As managing director of content for BSkyB, Sophie Turner Laing has a crucial role in the company’s transition from being primarily a content aggregator and platform operator into one that commissions and sells its own programmes.
Turner Laing has been coming to MIPTV for 30 years, but she told the audience she was as excited about the industry as ever.
“I’ve pretty much seen it from all sides,” she said. “Every year has brought seemingly constant flow of new platforms, new technologies and new entrants to the market. Great for our audience, and great for us too, because the competition sure-as-hell keeps us on our toes.”
“I genuinely believe that this is yet another golden age of television,” she said, citing shows like Game of Thrones, Homeland and House of Cards as the proof.
“Great content can satisfy our fundamental cravings,” she continued. “Engaging storytelling that captures people’s imaginations by making emotional connections. That’s the reason why people watch TV. As producers and platforms we must never lose sight of the fact. After all it’s the customers that really drive our businesses. We are merely the conductors.”
This year alone, BSkyB will spend over £2bn on its content, as it continues to invest in its historical core areas of sport, news and movies, while expanding into new areas. “Doing what we’ve always done isn’t going to be enough if we want to keep on growing as a business,” she said.
Entertainment is now on the same footing as sport, news and movies for BSkyB, including a big push into commissioning and production, as well as technology to bring that content to life.
Turner Laing talked up the importance of strong channel brands for BSkyB, particularly amid the proliferation of digital TV channels. “A channel brand acts as an important digital signpost that helps customers navigate through all that choice,” she said. Sky Atlantic’s partnership with HBO being one example, and Sky Arts another.
“Our appetite and ambition to scour the world for the most innovative content partners is never-ending,” added Turner Laing. “When I say my door is always open, I genuinely do mean it.”
She moved on to the investment in commissioning and production, with BSkyB on target to spend £600m a year on original content by 2014. 27 new comedies have been commissioned and shown so far, with half being recommissioned according to Turner Laing.
“This is just the beginning. Next on our to-do list is drama,” she said. “Here the key for us is to deliver a drama of super high-calibre, and we look with particular admiration at our partners at HBO… One of our priorities is to commission and encourage UK producers to also think big.”
She added that her stock question for creatives is “What’s that mad idea that no one else was brave enough to commission? Nine times out of 10, that’s the idea for us.”
BSkyB is hoping to work “closer and closer with talent” at the beginning of the production process, and thus get involved in the distribution rights that come at the end – without ignoring formats where the distribution rights are already sewn up elsewhere.
Turner Laing also talked technology. “I always hear a lot about disruptive technology, but is that really the right word? Do customers want disruption? That sounds uncomfortable! Do they want to binge constantly? Sounds life-threatening! Or do they want convenience, flexibility and simplicity? Those are all much better words in my experience.”
And she finished her set speech with an appeal to her peers in the audience. “It’s the art of storytelling that engages and enthrals our audiences,” she said.
“Let’s spend the precious time that we have here this week to talk about the shows, not the pipes. Let’s be brave, take a bet on that creative vision. This is an industry of true partnerships and relationships. Let’s keep it that way.”
Turner Laing was then interviewed on-stage by media writer and editor Steve Clarke, who pressed her on the idea that now is another golden age for television.
“I watched the explosion in channels and distribution channels, and more great content keeps coming. You just see innovation on all fronts, where things can be created on the net and moved to screen, and vice versa,” she said.
Does this herald the death of the channel and channel brands? Unsurprisingly, Turner Laing disagreed. “The percentage of people viewing nonlinear is still tiny,” she said. “I think if you’re over the age of 25 and you’ve had a really hard day in the office, I’m not sure how much you’re searching online… That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively explore and look at what those alternative delivery mechanisms do.”
How many signature shows does BSkyB need? “That just depends on the channel,” said Turner Laing. “We’ve got to make sure that the brands deliver and return. That’s why I’m proud of what we’re doing on the comedy front.”
She added that year-on-year, audiences to BSkyB’s own original shows are up 13%, and starting to rival the big American shows that have been bought in.
The interview closed with a question on whether MIPTV will be here in another 50 years.
“I think MIP will survive… on the pure basis that the best ideas and the best partnerships come from people meeting face to face,” said Turner Laing, returning to her previous point about shows rather than technology.
“Let’s stop talking about the bloody pipes. Let’s talk about the shows, because that’s what we’re all here for! Nothing beats a good conversation.”
Television programming started out as transferred radio variety shows to television. Shows such as Texaco Star Theater got their start on radio and was one of the first US television hits in the late 1940s.*
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