“This has been a hell of a year,” Gary Davey, CEO of Sky Studios, the production arm of Comcast-owned European pay-TV operator Sky, said Wednesday, contemplating the carnage caused by COVID. Davey said it was “the most challenging year” he’d had since 1985, the year he launched Sky Channel.
Sky Studios, which was set up a year ago, had to close down 29 productions because of the pandemic, and has so far managed to get nine back into production. The company is now making contingency plans just in case there is a spike in COVID infections later this year.
Davey, who was on a Zoom call with members of the U.K.’s Broadcasting Press Guild, alongside Jane Millichip, Sky Studios’ chief commercial officer, said the order in which shows are being put back into production is primarily driven by their delivery dates and the needs of the programming schedule.
It has been mainly comedies that have gone back into production first and in September some of the upscale drama productions, like “Britannia” and “A Discovery of Witches,” will also resume their shoots.
The company isn’t dropping its guard though, and is being “cautious,” just in case there is “a second wave of COVID,” Davey said.
“We are working on the assumption that COVID will come back in the winter,” he said. “We are not experts on medicine, but it is prudent to do that because having to shut down a big production again mid-shoot would be really quite catastrophic.”
In order to be prepared for that eventuality, Sky Studios has been adjusting its approach to production.
“It’s been a really interesting exercise to rethink the editorial of all of the shows, especially the bigger shows. So, for example, we have rethought the number of episodes, and had a good look at the editorial to figure out if there were a crisis is there a way of rounding the story out early.”
“So if it is a 10-episode production is there a way of managing the script in such a way that, if you had to, could you get out after six [episodes]?”
Referring to the ongoing threat of COVID, Millichip added: “We are learning to live with this […] We are planning for the long haul, so we are able to continue to produce if there are spikes [in infection rates], and to produce safely.”
The industry has learned a number of “profound” longer-term lessons from the pandemic. “We saw immediately, from the moment of the shutdown, the vulnerability in our freelance community,” Davey said. “That was really quite shocking how quickly that became an issue, and kind of shameful that we hadn’t really thought that through.”
He added: “There have been some very interesting positives that have come out of this. One is that every producer and director is now much more forensic on production planning.”
The COVID production protocols have made production more expensive, with more shoot days needed, for one thing. But because of “the demands for more forensic planning, everybody suddenly took a much more detailed look at how many people we really need on the studio floor,” he said. As a result, crew sizes have been reduced as “there is a more efficient approach to who goes on the studio floor.”
Asked if the additional production costs had been absorbed by Sky Studios, Millichip said: “We are sharing the burden.”
Millichip said the pandemic had “raised a lot of questions.” One of which is that “the TV business was very reliant on a just in time delivery mechanism with a lot of big shows delivering very close to their planned air date, and that has given us all pause for thought around planning, and do we produce further in advance?”
Davey paid credit to his colleagues at the company in these trying times. “Sky is at its best when everybody pitches in in a difficult situation,” he said.