Richard Woolfe

This interview appeared in the October 2008 issue of TV Europe. In November, Woolfe announced that he was leaving Sky to head to Five.

The British home of American series like Lost, the buzzed-about Fringe and the upcoming Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, Sky1 has carved out a niche in the cluttered U.K. market as a destination for premium entertainment. Under the direction of Richard Woolfe, who heads up programming at Sky1, as well as at the sister services Sky2 and Sky3, the channel has expanded its remit beyond imported fare with a slate of high-profile original content. From the award-winning factual series Ross Kemp on Gangs to adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s popular novels to local versions of hit international formats to Skellig, based on David Almond’s acclaimed children’s book, Sky1 has ambitious plans for continuing to entertain British viewers. Woolfe speaks to TV Europe about the new season’s highlights and his buying strategy for the months ahead.

TV EUROPE: Have you made any changes in the programming strategy for Sky1, 2 and 3 in the last year?

WOOLFE: On August 31 we rebranded our channels, so we relaunched Sky1, 2 and 3 with a brand-new look, which I am very excited about. Sky1 is the mothership—it’s the premium entertainment channel on our platform. Sky2 is our more boys-y sci-fi action drama channel. Sky3 is our more female entertainment and drama channel.

In the past a lot of people said, What exactly is Sky1? What is the channel all about? We are now about five things. We are about the best of the U.S. programs, like Lost, 24, Prison Break, Bones, Cold Case, The Simpsons and Fringe.

We’re about the best of U.K. drama. We’ve announced a significant investment into U.K. drama, and we now have 15 projects currently in development. It’s a real eclectic range of stuff: [adaptations of novels by] crime writer Martina Cole, Terry Pratchett; a reinvention of Blake 7, the cult sci-fi drama; we are adapting Skellig, which is a very famous children’s book; and we have in development for Christmas next year Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—it’s a rather un-PC way of doing that traditional tale!

Then our third pillar is family entertainment, and we have great success here with [British versions of] Are You Smarter Than a 10 Year Old? Don’t Forget the Lyrics, Gladiators. We are currently in the middle of Hairspray: The School Musical, where we have gone to an inner-city school in London, and we’ve given the school six weeks to put on a performance of Hairspray in the West End.

Our fourth pillar is factual, and this is led by Ross Kemp, who does great business for us. Our final area is event TV, and that’s where we do things like Noel’s Christmas Presents [with Noel Edmonds].

TV EUROPE: American programming is a key part of your schedule. How were you impacted by the Hollywood writers’ strike?

WOOLFE: The writers’ strike was really unfortunate because obviously we want to give our viewers the best of the U.S. and it caused major disruption. However I’m a very positive, optimistic person. In my world, every cloud has a silver lining. Because there were far fewer shows coming through from the States—we had no 24 and significantly reduced episodes of our other big U.S. dramas—it meant that I had a lot of cash to spend on original programs, and that’s where we’ve seen great success with shows like Gladiators and Don’t Forget the Lyrics. We now have a really wonderful range of programming on Sky1. It was upsetting we didn’t have the full-series orders of some of our favorite, fabulous shows [but], the fact is we’ve actually created a lot of new brands for Sky1.

TV EUROPE: After the L.A. Screenings, you picked up J.J. Abrams’ new FOX series Fringe. What attracted you to that show?

WOOLFE: We’ve got a fantastic history with J.J. Abrams. We’re the home of Lost in the U.K., and it’s our number one show. When you have a show like Fringe that he is attached to—this is going to be a really exciting piece of event TV. We were captivated by the pilot. It’s about imagining the impossible. It’s going to be compelling, and it’s got a fabulous hook that I think will intrigue our viewers. I was lucky enough when I went to L.A. for the Screenings this year to spend some time with the writers and hear about their plans for the season, and I just feel this is going to be a very exciting premise. It was hotly contested in the U.K.

TV EUROPE: How closely do you work with the studios when launching those big new American shows?

WOOLFE: We have fantastic relationships with all the studios, and we’ve been working with Warner Bros. on this particular franchise and sharing all the assets and making sure we make the biggest splash possible. [The studios know] that Sky is going to nurture and love their shows. We really care about how we market them.

TV EUROPE: What do you look for when you’re acquiring formats?

WOOLFE: I’m looking for big, original, standout, noisy programming. We are in a very crowded marketplace in the U.K.—there are over 500 channels on our platform, so a Sky1 show needs to make a lot of noise. I’m looking for shows that have got the Sky1 twist. I’m not looking for copycat programming. I want to make Sky1 unashamedly entertaining.

We’re very excited about a show we’ve got in development at the moment called Loveland, which is a dating show. For the people who want to go on a date, the way they sell themselves [to the contestant] is through real-time cartoons. The technology is so amazing now that the cartoons can sit on the sofa alongside the real people. I think it’s going to be a great deal of fun. The humor that’s coming out of it is really exciting. We have persuaded Cilla Black, who for many years hosted Blind Date, to be the host of this new show.

TV EUROPE: What has been your strategy for original drama production?

WOOLFE: I wanted to find brands or authors that were well known to our audiences. My daughter is now 19, but when she was 12 she was captivated by Skellig and when it came up as a possibility, I thought to myself, we are in the business of entertaining families. I’m a real passionate believer in that. I want people to sit down and enjoy their entertainment experience together. And what better way to bring people together than to work with a beautiful, heartwarming story like Skellig. We’ve got a wonderful all-star cast which I’m very excited about and I know that they’re going to enchant millions of people next Easter when we premiere this.

We’ve had two amazing successes with [Terry Pratchett’s] The Colour of Magic and Hogfather, and now we’re in development on the next one, Going Postal, which is great fun. We’re finalizing our plans with that franchise.

TV EUROPE: Are Sky2 and 3 built on acquisitions or are you also doing original productions there?

WOOLFE: Those channels pretty much at the moment are fed with content from Sky1. We do have some exclusive content on 2 and 3. My goal is to increase original production and exclusive content for those two channels over the next few years.

TV EUROPE: What will you be looking for at MIPCOM?

WOOLFE: The mandate is as it always is: We’re going to be looking for the biggest ideas. Are there any great formats out there that we should be thinking about bringing across to the U.K.? In my two and a half years here I’ve been very focused on delivering into prime time and access peak, so I’m now starting to think about daytime. That’s very much on our radar. Sky1 has not invested in daytime for a long time. I want to find some long-running franchises.