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2013 LA Screenings Buyer Profile: Sarah Wright, controller of acquisitions, BSkyB

UK pay TV operator BSky is the largest UK-based buyer of US studio programming and picked up a raft of titles at last year’s LA Screenings for its Sky1 HD, Sky Living HD and Sky Atlantic channels. Sarah Wright is controller of acquisitions and as well as working across the channels is also buying studio movies, cementing her place as the most influential UK acquisitions executive making the trip to LA. She tells TBI about expectations for this year and the place of US programming on Sky’s channels.

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How much preparation can you do ahead of heading to LA for the Screenings?

We’re tracking programmes all the time, but we do an enormous of prep [ahead of the Screenings] because it is so much more concentrated. We do a lot in advance although you can’t let that cloud your judgement.

You picked up a lot of shows last year, how did they perform?

When we look back at last year we were very lucky in that most of our shows are returning, we chose well with Arrow, The Following and others and our stalwarts, The Simpsons, Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds are all back.

Will you buy a similar amount of shows this year?

We’re proud of our ‘best of the US’ programming and our customers expect us to have that. But if the year is not right we won’t buy, we’re not filling slots.

Sky has made a lot of noise about its huge investment in original UK programming, how does that fit with the acquisitions strategy?

There has been a big push into commissioning and we should have both [commissioned originals and acquisitions] on the channel. Think about our success with commissioned comedy and Stella, Trollied and Mount Pleasant – these can sit alongside The Simpsons, Modern Family and The Middle.

Do you take rights for your non-linear services?

We have always been at the forefront of technology and have always needed things that terrestrial doesn’t. We have an on-demand strategy to allow customers to watch content when and how they like and we need rights that encompass these services – and the studios understand that.

Who from Sky will be at the Screenings?

We have Rebecca Segal there as our eyes and ears on the ground. Then [we’ll have] me and head of series acquisitions Lucy Criddle, director of Sky entertainment channels Stuart Murphy and the channel heads, Sky Living’s Antonia Hurford-Jones and Sky Atlantic’s Elaine Pyke, and [managing director, content] Sophie Turner Laing, so seven of us in all.

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A lot of the buzzy new US series are on cable, is there still a place for network shows on your channels?

Network and cable can serve different audiences and we have places for both. Something like Arrow (above) is a proper network show; it’s broad, family entertainment. But the distinction between the network and cable are blurring. Look at The Borgias, which we have on Sky Atlantic – that could have been a network show.

It means there is more great content out there. There are also the non-studio players such as eOne, Gaumont and Endemol.

 Will you have time to see the non-studio players?

We will see Starz, Showtime, Gaumont, Cineflix, FX and others. Lucy and I leave [today] to cover off some of those meetings.

Are there any overarching trends you can observe in this year’s pick ups?

There is a resurgence in comedy this year. It’s hard to predict, but with James Caan (Back in the Game) and Michael J Fox (The Michael J. Fox Show) comedies there are things that sound interesting. We have a comedy Friday with The Simpsons and Modern Family. This could be the year for the genre.

Last year it was acknowledged that Elementary (above), The Following, Arrow, Vegas and Chicago Fire were hot, but we try not to get too distracted by that. We work out a show’s value and we are clear what it is worth to us.

Do you always know which channel an acquired show will play on?

We have channels with distinctive personalities and different needs. Procedurals do well on Living, such as Chicago Fire, Elementary and Criminal Minds. Comedies could go on Sky1 or on Living, which did well with Cougar Town.

And is Sky Atlantic largely taken care of with the HBO programming you have?

HBO actually has a fairly small slate with the originals largely on a Sunday night. We have Blue Bloods and The Following (below) on Sky Atlantic, which are both returning.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D looks like it could be a good fit for Sky1?

The Marvel connection is interesting because of Sky Movies Disney, but we also already have [superhero series] Arrow. The Blacklist, Ironside and Crossbones also look interesting this year.

Do deals get done at the Screenings?

On the whole we don’t do deals in LA, we like to come back and see it outside the rarefied atmosphere of the studio lot. It’s good to come back and see the shows on a TV, you have to remember these shows need to work on the small screen and Sky customers will be watching these shows on their TV set in a living room. And we can get feedback from marketing, finance, legal and the people not in LA.

We are scientific in our approach, we want to see it there and then come back and reassess. But we can move quickly, we’re not bound by free-to-air red tape.

 

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