Sky Italia Programming Head: 'The Most Valuable Thing a Viewer Has is His Time' (Q&A)

Andrea Scrosati

Andrea Scrosati says the 21st Century Fox subsidiary sees sports programming as a "killer application" and that speed is a key to fighting piracy.

MILAN – It was back to business as usual the day after Sky-Italia hosted Italy’s first-ever upfronts to highlight its upcoming season and to help celebrate the company’s ten-year anniversary in Italy.

The 21st Century Fox subsidiary has come a long way over those ten years: formed by News Corp. from two beleaguered satellite broadcasters -- Stream and Telepiu -- that were bleeding money and facing entrenched free-to-air rivals in Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset and Italian state broadcaster RAI. Fast-forward a decade, and Sky is growing fast and last year was the only profitable broadcaster in the country after Mediaset posted its first-ever full-year loss. Based on its plans as shown at the upfronts, the company has no plans to slow down.

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Andrea Scrosati, Sky-Italia’s executive VP in charge of programming and a six-year veteran of the company, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview Tuesday at Sky’s Milan offices to talk about the company’s journey so far, the secret of its success, and the challenges it faces.

Sky Italia now has 180 different channels, far more than any other Italian broadcaster, and at least that many viewer profiles. Is it difficult to take such an array of content and make it all “feel” like part of the same larger whole?

Well, pay television is about serving different targets and so you are trying to create the kind of programing that makes a difference to them. But what we do is to try to provide an overall experience that is of a high level. For example, all of our channels are in HD now. That may seem normal now, but it wasn’t normal three or four years ago, and it does make a big difference. And we make our products more personalized across the board. It’s all available on the go. Whether you want to watch sports, or [reality program] X-Factor, or a film, it’s available on the mobile platform. It’s the variety that is the brand. 

The variety also includes 3D now, and I understand from the upfronts that this is an area that will be emphasized more in the future.

We have one of the only successful 3D channels worldwide. It’s quite unique in that it pays for itself as a stand-alone division. There’s a package without the 3D, or one that costs €5 ($6.65) more per month to include 3D to the option, and that €5 per month is paid by enough subscribers that it pays for the 3D programing.

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And what about sports? Soccer and Formula 1 coverage in Italy are very important. Is sports programming becoming more or less important for Sky?

For any pay TV company, sports is the killer application. It pulls clients in and then they explore other parts. It’s more or less stable over time. But I will add that we have the most incredible sports schedule ever in this coming season; it’ll probably never happen again. We will cover all the 2014 World Cup entirely, with half the games exclusive to us, plus the 2014 Winter Olympics, all exclusive, and the Formula 1 and Moto GP race season.

I have seen that Sky is investing money in developing more original programing. A lot of broadcasters, when times are tough, look to save money by acquiring more programing. But you seem to be going the other way. What is the thought process behind that?

All platforms would like to be doing more original programing. Not just broadcasters: look at Netflix. The reason for that is that in the evolving rights market we live in, you find yourself wanting to own a product completely. When you acquire a product, you acquire it for a window of 12 months, 15 months, 2 years, whatever, depending on the contract. But then that product will eventually go to other service, on free to air, but in the pay TV business we think you need to have a degree of exclusivity and cater to your subscribers by giving them something they can only watch from you. Acquiring content still has a role and we still acquire a lot and will continue to do so.

When there’s content available somewhere else, how do you confront the piracy issue? In may cases, I’m guessing programs are available illegally online before you can show them in Italy.

Speed is important. A good example is The Bridge. We show it in Italy less than 48 hours after it airs in the U.S. on FX. If you wait too long, people who are very eager to see it will find the program elsewhere. Speed is an effective tool against piracy.

So Sky came on the air just over ten years ago [the first broadcast was July 31, 2003]. I remember people thinking it was a bad decision back then, but you don’t hear that any more. How important is this history to Sky now?

When News Corp. set up Sky Italia in 2003 it was very brave. The pay television market in Italy in 2003, was, well, “challenging” is not a strong enough word: enormous piracy problems, big, big regulatory confusion, and so on. It was a big investment, but the company broke even in 2006 and now by some measures we’re the largest broadcaster in Italy. And the people we work with are loyal. Last night at the upfronts, all the talent came for free. Nobody was paid. And the results are pretty cool. [crime drama series] Romanzo Criminale is something we made that has now been sold n 60 territories. And now the new [Mafia series] Gamorra project  got 65 percent of its financing from abroad. That’s a first for an Italian scripted series done by Italian creative talent. Some others may have 70 percent foreign financing.

What is the biggest challenge on the horizon?

The most valuable thing a person has is his time. There is more and more available for them to watch and do. So we have the challenge of respecting that viewer and giving him what he wants. You can never assume someone will watch whatever you put on the air.

Twitter: @EricJLyman

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