Content Creators Get Ambitious in Peak TV, but Face Budget Challenges

How do producers, broadcasters, streaming platforms and distributors best take advantage of what is commonly agreed to be a time of peak content creation for television? That is a question the keynote speakers at the Variety European TV Summit will attempt to address when they gather for a one-day conference on June 13 at London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater.

Gareth Neame, the executive chairman of “Downton Abbey” and “The Last Kingdom” producer at Carnival Films, says that, thanks to new platforms and rising budgets, producers are freer than ever to create ambitious and novel-like dramas rather than the artificial, low-budget shows that used to characterize scripted TV.

“There are plenty more opportunities — but competition is massive. Everyone is in this space,” says Neame, referring to the growth in the number of production companies pushing into drama. He adds that rising budgets mean the “stakes are now very high” for drama producers, citing the increasing complexity and scale of productions — which is an advantage for experienced companies with an established infrastructure.

Another key challenge for a British production company like Carnival is that, even though budgets are higher, U.K. broadcasters are not spending any more than they used to a decade ago. “Then they might contribute 75%-90% of the budgets. Now it is more like 20%, 30% or maybe 40% of the budget. And it is up to us to raise the deficit.”

To succeed in a global market, he advises that content creators — wherever they are based — should “play to the strengths” of their local market. “ ‘Downton Abbey’ was an expressly British piece of content that was made to a very high specification that drew on things about Britishness that travel well,” he says.

Sky is one of the platforms that has been driving the increase in production spend as it seeks to compete with deep-pocketed global rivals, and to deliver “content worth paying for” to its customers, according to managing director of content Gary Davey.

Sky has 32 original productions on air this year in the U.K., with 52 across the wider group in Europe. “We’ve been talking for a long time about growing our investment in original content,” says Davey. “The reason why is pretty simple — eight out of our top 10 shows this year across Europe were Sky originals.” They include shows such as “Riviera” and “Tin Star,” as well as “Das Boot” in Germany and “Gomorrah” in Italy. The two “outliers” — or non-Sky originals — are “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Doctor.”

Customers, he adds, ascribe “greater value” to drama and comedy than unscripted, so Sky has considerably reduced the 400 hours of unscripted it was producing three years ago to focus on the two scripted genres.

Sky’s strategy in a crowded marketplace, says Davey, can be summed up as follows: “We want to be more audacious than local TV, and more local than OTT.”

It’s a strategy that seems to be working: the pay TV operator recently won five awards at the 2019 BAFTAs, including best miniseries for “Patrick Melrose” and best comedy for “Sally4Ever.” Sky’s latest drama, “Chernobyl,” is also wowing critics and brought in audiences of more 1.5 million before the end of its first week. It airs on HBO in the U.S.

“I cannot imagine five years ago a production like ‘Chernobyl’ achieving anything like that level of success,” says Davey.

Customers, he says, are now prepared to engage with different kinds of content much more than they used to.

“Patrick Melrose” — a dark story about childhood abuse and addiction — is another case in point.

Commissioning decisions, explains Davey, are not necessarily as scientific at Sky as outsiders might think. “ ‘Patrick Melrose’ was a beautiful piece of writing which attracted the interest of one of Britain’s greatest actors [Benedict Cumberbatch]. That is what got it made.” Sky, he says, is happy to back prestigious projects for which it has modest audience expectations, alongside shows it hopes will attract broad audiences like “Bulletproof” and “Riviera.”

What binds them all, though, is the level of ambition — and budget levels.

“We have created a monster in terms of customer expectation,” adds Davey. “The days of cutting corners on a production are well gone. That is keeping costs high. Because if our customers want high-quality content, that is where we’ve got to be.”

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