With viewers nowadays having such varied tastes in their entertainment choices, the head of a studio should have experience in long-form TV content as well as short-form video. Cécile Frot-Coutaz has both. After having served as head of EMEA at YouTube, she joined Sky in 2021 as the CEO of Sky Studios, the commissioning, development and production arm of Sky, with entities in the U.K., Germany and Italy. She is also responsible for Sky Studios’ factual content, portfolio of production companies and the new Sky Studios Elstree film and television facilities. Frot-Coutaz talks to World Screen about Sky Studios’ mission, its strategy for increasing originals, lessons learned from her experience at YouTube and synergies with sister company NBCUniversal.
WS: What appealed to you about heading up Sky Studios, and what drew you back to “traditional media” after working at YouTube?
FROT-COUTAZ: After 23 years, I was fortunate to have had the journey at Fremantle. When YouTube approached me, I was excited by the challenge of moving to a tech platform. It’s video product; it’s a creative-led content product. There were adjacencies, and I had something to bring to it. My entire career had been at Fremantle. I wanted to challenge myself in a very different environment, being in a tech company that thinks very differently from legacy media. And I have to say I had the most interesting almost three years at YouTube. I’m super pleased I did it. I had terrific colleagues. They are great collaborators, and it’s an amazing platform.
But what I found was, and there’s no surprise, I had spent 23 years in the content business. When you are at YouTube, you don’t touch the content. It’s not that I didn’t know that going in. You find out a lot about yourself when you make changes, and you confirm some things you probably knew about yourself. When Sky called, it was the pull of going back to a place that was about long-form storytelling and that part of the content ecosystem. If you look more broadly at what’s happening in the content ecosystem, on the one hand, you’ve got where YouTube and TikTok live, which is increasingly user-becomes-creator, short-form, snackable, immediate. And on the other end, the shows are becoming bigger in terms of their scale and storytelling. It was the pull of going back to that part of the business. It was also about Sky. I always had a lot of admiration for Sky from the outside as a very entrepreneurial company, a very commercial company, a great marketer, and a company that is European. YouTube and Google are U.S. companies. All the studios are U.S.-based, and the idea of creating a real content hothouse in Europe is appealing. Sky is both a platform and a content company. That combination is unique.
WS: Tell us about Sky Studios’ mission and its commitment to doubling its investment in original content by 2024.
FROT-COUTAZ: The way to think about the mission—and it’s the way I thought about it when I was considering the role—is that the battleground today is for consumers’ time. People have a lot of options on how to spend their time, and they also have a lot of options on how to spend their money on entertainment. Within that battleground, Sky is also an aggregator of content. When you buy a subscription, you get your sports offering, Netflix, many apps, etc. But increasingly, Sky recognizes the need to have its own original content brand that is exclusive and part of that offering. That’s important when the customer considers whether or not to get a NOW or Sky subscription. The studio’s mission is to help Sky in that battle for the consumer and deliver originals that are worth paying for. I can do that across our three core markets—the U.K., Germany and Italy, plus SkyShowtime, which will launch this summer and add another 20 markets. That is an exciting opportunity for the group overall to extend its footprint from its current 23 million customers across the three markets to a whole new set of customers in 20 more markets. That’s the way to think about the challenge. Some of the questions we will be answering over the next few years are: What is the right content offering? How do you curate the right amount of content? The overall thing to take away is, Yes, there is an increase in commitment from Sky to these originals because they will increasingly be of strategic importance.
WS: What are some of the shows enjoying the most success with Sky viewers in the U.K. and Ireland, Germany or Italy?
FROT-COUTAZ: It’s important how you define success. There are shows that a lot of people will watch. There are shows that maybe fewer people will watch, but they will be brand-defining. Some shows are more niche in nature, but they’ll do a great job for your brand and a certain segment of your customer base. You always have to be careful what lens you use to judge the shows.
Gangs of London in the U.K. made a big impact. Unfortunately, one of our series that we are getting to the end of because it’s based on books and there are no more books is A Discovery of Witches, a real fan favorite. Our Italian colleagues had Gomorrah, which was genre-defining and an incredible show in Italy and globally. In Germany, shows like Babylon Berlin and Das Boot. And then Der Pass (Pagan Peak), which is in a similar vein to The Bridge and The Tunnel. It takes place on the border between Austria and Germany. All those are big shows in terms of absolute numbers.
Then you have shows that resonate creatively. Landscapers launched before Christmas. It’s a more intimate show but offers remarkable portraits of two very important characters. It may not be as broad as many other shows, but it resonated with our customers.
WS: What are the challenges and opportunities in seeking IP, ideas and talent when there is so much competition and so many companies producing programming?
FROT-COUTAZ: It’s a competitive marketplace. It has always been and will continue to be. At Sky, we offer a unique place, especially in Europe. For a producer looking for a home for a project, we fund the shows, and we can deliver quite an amount of scale. But we are also a European player, so we go about it culturally; it’s a very European way. We offer the Sky home, we fund, we partner with NBCUniversal for international distribution and Sky is a remarkable marketing machine.
In addition, we know our customers well. We have a focused development approach. We are responsive and able to give that clarity to the marketplace. It’s a company that has always been competitive in key areas. It has to be clear about the lane it occupies and back projects. That is extremely important, and we have that ability.
WS: Do local stories play a role in cementing the connection with subscribers?
FROT-COUTAZ: Local stories are interesting. The way I would put it is that you have to offer stories that are relevant to customers, but that doesn’t mean the story has to play out in the local market. One show that did incredibly well on Sky was Chernobyl. It’s a good example of a story that is not a U.K. story. It’s not a German story. It’s not an Italian story. It’s a story that resonated because it was part of the collective consciousness. Everybody who was old enough could remember the event and its consequences. The series had a British cast, and it did very well in all our markets. Christian is very Italian, and I wouldn’t expect that show to travel particularly. But then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have a Chernobyl or ZeroZeroZero, which our Italian team brought to the screens a few years ago. It starts with the drug trade and then takes you out of Italy. You always have a mix of shows. It’s the difference between local and parochial. You can do local, but you don’t want to be parochial. It’s a fine line, but ideally, you want stories that are anchored somewhere, but that will resonate beyond the frontiers of the market you are serving. But then you’ll also have very local fare because you’ll need to supply that flavor.
WS: How is Sky Studios seeking and finding new and diverse voices?
FROT-COUTAZ: Diversity is incredibly important to Sky and has been for a very long time. When we commission a show from a producer, we partner with them. There will be support on-screen and within the teams. Then we have some schemes. We partnered with Netflix on a writers’ scheme where we will be offering six new diverse writer placements within writing teams—three on Netflix shows and three on Sky shows. On the comedy side, we have initiatives with theaters here in the U.K. to try to increase new talent coming forward—and that is racial and gender diversity but also socioeconomic diversity. It’s about doing things and understanding what’s successful and what is less so.
We are launching Sky Studios Elstree [this year], and that’s another place where we will be hiring a lot of talent.
WS: Are there lessons you learned from your time at YouTube that you can apply to your position now?
FROT-COUTAZ: There are many things I take away about how YouTube and Google work. On some of those, by the way, Sky is already there—that relentless focus on the user and the user experience. A product like Sky Glass that launched in October [is an example of] relentless focus on the user experience and bringing the best to our customers. The other thing is data and being very focused on using data to understand the reality of consumer behaviors and trying to derive the right insights as to how you drive your business. I have a lot of admiration for how Google and YouTube are very collaborative cultures. It’s a key part of their DNA, and collaboration is hard-wired into a lot of the systems and procedures. This is something that many companies should look at and take from.
WS: What is Sky Studios’ relationship with Comcast and NBCUniversal? Are there areas of partnership?
FROT-COUTAZ: Yes, there are. On the distribution side, NBCUniversal distributes all the Sky Studios shows. On the technology side, there is a lot of collaboration between Sky and Comcast. Sky Studios Elstree will have 13 soundstages, and it’s going to be a company asset, not just for Sky but for NBCUniversal as well. They are a big sponsor of the project. They have been instrumental in helping us plan it, design it and launch it. I envisage, once we are open, a lot of Universal feature films will find a home at Sky Studios Elstree and some of their series as well. So that will be a very big area of collaboration for us.
The other thing to look at is Peacock, which is already distributed through Sky in the U.K. and soon in other markets. Peacock also airs some Sky shows. Looking at how Sky and Peacock come together as one—to go back to your earlier question about how competitive the market is—the Peacock collaboration is very much part of the plans.
WS: The global streamers are competing for viewers and spending huge budgets. Sky has been satisfying its customers for a long time. Does Sky not have to worry too much about competing with streamers?
FROT-COUTAZ: You always have to worry. You can never be complacent. Sky is an aggregator. There is a real place, especially today, for simplicity. That simplicity is the interface. Sky Glass is a TV with Sky inside, and it provides you with an amazing interface to help you curate your choices. We offer an enormous amount of value-added and increasingly so. The other piece of it is bringing enough distinctive content. I speak from an original programming standpoint. We are never going to be in the volume business. We are in the business of curating a series of shows that we believe will resonate with our customers. It’s a very different exercise. In addition, we provide a range through the aggregation offer.
WS: Finding shows is becoming increasingly challenging!
FROT-COUTAZ: That’s why I love the great functionality of voice search on Sky Glass and Xfinity in the U.S. Otherwise, you are right; you have to go online, find it, and ask, Do I have a subscription to it?