Sky U.K. "Pretty Set" for 2020, Int'l Drama Productions Pushed to Spring Amid Pandemic

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

Zai Bennett, managing director content at Sky U.K., focuses on the 2021 slate as his team says that big international shows with foreign shoots are getting delayed to the spring.

Comcast-owned European pay TV giant Sky's U.K. unit has moved up some shows and delayed others amid the coronavirus pandemic, but "in terms of 2020, it is pretty set" with "a few changes," Zai Bennett, managing director content at Sky U.K., said Monday. "We have moved some things out, actually some things in as well. But our 2020 is fairly locked and looks incredibly rich."

The executive spoke during a live-stream session organized by the Edinburgh TV Festival, along with members of his team who said that big international productions with foreign shoots are getting pushed to the spring.

Bennett said 2021 is where he spends "a lot of time planning." Said the exec: "At the moment we are not saying we are reducing spend or anything like that. We’re definitely looking at the whole scope of what we have got. Is it right, where is everything landing? ... Depending on when we can get back into proper production, the second half of 2021 looks really strong, and our first half requires some more attention. So that needs to be looked at in totality to try and smooth it out where we can."

He said his team is thinking about possible bigger-scale productions in various forms, including "full-scale" and "heavily controlled studio" production, depending on the state of lockdowns.

Bennett highlighted that Sky has started doing some "safe productions," such as Russell Howard's home production Russell Howard’s Home Time, which he has hosted twice a week from his childhood bedroom to share his perspective on world events, speak to famous people and share stories of unsung heroes.

Bennett lauded Sky's "strong spring" with such shows as the new season of Save Me and the recently launched Gangs of London. And he said the virus lockdown has driven up usage in Sky homes. "People are consuming a lot all of the time," said the exec. "It's gone up by masses, an increase of 70 minutes per day per subscriber."

Bennett reiterated, however, that “our sports business is massively impacted," highlighting that the firm has allowed subscribers to its sports packages to pause their subscriptions amid the lack of live sports.

What entertainment are people looking for beyond the rise in news consumption seen in many countries? Bennett confirmed some truisms, such as that people are looking for “something lighter and more comedic or comforting” and that kids content usage is up, with Sky having increased educational offerings. But he said Sky has also seen viewers eat up more challenging dramas like Gangs of London: "It's not just those deep libraries of comedy ... but it's really across the board."

Is Sky hit differently as a pay TV subscription business? "We are reviewing the totality of the business — what does COVID mean for us?" Bennett explained. "2020 is pretty set. We have done a few changes, looks incredibly rich. 2021, we’re looking at the whole look. Smooth out where we can."

Cameron Roach, director of drama at Sky, said the longer production cycles and more ambitious approaches to dramas means some projects are being delayed amid the coronavirus crisis. He mentioned the second season of Temple as an example, which Sky had wanted to shoot this month. Temple is an adaptation of the Norwegian series Valkyrien and first aired in 2019. It stars Mark Strong, Carice Van Houten and Daniel Mays.

"That’s kind of been pushed further out … been delayed," Roach said of Temple, adding that he is hoping to go back to productions on U.K. sets later this year, with pre-production or even production eyed to start in mid-summer, while telling indies that projects requiring shoots across Europe or in other international markets are likelier to now get planned for spring 2021 to be "realistic." "It is absolutely case by case," though, depending on the show, its topicality and production needs, he said.

Does Roach expects changes to drama commissioning focus and strategy? “It’s dangerous to have those kind of discussions" as they can be "reductive,” he said. Sky has “always had an eclectic spread of programming” and will continue to have that. 

Sky's head of comedy Jon Mountague shared during the Monday session that "we are not looking for a show about COVID" and that while audiences may feel they need time for a laugh amid stay-at-home orders, "it’s very much business as usual for us."

Sky U.K. earlier this year unveiled its 2020 programming slate, its biggest ever, including 80 originals, up 25 percent from 2019, along with expanded U.S. content offerings.

Bennett, a former BBC Three head and former ITV2 controller, is overseeing Sky's programming strategy, which has focused on providing something to watch for different kinds of users. Comcast has also promised to double Sky's investment in originals by 2024.

Comcast has owned Sky since late 2018 after winning a bidding war with The Walt Disney Co. with a roughly $40 billion offer. Does being owned by a sector giant help amid the coronavirus pandemic? "This is affecting the entire world. NBCU is affected, Comcast is affected," Bennett said. "Being part of a bigger organization is really great for us in terms of our infrastructure and our ability to respond to something like this, absolutely, but does not mean we are immune from it. We are going to have to make choices and look at things and do what's best."

Sky recently committed £500,000 ($625,000) to an emergency relief fund to support the U.K.’s creative community amid the pandemic, while Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch agreed to donate his salary to COVID-19-related charities for the duration of the crisis.

Sky has also made other commitments to help amid the pandemic in the U.K., including supporting the National Health Service's front-line staff with unlimited access to data and calls, "prioritizing the vulnerable and those self-isolating with alternative methods of communication where we cannot carry out critical repairs and prioritizing the needs of vulnerable customers and key workers through our contact centers."