Sony Pictures Television (SPT) produces and distributes some of the top-performing and most critically acclaimed series on broadcast, cable and streaming platforms, from The Good Doctor to The Crown, from Outlander to Better Call Saul. SPT’s 18 production companies around the world, and particularly those in India and Latin America, create a significant volume of programming in local languages—both original shows and adaptations of formats such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Shark Tank. And SPT is also home to linear and nonlinear brands that have captured loyal communities of fans, including AXN and Animax, Canal Sony in Latin America and a bouquet of services in India: SET India, Sony SAB, Sony MAX and more. As chairman of SPT, Mike Hopkins oversees all these businesses. After joining Sony in November 2017, Hopkins set out to reorganize the distribution, international networks and home-entertainment divisions to increase efficiencies, revenues and opportunities for growth. He was previously CEO of Hulu, where he helped build its slate of original programming and expanded its offering to include a package of live entertainment, news and sports channels. Before his tenure at Hulu, he had been the president of distribution for Fox Networks. With firsthand experience running linear channels and streaming services, Hopkins is now leading SPT’s strategies in content production and worldwide distribution. He offers his unique perspective to World Screen and talks about SPT’s broad output of programming and working with a wide range of platforms in a constantly evolving media landscape.
WS: Last year, you announced a reorganization of Sony Pictures Television. What motivated the restructuring and what benefits have the various divisions derived from it?
HOPKINS: Last year was a transformative year for us. Our primary focus was strengthening and repositioning the company, given the changing industry dynamics, industry consolidation, the proliferation of streaming services and evolving consumer behavior. When I arrived 18 months ago, I realized the company had formed into silos and I didn’t feel they were working as well together as they could. I thought we were missing opportunities both strategically and synergistically, which lessened the power and effectiveness of the whole organization. So we took three lines of business—television distribution, media networks and home entertainment—and reorganized them under a region- and country-manager model. We’re now operating more efficiently, finding unique opportunities to grow our businesses and making more holistic decisions around the entire business. All of this is creating a lot more value, helping us maximize the revenue potential for our content and serving our customers a lot better. It’s all starting to come together.
WS: SPT has a robust television output and supplies programming to linear and nonlinear platforms. What’s been driving this success and volume of content?
HOPKINS: It’s because we have a fantastic roster of writers, talent and IP and that is allowing us to produce high-quality content around the world. One example is The Good Doctor. That’s been a huge global hit for the studio. It’s doing well for our clients all over the world, not just in the U.S. The Crown comes from Left Bank Pictures in the U.K., and we’ve got thousands of hours of leading local-language content from all of our production companies around the world. We’ve got a robust content library, and we are mining that for new productions and adaptations. It’s been proven that there is an undeniable desire for more content everywhere. We are fortunate to have such a great library, talent and fresh, high-profile IP.
WS: What advantages does Sony have in forging relationships with talent, especially at a time when there is such high demand for scripted product and, I imagine, a premium on writers, producers, directors and actors?
HOPKINS: Yes, you are right; there is a huge demand now for great writers! The main strength we have is our independence. If you look around the industry, everybody is vertically integrating, which is a good strategy, I won’t deny that. But I think with respect to talent, and certainly the talent we are looking to work with, being independent allows us to give our creators the ability to sell content to any and every platform and network in the world. They may want to create content for Netflix or a broadcast network or sell it internationally starting in the U.K. We can offer them a variety of options. We can be very flexible and nimble in how we distribute shows and are very talent-friendly. We don’t put limitations on what they can do [as some companies do when they have] a vertically integrated suite of platforms in mind. This is working very well for us. We recently announced our new independent premium content label, which is going to make high-quality content in a cost-efficient way. We are also producing a lot of programming locally with creators in local languages. We are acquiring more IP as well, to go on the shelf with the rest of our library. And, of course, an exciting piece of IP we have in the company is Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters, which gives us a massive opportunity in the future to mine that treasure trove of stories. We also work closely with our partners at Sony PlayStation and Sony Music, who in their own right have a lot of talent and IP that we can mine. We are trying to provide a greenfield for our talent to go in whatever direction they like.
WS: How are you working with PlayStation and Sony Music?
HOPKINS: They both have tremendous IP. For example, the classic and current first-party games that PlayStation makes; there is content there that yearns to be adapted to television or film, and we are trying to find the right way to make that happen. Sony Music has incredible talent and a library of music that, in unique ways, can be part of what we can bring to our creators. We are signing Sony Music talent to TV overall deals. For example, we recently signed Tyler, the Creator to an overall television deal; he is on our lot and working to create content. He has a unique take and is a fantastic storyteller. I’d like to see more of these opportunities in the future.
WS: Games and music often have dedicated fan bases. With so much content available, this must be an advantage.
HOPKINS: I think that’s right. Now more than ever, with so many shows and so much content out there, having something that is familiar to an audience has a lot of power in the marketplace.
WS: In which territories are your teams seeing the most potential for growth in your media networks businesses?
HOPKINS: The two regions we are focused most on right now are Latin America and India. These two are strategically important to us. In Latin America, we have two strong cable networks and we also have robust production businesses. We are working hard to create a flywheel between our content production business and media networks, not only to produce content for ourselves, but also for third parties in Latin America.
India is the fastest-growing, youngest, most vibrant market on the planet, and we are fortunate to have a valuable set of channels there and we produce most of our content for ourselves. We also have a fast-growing digital AVOD/SVOD platform called SonyLIV. We’re going to continue to press hard on the opportunities in India.
In addition, our Game Show Network joint venture (with AT&T) continues to perform very well. The team at GSN has created a game-show factory and is creating tremendous IP in that area that will be valuable not only here in the U.S. but around the world.
The goal for our networks business is to have a well-rounded, defensible, profitable business and those are key markets we are focused on.
WS: And is it fair to say that while there is a lot of talk about cord-cutting in the U.S., linear channels are still healthy in some territories?
HOPKINS: Every country is at a different stage of development. Ultimately, digital and broadband and the applications that come along with them will put pressure on the business just as they are in the U.S., but those two markets, in particular, are unique in that regard. In India, households are still acquiring their first television set. The fact that we have a growing mobile handset market in 4G means we are well-positioned to take advantage of that with our Sony products. We can continue to grow in linear television but also digitally because we are creating most of the content ourselves. We like those markets for those reasons; they are in various stages of growth.
WS: In which markets do you have the most local productions?
HOPKINS: We’re producing quite a bit internationally through our wholly owned and joint-venture production companies. We are very strong in the U.K. For example, we’ve got The Crown from Left Bank Pictures, which also has several new shows ordered at the moment. We have Blueprint Pictures, which produced the acclaimed miniseries A Very English Scandal; Stellify Media, which produces the reboot of our iconic format Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for ITV; and Eleventh Hour Films, which is producing our first spec series, Alex Rider [based on the best-selling young adult novels by Anthony Horowitz]. Additionally, our Russian production business has been very successful, earning impressive ratings for their adaptation of The Code on Channel One Russia and CTC’s The Voronins, the long-running local-language adaptation of our hit format Everybody Loves Raymond.
We also produce about 1,000 hours of programming in Latin America. We produce for our own channels, such as local adaptations of Shark Tank in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil that perform well on Canal Sony in the region. And we are a leading producer of scripted programs for the major TV operators in Mexico, such as our hit series Rosario Tijeras 2, which was the number one program on Azteca 7 in 2018, as well as for RCN and Caracol in Colombia and the key operators in Brazil, where we produce the number one hit show in Brazil, Lady Night, for Globo.
Latin America, the U.K. and India are the three places outside of the U.S. where we create the most content, but those are not by any stretch the only ones. We are producing in Korea and other parts of Europe.
WS: Sony was an early mover in the streaming space, with the AVOD service Crackle. What plans do you have for Crackle?
HOPKINS: Crackle is a great asset, and we recently announced that we are working with Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (CSSE) to launch a new joint venture, Crackle Plus. We are excited about the potential for Crackle to grow and succeed within the CSSE portfolio. AVOD has become a pretty robust category with a lot of competition, and some big competition coming in the future with Amazon, Walmart, Roku and Comcast/NBCUniversal. We see AVOD as a growing market, and Crackle Plus, with nearly 10 million monthly active users and over 38,500 hours of programming, will be well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities in this space.
WS: There are several streaming services launching later this year and consumers are going to have to make some choices. Given your experience at Hulu, how do you see the streaming space developing with so many entrants?
HOPKINS: It’s going to be very interesting. The consumer is going to have a lot of choice between the big bundle MVPDs and the skinnier bundles out there, probably seven or eight legitimate broad-based entertainment SVOD services. Consumers are going to have a lot to choose from, and I think what we will all be watching for is, who’s growing? How is churn out in the marketplace when consumers have so much choice with so little friction to cancel? It will be a very robust couple of years as these new competitors get their services up and running and are aggressively competing for customers. There will be a lot of people signing up and trying these services. And then I see a couple of years where you are going to keep a sharp eye on what’s happening because it’s not an inexpensive endeavor to launch an SVOD service, particularly when you are competing with Netflix and Amazon. I think it’s going to be a boon for consumers, but we’ll see how it shakes out in the industry. It’s going to be an exciting time and also a risky time for a lot of people.
WS: I find it interesting that so many people are moving away from big bundles and cable packages. And then Roku is starting to bundle streaming services. Is history repeating itself? Are we returning to bundles?
HOPKINS: It’s a great question, and [one consideration] will be the consumer price point. [And then] with so many different great services to choose from, it’s going to be tricky to figure out which service has which content—if you have to open up separate apps, go through them and hunt to find your favorite show or the one you just saw on a billboard or glimpsed in a TV ad and you don’t remember the brand it’s on. It will be very interesting to see if the reaggregation of content will happen and who will be the winners. Right now, even before all these services launch, consumers are struggling to figure out where content is. And I think it’s only going to get worse.
WS: I can’t tell you how long it takes my husband and me to find the shows we want to watch!
HOPKINS: It’s a ripe opportunity for device companies that offer that kind of software, like Roku, Apple, PlayStation and different smart-TV manufacturers. They are all going to try to solve that problem; [perhaps] have individual apps that will try to aggregate and [bring] API [Application Program Interfaces] into different services and try to create a homepage, if you will. Clearly, that is what Comcast is doing with its X1, where they are integrating all of the SVOD services and providing that for their customers. I think that will definitely be an opportunity for creativity and technology to try to solve that problem for customers.
WS: I’ve spoken to international program buyers who are concerned that as major media companies keep their content for their streaming services, there will be less programming available for outlets around the world. Do you see this as an opportunity for SPT’s international distribution business?
HOPKINS: Absolutely, and you are hitting on exactly where we are focused. We look at our future as creating great content, getting more scale in our content creation and providing that content to a lot of different customers around the world. I’ve heard the same concern you’re hearing, but as these vertically integrated companies keep more and more of their content for themselves and their platforms, that doesn’t mean that the networks and platforms and local businesses around the world are going away. They are going to be hungry for content, and that’s our plan—to be there to provide them quality content that will allow them to compete.
WS: One last question; my family will not speak to me if I don’t ask you if there are plans for a Breaking Bad movie.
HOPKINS: [Laughs] At this point, I better say no comment!