Sky: The Frozen Limit

Try as they might, Sky TV is struggling to make shows for the streaming era. They appear to be doing everything right – importing big name execs; pumping money into their own in-house productions; making meaty, gritty dramas. But where Netflix, Amazon, HBO and the BBC are all doing well, Sky is coming up short. Why?

Sky TV has been at the forefront of Britain’s TV revolution since it launched in 1990 – from its wall-to-wall coverage of live sport, to the introduction of rolling news, to its scheduling of new quality US imports. Yet, for some reason, they just can’t seem to catch a break with their home-grown comedy and drama.

For 20 years Sky has been commissioning TV series. You name it; no-one’s watching it.

It’s not that Brits aren’t up for watching drama. Or that they are so hooked on terrestrial stalwarts they won’t try new sources. Netflix and Amazon are hoovering up viewers for flagship shows like Stranger Things and The Man In The High Castle faster than anything Danniella Westbrook can do with a rolled up fiver. And it’s not like Sky subscribers have turned off, or got disenchanted with linear programming. Two million people tune into Sky Atlantic to watch Game of Thrones. It’s just that they won’t stick around to watch anything Sky’s actually made.

Blessed with the Murdoch millions and a relatively captive audience of subscribers, Sky, surprisingly, has yet to produce one really big hit.

Sport, movies and imports have always provided the bedrock of Sky viewing, but in a world of rising prices, the importance of retaining your IP (intellectual property) has taken centre-stage for media platforms (as Netflix are demonstrating with their aim to make 50% of all their programming owned wholly by the company).

In the last ten years Sky have made a big effort to commission and sell its own formats and dramas, starting with the signing of sought-after BBC exec Stuart Murphy in 2009 to run Sky 1.

Murphy’s era started well. The Sexy Beast-style crime series Mad Dogs made TV folk sit up and take notice. A star cast including John Simm and Max Beesley brought in over a million viewers and produced four series. But plans for a spin-off spluttered out, and a US remake tanked. Success was shortlived.

And that was pretty much the high-point for Sky dramas. Murphy bet big on blue-collar comedy drama, with a slew of prosaic shows such as Trollied and Starlings clogging up the schedule. Some are still running, but none could exactly be described as a break-out hit, and none has been picked up overseas either as a format or an original. Splashy ‘event’ dramas like Sinbad and Moonfleet also disappeared without a trace.

Former BBC apparatchik Adam MacDonald, Murphy’s successor at Sky One, continued the slide with a host of dramas that lasted a single season. Special mention must go to 2015’s high concept satire You, Me and The Apocalypse, a show also transmitted by co-pro partner NBC in the US – achieving some of the worst ratings by a drama for the channel ever. Needless to say, that show won’t be returning.

Fortunes looked like they were about to change, when Sky got on the Nordic bandwagon, with Fortitude. The hugely hyped show opened with more-than respectable ratings of 750,000, and a US broadcast partner. It looked set to be the first solid commission since Mad Dogs. But the hype was so big, that the reality of the show just didn’t, or couldn’t, live up to it. Little of the supposedly huge budget was seemingly onscreen (think Crossroads-style sets with paper-thin walls). The audience tailed off. The recently brought back second series saw Sky Atlantic pivoting the show to flirt with The Walking Dead‘s zombie street cred. Instead it opened to an audience of only 200,000, two-thirds of which deserted the show by episode two. It’s limping along now with an audience of around 60,000.

Hitching themselves to the Marvel/Stan Lee bandwagon fared a bit better. Despite a roasting from critics, the James Nesbitt fronted Lucky Man managed to grow a seven-figure audience and been recommissioned for a second series. It remains to be seen if its second season reception goes better for the channel than Fortitude‘s.

Which brings us to their most recent attempt at must-see TV, The Young Pope. An arthouse cinema director, bona fide top drawer casting in Jude Law, and a stunningly shot trailer brought some five star critical reviews. It was even a big hit in Italy. But in the UK? It wasn’t long before the show was recording an overnight UK audience of just 27,000. (Which worked out at around £74 per viewer, on a likely budget of £2m an episode.)

So why, when we’re happy to watch Sky TV, don’t we want to watch shows actually made by Sky?

There’s a load of reasons put forward. First up, and quite simply, it’s the fault of the adverts.

When you hand over cash to watch TV shows, pretty much everywhere else lets you watch them in peace. HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime… you pay your subscription and that’s it. But not Sky. Stick on an original drama and get a big advert break every 15 minutes. Which is all well and good when you’re getting ITV or Channel 4 for free, but when you’re stumping up something like £100 a month? It does seem a bit off.

Sky are therefore signaling mixed messages about the importance of their drama schedule. Movies and much of the sport runs ad-free. There’s no ad breaks during the football. You don’t miss the important bits of a Grand Prix. Even the oldest Bond movies run without a halfway interlude from Go Compare or the new Vauxhall Astra. Which suggests, no matter how much cash they throw at their drama department, it’s not really central to the business proposition..

This can explain part of it – but not all. After all, as we said, millions tune in to watch something like Mad Men or Game of Thrones (despite the adverts). Part of the explanation must be that the shows, in the main, are just not good enough. It turns out that Jude Law as a hipster pope, or Hooten and the Lady – a lame rip-off of the low-rent 90s drama Relic Hunter – can’t compete for attention with US streamed content.

And why can’t they compete for quality? Most industry execs will point to Sky’s management structure. For example, Sky Atlantic director (former BBC3 boss) Zai Bennett has been promoted to overall Sky supremo – but he won’t have direct responsibility for either drama commissioning or programme acquisitions which, naturally, will hamstring his attempts to re-invigorate Sky. There’s overlapping tiers of commissioners and channel bosses between him and any vision he hopes to bring to the brand.

The BBC has a byzantine management structure but still sometimes unearths a proper global smash. So why not Sky? Despite Sky’s money they’ve struggled to attract the best and brightest. Taking the Murdoch shilling is still thought badly of in much of the narrow metropolitan liberal circles from which TV execs are largely drawn. And the far flung Osterley location, rather than central London, is a huge drawback when hiring talent.

Plus – although they appreciate the cash on offer – top TV execs are also antiquated enough to want their shows to attract millions, rather than just thousands, of viewers. Hence the large number of second-string executives who populate the ranks of Sky, mainly former digital channel bosses, soap producers and ‘nearly men’ who missed out on the big BBC/ITV gigs.

This can all help explain why Sky often seems to end up with shows that hit the screen just as a particular genre’s bubble is bursting. Like Nordic/zombie Fortitude or superhero-heavy Lucky Man.

So what’s the answer? How can Sky revamp effectively? Our solution: get rid of the adverts, move Sky offices to Shoreditch, clear out the executive floors and make shows that can compete with the multi-million dollar budgets of the global streaming giants. It’s as easy as that.

Guess in the short run Sky’d better stick with showing football.

What’s that you say? Premier League viewing figures are down 22% in the last five years?

Ah…