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Inside Sky Studios’ Plan to Be the ‘Biggest European TV Producer’

Comcast forked out $40 billion for Sky and is now backing its CEO Jeremy Darroch’s plan to turbo-charge its pipeline of originals. It has created Sky Studios and will double its programming outlay in a plan that insiders tell Variety will see it spend £1 billion ($1.2 billion) a year on original programming within five years. Gary Davey, Sky Studios CEO, and Jane Millichip, chief commercial officer, are tasked with executing the plan.

“We’ll certainly be the biggest European TV producer in Europe,” Davey says.

Sky is already flying high after “Chernobyl.” The co-production with HBO won acclaim and viewers on home turf and triumphed in the U.S. at the Emmys, taking home the second-most number of trophies for a series (with 10, including the coveted limited series statue).

“It wasn’t obvious that a drama about a nuclear disaster would be successful,” Davey says. “I was confident we would get a lot of positive reviews, but I assumed its audience performance would be modest. I was completely wrong about that; that was a happy surprise.”

The challenge for the newly minted Sky Studios is to deliver more watercooler series that will win and retain subscribers for the European pay-TV heavyweight.

“The magic sauce is deep local insight combined with the scale of the group. That’s what makes us unique. We can go more local than an international streamer and we can go more global and have more scale than a local broadcaster,” Davey says.

Sky has 34 dramas and 18 comedies in the works as it embarks upon the next phase of its production mission, including the high-finance drama “Devils” with Patrick Dempsey, out of Italy — the third of its big European bases — as well as the Jude Law-starrer “The New Pope,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Its recent German-originated series include “Das Boot.”

The momentum for Studios was built by Sky Vision, which Millichip helped grow from a company with revenues of £8 million ($9.8 million) in 2012 to £240 million ($295 million) in 2019.

“We hit a critical mass where, within our own four walls, we had a drama team with the capacity to make important shows, a channel platform like Sky Atlantic that had the strength to launch a show, and the Sky Vision engine that could realistically forecast international revenues,” Davey says.

Sky Vision shuttered in September, and its well-regarded program sales team was almost all pink-slipped, with corporate sibling NBCUniversal Global Distribution now selling Sky Studios content internationally.

In terms of production, Millichip likens the Studios model to that more often seen in the U.S., under which it can fully finance projects it wants to back. There will also be co-productions, and pod and talent deals are
also expected.

Sky Studios has an innovation hub in Leeds that will unearth creative talent — and furthermore, talent that reflects multicultural Britain.

“We love working with many of the star writers in the U.K.; however, we need to grow that population of talent in both scale and diversity,” Davey says. “The industry hasn’t done a great job of investment into developing diverse talent.”

But why pump billions into originals when deals with HBO and Showtime give you all of their premium fare? Davey points to 2018 stats that show 18 of Sky’s top 20 shows were its own, a roster that included “Riviera” and “Gomorrah.” Sky is also mindful that Netflix is going increasingly local and that the streaming competition is about to stiffen as Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus enter the fray. But in characteristically bullish fashion, Davey says, “Jeremy has the backing of Comcast — I have the backing of Jeremy — so off we go.”

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