi, chief strategy officer for Discovery EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and managing director of Discovery Networks Southern Europe.
The move also gives Discovery a foothold in the world of high-end non-English scripted content. Its own modest foray into scripted originals in the U.S. has so far had lackluster results, with no breakout hit.
“Walter Presents is a fantastic example of how broadcasters can creatively and commercially innovate” Alex Mahon, Channel 4
Former Fox International Channels execs Jason Thorp and Jo McGrath launched Walter Presents in 2016 through their Global Series Network, together with a third co-founder, Walter Iuzzolino, a former Channel 4 commissioner and exec at U.K. production company Betty, now owned by Discovery.
The service was conceived as a subtitled-drama boutique, offering “the finest writing, acting and directing in one place — almost an HBO-AMC-Showtime of international production,” Iuzzolino says. “Global audiences are used to the best that America has to offer. Whether it’s ‘Homeland,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Billions,’ they know and love premium drama. The idea was to find that in every corner of the world outside the U.S. and U.K.”
As well as being the name and face of Walter Presents, Iuzzolino buys content at markets and curates the lineup. “It’s man versus algorithm,” he says of the acquisition strategy. “Our curation is human. It is not defined by numbers or second-guessing what viewers want. It’s about giving them something they never knew they would fall in love with.”
The Italian service will include programming from around Europe and farther afield but not from Italy, in keeping with Walter Presents’ ethos of offering viewers international high-end dramas in a language other than their own. However, Italy is traditionally a dubbing market, so a subtitled service will require viewers to change their habits. Britain provides an encouraging example: There was a notion that Brits would eschew subtitled fare, but shows like Germany’s “Deutschland 83” and Spain’s “Locked Up” have won a loyal following. “I think there will be resistance at first, but it will follow the same trajectory,” Iuzzolino says. “I think it will bring real change and innovation to Italy. And hopefully the other dubbing markets, the Frances and Germanys, will follow suit.”
Alex Mahon, Channel 4 Chief Executive says “Walter Presents is a fantastic example of how broadcasters can creatively and commercially innovate.” She adds: “What better way to further build on its global success than enabling Walter to showcase the best of the world’s drama in his native Italy.”
Discovery’s global reach means it could expand the Walter Presents model to its other markets if it succeeds in Italy, Soldi says. “Our colleagues in the Nordics have a similar or more dominant position, and in Spain we’re the fourth-largest player, so absolutely, there is the opportunity to roll this out further where we have Dplay and broadcast assets,” she notes. “We hope this will be the start.”