Endemol Shine Group’s Sophie Turner Laing

The company’s CEO talks about integrating Endemol and Shine, managing creativity across the combined group and trends in scripted and non-scripted programming.

WS: What appealed to you about joining the Endemol Shine Group?
TURNER LAING: Well, several things really. I absolutely loved my time at Sky, but it was definitely time to do something new. When I got the call and was asked if I would consider [joining Endemol Shine], the big attraction was that it was the most fantastic opportunity to bring together two of the world’s most successful independent creators and producers of content. And it was a real chance for me to get back to the international world, which was obviously where I grew up eight centuries ago! [Laughs]

WS: Endemol and Shine were two fully developed, very large companies. What have been your priorities in integrating the two groups?
TURNER LAING: It’s a fascinating jigsaw puzzle, and integration is a challenge at the best of times, so what had to be the focus for all of us in the group was keeping the momentum going. We couldn’t let the world stop just because of integration. So we tried to remove the noise of that—as much as possible—from most people’s day-to-day lives so that our producers could carry on producing brilliant content, pitching new shows and getting the recommissions. The momentum that we’ve seen since we merged has been truly fantastic. Since January 1 of this year, we’ve had more than 350 productions across 167 channels in 55 countries. That’s what we’re here to do, produce content.

WS: How do you honor the diversity of each company and still manage them as a group?
TURNER LAING: Acknowledging that diversity and the very fierce independence of all our labels is our highest priority, and it is our differences that are our strength. I am a great believer that it’s quite rare to find true creativity and innovation coming from corporations. We operate with a very, very federal approach; it’s not about control and command from the center. What I’m really glad about is that I didn’t rush to do that normal hundred-day review of the business, because we’re in over 30 countries. I needed to get out and see what the business was like outside of the key markets, which have traditionally been territories such as the U.K., the U.S or the Netherlands, because it’s a very different world when you’re in Singapore or Tel Aviv. What we have is this enormous scale—we have around 120 different production companies—but they’re all united by an immense passion for creating content. [It’s as if] you’re inviting people to the best party where there are lots of like-minded people and, like your own family, you may not love them all the time, but you admire and respect them. We have some of the most brilliant experts in every genre, whether it’s non-scripted, drama or documentary. For me the key is to make sure that everybody is aware of the diversity here under one roof.

WS: What are the benefits of scale? There’s so much consolidation in the industry right now. How big is big enough?
TURNER LAING: Well, what everybody acknowledges is that you’re either a boutique or you’re large. The middle ground is where nobody wants to be, and it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, whether you’re in retail or media or whatever. Again, because of our 120 or so different production companies, we’re able to operate very locally. If you’re in India, Endemol Shine India run by Deepak Dhar is the place to go as a one-stop multi-genre company. It diversifies in more mature markets, for example in the U.K., where we have 18 different companies across multiple genres. Our business operates on this fascinating local-global axis, which makes us very different from the few other large competitors in our world. The origination of content and IP is at our heart, so we’re not reliant on third parties. Although we represent third-party producers, we’re not dependent on them because we have this fantastic network, and once a show starts to gain traction somewhere in the world, we’re able to send it throughout that network. That means that, particularly for non-scripted, we can get shows to market very quickly because we have trusted, established, brilliant local producers on the ground.

WS: What do you feel is driving the appetite for drama? How is Endemol Shine continuing to produce so much high-quality, compelling drama?
TURNER LAING: The great thing about drama is that it’s distinctive, particularly if it’s made at a high level, created by brilliant writers, directed brilliantly and acted brilliantly. All platforms, it doesn’t matter where you are, need distinctive content to be able to define their brands and attract viewers or subscribers. Drama is without a doubt the venerable genre in that it shouts quality, and it therefore has the ability to be marketed beautifully. Ultimately, most of our customers have to compete—particularly in mature markets—with a million and one other platforms. Look at how brilliantly Fortitude did for Sky and at how Offspring worked for Network Ten in Australia. But I also think people only tend to talk about high-end drama. An important piece for me is that we’re also the producers of long-running dramas that don’t get an enormous amount of kudos and credit because they’re there day in, day out, but they are very difficult beasts to run and produce beautifully. For example, we have Hotel Cæsar, which is the longest running soap in Scandinavia, and Isidingo in South Africa, and to me it’s actually the variety of drama that we have across our group that is so interesting.

WS: How are shareholders 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management contributing to the Endemol Shine Group, and what are their expectations? In what areas do you see potential growth?
TURNER LAING: They are incredibly supportive shareholders. Fox is a practitioner in the media market, and Apollo has other media investments. They of course would like us to grow quickly. Now that we’ve tackled integration, we have a greater ability to lay down our five-year plan. [Both Fox and Apollo] move very fast and are acquisition-oriented, and while it’s possibly doubtful that we need to add more production companies to our existing 120, we will be very opportunistic. If the right talent or the right deal comes along, or if it’s in a genre or an area in which we are underrepresented, we’re going to move fast. What I still want to do is maintain this very local-global business, and I’m excited about our newly established hub in Singapore and what we’re doing in Miami for the Hispanic market. There are all sorts of different parts of the world that are ripe for further investment and development. What’s important throughout is that we continue building on our success in linear TV, while always evolving for the digital future and the new ways audiences consume content.

WS: What trends are you seeing and what are the major issues facing the format business?
TURNER LAING: The biggest challenge when you talk to any production company, or indeed any buyer in the non-scripted business, is, Where’s the next big thing for prime time? Fortunately for us, we have two of the largest long-running non-scripted formats, Big Brother and MasterChef, which, despite all odds and despite viewing on linear TV slowly drifting down, are holding their own year-on-year. I saw the [ratings for] Big Brother in the U.S.; it’s the number one show every week. The Australian MasterChef [has been] the highest-rated show that TEN has had on the network all year. But these shows don’t just get themselves onto the screen; there is an enormous team who work behind the scenes to evolve the format. So you’re constantly adding something new, but there is a degree of familiarity with the brand for both broadcaster and the viewer, where they know to a certain extent what they’re going to get. And because there isn’t anything else that’s resonating as strongly, they are doing very well. Everybody always says to me, Surely MasterChef or Big Brother has had its day? But we continue to add new countries. For example, most recently Big Brother started shooting its first-ever Turkish version. There is no stopping them.

WS: From your experience overseeing the production of The Tunnel, what are the best ways of taking the essence of a scripted show and adapting it to another culture and language?
TURNER LAING: Well, we’re incredibly fortunate to have in our group superb talent like Lars Blomgren—who leads Filmlance—the creator of Bron/Broen or The Bridge, which then is The Tunnel in the U.K./France version. Lars, in fact, chairs our Scripted Exchange, which connects our drama talent from around the world. The Bridge is a very unique drama format that actually has multiple iterations. With drama, one needs to be very careful; adapting it for another country is not always the right thing. However, there have been enormous successes, whether they’re ours or other people’s. For example, Prisoners of War that became Homeland. There is an opportunity to take a drama format that could have been produced locally at a smaller budget, probably not in the English language, to other markets. Whether you can successfully carry on doing a British version, an American version, remains to be seen; it totally depends on the show itself. But the premise of The Bridge is so brilliantly adaptable because you have borders in every country in the world, and often, trouble on borders!

WS: Tell us about Endemol Beyond. What kind of content, talent and creative voices can be found there, and is there potential for crossover from what they’re doing into traditional linear television?
TURNER LAING: Yes, I definitely think there is. What is fascinating is that young creatives are naturally drawn to [the digital space]. Since we need to keep attracting young talent, it’s a great portal to have in-depth conversations with Millennials. Endemol Beyond was only launched internationally in November 2013 and the channels it provides are now generating something like 1.8 billion views a month. So it’s among the top ten MCNs worldwide. Most recently, Endemol Beyond
Germany won the first Gold Lion at Cannes this year, which is really exciting. I’m genuinely inspired and excited by what we can do from this area because not only is there the opportunity of creating MCNs, but also specific digital content that could migrate to linear TV or the other way around. It’s very much a two-way street.

Equally, we’re in a digital solution business and working with brands, so the application that won the Gold Lion was for a Media Markt campaign, “The Big Easter Bunny Race,” which is superbly clever and funny. That sheer creativity of understanding what the audience wants, a great sense of humor and a brilliant campaign, shows that there is a great way of harnessing different enthusiasms and energies from what you would say is old and new media when in fact, quite frankly, it’s all one bucket now. To me, again, it goes back to what is the creative idea, the storytelling idea, right at the very heart of it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s delivered by YouTube or by a terrestrial broadcaster or even by Sky. What we have to do is make sure that whomever we’re working with, we’re delivering the most perfect piece for them.