Sky’s Katie Keenan, RTÉ’s Dermot Horan, MultiChoice’s Waldimar Pelser, TV 2 Denmark’s Lars Erik Nielsen and SVT’s Karolina Stallwood shared their scripted acquisition wish lists as the TV Drama Festival kicked off today.
Our trademark virtual conference opening session on leading program buyers featured Keenan, Sky’s group director of acquisitions for the U.K., Ireland and Europe; Horan, director of acquisitions and co-productions at Ireland’s RTÉ; Pelser, channel director for premium channels at MultiChoice in South Africa; Stallwood, the head of SVT International at the public-service broadcaster in Sweden; and Nielsen, acquisitions executive at TV 2 Denmark. You can watch the session, moderated by World Screen’s Kristin Brzoznowski, here.
“There is a lot of drama content” across the Sky portfolio of channels, Keenan observed, including the all-drama channel Sky Atlantic; the all-acquisitions Sky Witness, featuring procedurals, mainly from the U.S.; and Sky Max. “Sky has a healthy appetite for content from across the world. And there is a real focus for us to bring the best of the U.S. content. And that’s always been one of Sky’s UPSs.”
Pubcaster RTÉ is at “record” levels for drama commissions, Horan said, with over 42 hours of Irish scripted this year, “but that isn’t enough for our audience on linear or our increasingly important audience on the RTÉ Player, our BVOD service. We are always reliant on quality international drama,” largely from English-language markets, he noted. “Not just North America but the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
Nielsen similarly acquires for a portfolio of channels. Acquired drama only accounts for about a small percent of the schedule on the main channel, with about 36 percent of that from the U.S. TV 2 Charlie is about 70 percent drama, most of it acquired from the U.K. and Germany.
“On the drama side, we tend to do around six commissioned projects a year, and on the acquired side, we buy around 500 hours,” said Stallwood of her remit at SVT. “We buy from all over the world. We don’t have that much U.S. content at the moment. The U.K. is our biggest provider, but we also buy from Europe and Australia. We always have a lot of need for new acquired drama.”
Local content remains key to the MultiChoice services M-Net and Showmax, Pelser said, “but we acquire liberally, mostly from the U.S. Of the top 20 scripted shows in the U.S. last year, we picked up every one of them for M-Net. We have some appetite for indie acquisitions, including U.K. suppliers like the BBC and ITV Studios, but these would go to later-night, marginal slots. For Showmax, our streaming service, our international content is sourced mostly from the U.S. and our major studio output deals.”
As a pay-TV operator, Sky has to acquire content that its customers will see value in; that’s the topline remit. Beyond that, the needs depend on the channel brands themselves. “We’re very lucky to be able to pick a real range of drama content for our customers, knowing that we have such a wide variety of brands across Sky,” Keenan said.
For Horan, a priority now is buying for RTÉ’s VOD service. “Often with returning series, if you’re buying a series three, you will want to have series one and two available for VOD, and you might launch those series one or two weeks ahead of the new series. The RTÉ Player has a sweet spot of 35- to 44-year-olds, slightly more female than male. We’re buying content for that age group.”
Horan also looks at who the commissioning broadcaster is on a show in making acquisition decisions, noting that if a drama was made for and did well on another pubcaster, there’s a good chance it will also work for RTÉ.
Nielsen said that blue-sky crime and procedurals lead the drama needs at TV 2 Charlie. “I’m looking for likable characters, heroes that you want to root for and coherent storylines that are not too complicated. Maybe a more laid-back viewing of drama.”
At SVT, meanwhile, the first filter is meeting its public-service remit, Stallwood explained. “We always look at the commissioned drama slate to ensure that we complement it and the rest of the content on all our platforms. Thirdly, we spend a lot of time trying to understand our audience. The Nordics are quite far ahead with how the audience behaves. It’s a very picky audience, and there’s a lot of content and a high willingness to pay for content. We need to understand what need we fill. The strategy for us is twofold. We have the linear channel, which is declining, which is happening all over the world. The focus for us is to keep that decline to a minimum. Acquired drama works well in linear still. But the main focus for the whole company is to increase the audience on SVT Play, our free-to-air streaming platform. The biggest challenge is under 40s. They’re elusive. Our main focus is to get them to become loyal users of SVT Play.”
At Multichoice, U.S. procedurals are essential for linear, Pelser noted, along with “family-friendly, optimistic, warm, authentic drama.” Similar rules apply to Showmax, “but there’s a higher risk appetite to look for drama that tests the audience. This audience is often subscribers to other streaming services, so they’re trained to consume across genres.”
As for current wish lists, Keenan highlighted “the ability for those shows to cut through in awareness and talkability. We’re always buying the very best within the market. That leans into the fact that we’re a pay-TV platform. Talent is key, and larger-than-life characters. The shows that sit outside the procedural brands that we have, they have to wow our customers.”
Horan explained that at RTÉ, “we have to prove to the license fee payer that we’re value for money and they’re getting very high quality for their value for money. We need to make sure that what we buy complements what we commission. We’re also looking for little stand-out shows that can do particularly well on the RTÉ Player.”
Horan has also seen an appetite for half-hour dramas. “In the past, people maybe spent three hours a day just sitting back on their sofa watching telly. That no longer applies. People watch more audiovisual content than ever before, but a lot of that is watching YouTube and looking at social media during the day. When you’re ready to sit down to watch, you might only have about 90 minutes. That 90 minutes could be a drama followed by a half hour, or it could be three little half-hours. We’re conscious that that’s the amount of time people have and you have to be able to give them a treat. That’s why drama is so important. That’s why the SVODs and the pay platforms put a lot of time, effort and money into drama and why we have to do the same.”
Stallwood is always searching for “must-see television; we need big, high-quality shows with great talent. But being public-service, we also have the luxury to try new and innovative formats with new talent.”
British crime has been doing well for SVT on both linear and streaming, Stallwood said. “We’re always on the lookout for the next big British long-running crime series.”
M-Net viewers “expect that we’ll bring them first-run series that have not been available in any of the territories we serve,” Pelser said. “Plus, it’s the best of the best. On Showmax, again, [audiences] expect that when the Emmys are awarded, most of the scripted winners will have been on Showmax.”
The session wrapped with a conversation about exclusivity. For Sky, it’s critical, Keenan said. “For first-run content, we wouldn’t consider anything that isn’t exclusive for our customers. That’s a red line for us.”
For first run, exclusivity does remain paramount, Horan noted. “Where things are getting a bit more malleable and flexible is on the second runs and earlier series. There will be library series that we pick up, Irish dramas, where we would cohabit often with the likes of Netflix or Amazon. In the library world, we can be non-exclusive.”
“We don’t have infinite funds,” Nielsen said of TV 2 Denmark. “We try to work with co-exclusivity. But of course, if we pay a premium price for a drama, we want exclusivity in Denmark. But I’m not afraid of second windowing. If a show hasn’t been widespread among our audience, it will find a new life on our services.”
“Exclusivity is key to us as well,” Stallwood said. “We need to justify every single penny of the taxpayer’s money. I’m not opposed to second windows. When we do choose second windows, we do so with great care. It has to be a strategic purpose for us to choose them.”
M-Net viewers also expect exclusive content, Pelser said. “We only do first-run series on an exclusive basis. Showmax carries a lot of exclusive content. That content enjoys the strongest marketing support when it is exclusive. There is some library content there as well, which we would share. We hope we don’t reach a point where exclusivity becomes a luxury, but it remains key in our strategic positioning.”