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Cash of the titans

Cash of the titans

Analysing the Sky Atlantic/HBO deal

Screen International

April 2011

Will its ground-breaking deal with HBO encourage the UK’s Sky — and the territory’s other broadcasters — to increase their own investment in high-end TV drama?

The courtship was long and protracted. But now the union between Sky and HBO has been consummated, giving the former exclusive UK broadcast rights to the latter’s acclaimed original programming via the deal’s figurative love child Sky Atlantic. Both partners are jubilant.

For Sky, the deal makes a major statement and is part of the broadcaster’s refocused emphasis on entertainment. “It’s all to do with how we promote the best of pay TV to our customers,” says Sophie Turner Laing, Sky’s managing director of entertainment and news. “And if you’re looking for the best in the US, that’s HBO.”

For HBO, it brings what had been diffuse UK outlets for its programmes under one banner. It gives the ‘low-
volume, high-quality’ US broadcaster the prominence it is seeking in major international markets.

“You’ve got a powerful, experienced and future-looking broadcaster spotlighting our programming in an important way,” says Charles Schreger, HBO’s president of programming sales. He says he pursued the deal when he did not feel his channel’s programming was getting “the respect and attention it deserved” from other UK broadcasters.

HBO enters into different arrangements with broadcasters around the globe: in some territories it licenses programming on an a la carte basis; in others, such as Canada, it has negotiated output arrangements with a single company. But bringing all of its content under one UK umbrella is a unique event, in that Sky is allowed to call itself ‘the home of HBO’ while topping up the Sky Atlantic channel with other similar non-HBO programming.

“The result is that other broadcasters have really noticed it around the world,” says Schreger. “We haven’t done any other deals like this but I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happens elsewhere.”

Different iterations of the deal have been discussed on and off for years, with sticking points being the range of rights Sky was seeking and remuneration. Neither Schreger nor Turner Laing would reveal specifics, but Schreger describes it as “a very, very strong economic deal for us”. A figure of $240m (£150m) over five years has been suggested. “Put it this way,” says Turner Laing, with a laugh, “when HBO make drama at $25m an hour, it doesn’t come cheap.”

All of HBO’s programming produced during the five-year deal will debut on Sky Atlantic, including the Martin Scorsese executive-produced Boardwalk Empire, the upcoming Game Of Thrones and Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce. Eventually a library presently scattered across other UK broadcasters will migrate there too (the deal allows Sky to show HBO’s programming on any of its channels).

With HBO running a 70/30 split between feature films and original programmes in the US, Sky Atlantic needs to fill its schedule with outside fare too, including the fifth season of AMC’s Mad Men and the upcoming Showtime series The Borgias.

‘Big projects of great scope’

Sky is now also HBO’s preferred UK partner for future co-productions. Previously HBO has co-produced projects with the BBC such as Rome, Extras and The Special Relationship. HBO has already come on board the second season of Sky One’s action series Strike Back, with an increased budget and episode order to bring it in line with HBO’s high-end philosophy.

“If we had something that was a free ball that needed a UK co-producer, we have an obligation to go to Sky first,” Schreger explains. “But we do historically have arrangements with other broadcasters and we leave that open as a possibility.”

Turner Laing insists the HBO deal throws down “a challenge for our team to commission British drama that’s going to sit alongside the HBO content. HBO have enormous budgets and they attract great talent but it’s a fantastic challenge to have.”

With a 160% increase in Sky’s annual development budget in this financial year, Turner Laing has been frenetically meeting with the UK’s independent TV production sector. She would like UK film-makers to approach her with “big projects of great scope”. Sky Atlantic will also broadcast Paul Abbott’s new six-part series Hit And Miss, about a pre-op transexual hired assassin.

“It would be fantastic if we could encourage and challenge our producers to have HBO’s sensibility,” she says.

The question is whether other UK broadcasters plan to follow suit. Ben Stephenson, the controller at BBC Drama Commissioning, reveals there is a new ambition for drama at the BBC but insists that, as a publicly funded channel, he does not feel the need to compete with HBO. Nor is he fazed by Sky Atlantic.

“It’s brilliant but it’s a niche channel for a niche audience,” he says.

With increased budgets for BBC2 and BBC3, Stephenson cites an upcoming year which will see what he describes as “an unprecedented array of drama that has filmic scale and brings an alternative authored vision of the world to the screen”.

It will feature diverse film talents including: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in David Hare’s spy thriller Page 8, a TV film produced by Carnival Films; Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West, who star in Kudos Productions’ The Hour, a six-part series written by Abi Morgan set in a broadcast newsroom in London in 1956 against the backdrop of the Suez crisis; Chiwetel Ejiofor and Stephen Rea head the cast of Company Pictures’ police thriller The Shadow Line; and Jane Campion’s first TV series, Top Of The Lake, a drama about the search for a missing pregnant 12-year-old girl, which shoots this year in New Zealand.

On ITV, Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes is writing a four-part drama called Titanic, about life aboard the doomed liner. Filming starts in Hungary in April 2011 and it is due to be broadcast in spring 2012 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking. Casting was not confirmed at press time. A second, eight-part series of Downton Abbey is also in production.

“We’re not out to compete with Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire because they are driven by American culture, whereas we’re proud to be British and stand up for British culture,” says the BBC’s Stephenson. “Nor do we need to focus on international sales — we’re making high-quality drama for a broad range of British audiences.”

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