Sky U.K. Content Chief on How Comcast Is Fueling Its TV Ambitions (Q&A)

Sky U.K. managing director, content Zai Bennett - H 2020
Courtesy of Sky

Zai Bennett also discusses why the pay TV giant is boosting its U.S. programming volume by 40 percent while betting on Britishness.

Comcast-owned European pay TV giant Sky's U.K. unit on Wednesday in London unveiled its 2020 programming slate, its biggest ever, including 80 originals, up 25 percent from 2019, and expanded U.S. content offerings.

Zai Bennett, managing director content at Sky U.K., is overseeing the programming strategy that has focused on providing something to watch for different kinds of Sky users and on expanding commissions to double Sky's investment in originals by 2024. 

A former BBC Three head and former ITV2 controller, he has risen through the Sky ranks since joining the company in 2014 and has helped drive its move towards more originals.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the slate unveiling at London's Tate Modern, Bennett discussed how Comcast's $40 billion acquisition of Sky in late 2018 and Brexit have affected his team's content strategy; why Sky U.K. is boosting its U.S. programming volume by 40 percent while betting on Britishness; his take on the Peak TV debate; and why big Hollywood and British stars remain important for Sky. 

Sky U.K. has unveiled its biggest slate of original programming ever. How key is increasing the volume of originals and what kind of offerings are you betting on to stand out in a competitive market against streamers and big traditional networks?

It's absolutely key that you control your own destiny and content in this market, so we are commissioning and originating more. We created Sky Studios [last year] so we can produce more ourselves and own those rights in perpetuity. That's the business side. Creatively, we occupy a space that is between the terrestrials and the OTT players, the Netflixes and the Amazons of the world. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest in the world with [content partners] HBO and Showtime. We won five TV BAFTAs last year, more than Netflix, Amazon, ITV and Channel 4 combined.

The quality of what we are making is extremely high, but it's also British, and that's the key difference between us and the OTTs. So, we got the Britishness that you get from terrestrial players, but the scale, the ambition, the sorts of shows we are making, the quality, the fact that they are jam-packed with Hollywood A-listers is more comparable with OTT. That's our place in the market. 

You announced a 40 percent increase in U.S. content volume this year. Is that driven mostly by Comcast content?

Being part of Comcast has been fantastic for us for long-term planning and investing in content. We have used our NBCUniversal relationship to the full and have launched two new [channels] Sky Crime and Sky Comedy. They are both major on U.S. shows, so those are two big drivers of the increased U.S. content, including a huge amount of shows that we didn't have before — things like Parks & Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock [and more]. But we also have HBO and Showtime elements, so the channels are not just NBC-reliant. Plus, we also have our existing really strong relationship with HBO and Showtime. HBO especially is ramping up, so there are more hours coming from them.

You have mentioned Britishness, but also more U.S. content. Is that a contradiction or do those two things complement each other? And does Brexit play into the Britishness part?

I wouldn't put anything into a Brexit context, because I don't want to bore the pants off anyone. Britishness we want to feature, because our customers want to see local stories. They want to see places, stars and people they recognize, and that's really important. They have told us again and again how much they value that.

But equally, Sky has been around for 30 years, and we have traditionally had the best U.S. telly ever. That has been a big part of our building blocks and is not something we will ever turn away from. It's additive, it's about doing both of those things as best you possibly can.

You just ordered 10 new originals, including dramas, comedy and entertainment shows. Is there any genre that has been particularly successful and in focus for Sky?

In terms of original programming, our big investment is in scripted television, and that is primarily drama, but also some scripted comedy. That is our absolute biggest priority.

We also have a really good, solid investment and comedy, but we are not increasing that. That stays steady. 

For us it is about serving different customers. The Sky One [channel] brand is really entertaining and fun. If you see drama on Sky One, you know who the hero is, you know who the villain is. The Sky Atlantic brand is much more chewy, grown-up, challenging, a different kind of television. So, we are trying to satisfy customers' needs and make sure there is something for everyone in the family when they got Sky. The channel brands are really useful for customers to sort what they want to watch quickly. If I want to watch a true-crime show, turn on Sky Crime. When I want to have a laugh, and I like American stuff, Sky Comedy gets me straight there. 

In addition to the recent launch of Sky Crime and Sky Comedy, you have said you will also introduce Sky Nature and Sky Documentaries channels. Do you expect to launch more such networks over time?

After that, I think we will have all our main need states covered and it will be about making sure that they are filled with the best quality content. These brands are hungry beasts, and I don't want to have an on-demand area where people tune in week after week and nothing has changed. There has to be new, fresh content. Once we have these up and running, it will be about feeding them more and more and more.

You have the likes of Maisie Williams, David Schwimmer, Steve Coogan and Juno Temple at your event. How key are stars in the traditional sense for Sky, especially in the digital age where younger audiences often focus on social influencers?

Talent across the board — if they interesting, if they are good, we are interested in them. What you find with Sky is that the pay television proposition means that people are paying every months, and we want customers to have the best possible value for that. And they expect us to deliver them really big names.

What we try to do when we have shows with big names is to make sure we have range in the rest of the cast. In a drama, there are plenty of roles to take, and we are always looking for the interesting, up-and-coming actors and actresses to be involved as well. Yes, the big names are extremely important, because they are the advert, they are the marquee, but you want to be interesting ad innovative, which means you need to have more than that and go wider. And that's true in comedy, drama and entertainment. It's harder in entertainment, because you tend to have to launch shows big.  

How important is bringing originals from other Sky countries, such as Germany and Italy, to Sky U.K.?

We love having Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland shows on our service, they love having our shows on their service. With their shows, everything is on the Sky U.K. service. Some of them work [really well]. Das Boot works a treat. Gomorrah is utterly loved by the people who watch it. It is a slightly smaller show, but that audience is passionate and adores it. The New Pope equally has a slightly smaller audience, but one that really values the art house Italian storytelling. Again, it's about us having a range of options for customers to fulfill what they want. You try not to spread yourself too thin, but because of Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia in terms of foreign-language drama especially we got a really good point of difference.

Do you expect to do more co-productions with U.S. partners?

We love working with HBO, with Showtime, with NBC, lots of other partners we are close to. And we have had some really big successes, like with Chernobyl. We already announced Landscapers with HBO [starring Olivia Colman]. So that's going to keep going and going, but it's on a show-by-show basis.

What have been Sky U.K.'s top original shows?

The current biggest original show is Chernobyl. We just managed to hit a theme of interest from the wider U.K. population. The same was true in America. HBO was surprised by how popular it was, as well. It is a super high-quality show, brilliantly made. We thought it would get a million viewers, it got 4.5 million. It absolutely blew our expectations out of the water.

Save Me with Lenny James is an absolute gem. It's not the most expensive show we have ever made, but it is one of the most loved. It's not always about spending money. That's a very local story and works a treat.

Brassic, a comedy drama that is incredibly local, Manchester-based is our biggest original comedy in seven years. By getting quite local and specific, our audiences really responded to that. 

And Bulletproof and A Discovery of Witches are a bit more high-concept shows, and they can get millions of viewers, too. Our customers like seeing places that they know, accents they know and shows that are specific and true to those worlds. 

What has worked well and not so well about Sky's originals strategy? Any tweaks you have made?

I think we are still on the journey. I think we are getting better at local and specific shows. The comedy is almost caught up, as well. Our comedies now have gotten to the same level of quality that our dramas have achieved in the last couple of years.  

How do you sell U.S. and U.K. stars on signing up for Sky shows? And has that become easier now that Sky is owned by Comcast?

Talent responds to the material, so it's the fact that our drama and comedy chiefs develop with writers and directors brilliant material over years and years. The acting talent we work with responds to the quality of the writing and ideas, that's the main thing.

What's your take on the Peak TV debate, and how does your commissioning of shows play into that?

We have to make sense of every show that we make. What does it do for us in our overall portfolio. Some shows might be crowd-pleasers, some shows might be critical hits, some shows might not work. You have to have enough swings to have a go and have some success. I look at it as making sure that we have got enough breadth across what we do, so that we can have a chance of having a hit. 

In terms of the wider market, shows are getting better, but shows that would have been the show of the autumn five years ago are being launched every week now. It's insane. 

I subscribe to [Showtime Networks CEO] David Nevins. [FX CEO] John Landgraf said there is too much TV, but David Nevins said there may be too much TV, but there is still not enough great TV.

Anything you see people say about the TV industry that you think is wrong or misunderstood?

People say channels are dead. That's nonsense. Channels are useful. They are not the be-all and end-all. It's about the total experience. The channel is a useful brand for getting people to navigate to something or a badge of quality and expectation. I agree with people that programs are the most important thing, but channels are not dead, linear is not dead, so you still have to offer people choice and make things as convenient as possible for them. But the dead of all those things is exaggerated. 

What metrics beyond traditional ratings do you focus on to assess the success of programming?

That someone watches it, and that means watching all of it and finishing the series, counting all the different ways that someone can watch it. That means not just the overnight or even the seven-day, but the 28-day number, including all the recording, all the on demand, all the time shifting. You have to add it all together to get a true picture, and sometimes as an industry we are not patient with this. I'd much rather something was someone's favorite show. That's the most important thing for me. I am worried about people who have a Sky subscription who think it's great and they love what they get from it, because it's got a show they can't get anywhere else — or, hopefully, shows. 

How has Comcast's acquisition of Sky most changed things?

The biggest change for us is that they have huge confidence in our ability to create content and our original strategy, and they are backing us with long-term investment in it. It couldn't be going better for us, we love being part of this group. 

Do you expect to invest in originals in any new genres over time?

Scripted will remain by far the biggest investment monetarily for us. There will be, going forward, some non-scripted programming — documentary, nature, crime as well. 

What's the big takeaway that you want people to have from your big London programming event?

I want people to go home with that wow factor. Because we have so many services and content brands, we rarely bring everything together. I think this is really powerful for us. All of these brilliant shows from America, all of these new dramas, comedies, entertainment shows with huge stars. I just want people to walk away and have the possibility of them going, "That looks amazing, this could be one of my favorites," and also, "Wow, Sky is pretty amazing and is shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world," which I absolutely believe.