Sky UK is squaring up to Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ in the battle for viewers by increasing its number of original British shows by 50% and releasing a new, exclusive film every fortnight, including a Danny Boyle-backed biopic about the Britpop record label Creation Records.
Fuelled by Britain’s appetite for bingeing on new shows during the pandemic, the number of UK subscribers to the main three streaming services is now approximately 32m – double that of traditional pay-TV companies such as Sky, BT and Virgin Media.
With UK lockdowns pushing up digital viewing by 38% last year, the demand for new content is booming but so is the competition from the big streaming companies. This month Netflix announced it was to start releasing at least one new film a week. Sky UK’s managing director of content, Zai Bennett, told the Guardian that Sky would do the same from 2022 and had increased its number of original films from two in 2020 to 30 this year.
“The primary aim is to add value to Sky Cinema subscriptions,” said Bennett, explaining that the film investment was in addition to the £1bn Sky has budgeted to spend on original shows by 2024.
He said Sky had already accelerated its investment in movies before the pandemic began and had “tried as best we could to accelerate it even faster [and] do as many deals … as possible” since then.
The new films include Creation Stories, cowritten by Irvine Welsh about Oasis’s record label boss, Alan McGee, starring Ewen Bremner and newcomers Leo Harvey-Elledge and James McClelland as Liam and Noel Gallagher, and an adaptation of Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas featuring Maggie Smith, Kristen Wiig and Stephen Merchant.
Sky is also accelerating its move into documentaries. Following the success of Sky Atlantic’s drama Chernobyl it is airing Chernobyl 86, which has unseen footage of the cleanup operation after the nuclear accident. Other new series include one marking 40 years since HIV/Aids was first diagnosed, and there is a film from Louis Theroux’s production company about the convicted killer Jeremy Bamber.
The pay-TV company that the US conglomerate Comcast bought from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox in 2018 is continuing its drama drive with Wolfe, a pathologist detective created by the Shameless writer Paul Abbott and an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. Bennett also said a new series of Succession should air by the end of this year and a second season of the hit Gangs of London next year.
Bennett acknowledged that the cost of all the streaming services and pay TV mounted up for families, so having “something for everyone in the Sky home” from sport to factual to entertainment helped keep subscribers. “Our range of programming is aimed at keeping people satisfied with their subscription.”
He said “exclusivity is a big part of that”, and the original films would be available to Sky customers only, unless they needed a limited cinema release to qualify for an award.
With cinemas closed because of Covid-19, Sky has benefited as major studios including Sky’s Comcast stablemate Universal released films such as Trolls World Tour straight into homes via Sky Store Premiere.
“We have direct relationships with customers into their homes … it’s a powerful thing,” said Bennett, adding that he thought “the old model is going to evolve [but] we absolutely want cinemas back and thriving as well. It’s a completely different experience. TV didn’t kill cinemas so we hope this shouldn’t … either.”
Bennett said Sky’s audiences went “through the roof” last year and the company’s churn – the number of subscribers who cancel their subscription – was at an “all-time record low”.
Although “viewing has gone up for everybody” as a result of Covid-19, Bennett said Sky’s share had grown, helped by the fact it had a lot of quality new shows banked before the pandemic and because it works “quite a long way in the future”.