BT TV is opening up a new front in the battle with Sky by launching the first AMC-branded UK channel. Stuart Kemp investigates
Pay-TV platform BT TV is hoping that an unfolding zombie apocalypse will help it bite out a bigger share of a competitive UK market dominated by Sky. Fear the Walking Dead, the much-anticipated spin-off show of US flesh-eating drama the Walking Dead, is airing exclusively on BT TV as the flagship drama for the first AMC-branded channel in the UK.
It is part of a wider deal struck in June between US cable operator AMC Networks and BT TV.
The headline-grabbing, multi-year deal gives BT TV exclusivity to all things AMC, the US stable that has showcased some of the biggest and most celebrated series on US television in recent years, including Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
While it may seem like a big gamble to pin a channel launch on an unproven spin-off show – it debuted in the US in August – it is exactly the sort of punt that BT TV is embracing.
According to Delia Bushell, Managing Director of BT TV and BT Sport, the pact with AMC is about more than an exclusive carriage deal for AMC, because BT TV is jointly curating the content. Indeed, Bushell characterises it as a “great opportunity” for a full-on working partnership between the companies.
“The channel will broadly be very similar to AMC US in the sense that it will carry both premium original drama series and movies,” she says. “We will customise that for the UK to make it as strong as possible for a UK audience.”
Fear the Walking Dead, starring Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis, Frank Dillane, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Ruben Blades, Mercedes Mason and Lorenzo James Henrie, is set in Los Angeles just as the zombie apocalypse begins.
Billed as a companion piece to the original hit that has developed a cult following in the UK, both on free-to-air broadcaster Channel 5 and pay-TV’s Fox UK, the first season of Fear comprises six one-hour episodes.
A second season is already scheduled to premiere in 2016 in BT TV households, say BT and AMC. The plan is to use the show’s first season to frame the AMC channel’s launch this month and to prove BT’s drama credentials and its ability to tailor AMC for UK eyeballs.
Bushell and her team emphasise that the channel will be home to other soon-to-be-announced AMC dramas, as well as scripted series from third-party producers and feature films.
This is a big moment in BT TV’s evolution as it attempts to realise parent BT Group’s long-held ambition to make its mark in the pay-TV arena. The deal is BT TV’s highest-profile commitment to exclusive scripted content since launching in 2006.
While Bushell describes the partnership with AMC as “a logical next step” for BT, some have noted that this step has been rather a long time coming.
We think that this is a big turning point for us in terms of the quality and the depth of our BT TV offering
But Bushell hints that BT had merely been waiting for the right opportunity. “There is a clear appeal and traction from premium US drama in the UK marketplace and that is something that we want to deliver to our customers,” she notes. “AMC was one of the first and strongest opportunities we saw to do that with a business that is trying to grow its brand and channel globally. It was just a win-win partnership opportunity for us and AMC.”
Since the announcement of the deal, Bushell says that her team has been approached by more content providers with ideas. All avenues will be explored.
“Over the past 12 months, we feel that we have been quietly transforming our BT TV service by adding Sky Sports 1 and 2, Netflix, buy-to-keep movies and box sets such as HBO series Game of Thrones,” says Bushell. “We are now evolving the BT TV service into something that is much stronger. “By looking at BT Sport and offering a new Ultra-HDTV service, we think that this is a big turning point for us in terms of the quality and the depth of our BT TV offering.
While the AMC deal is something of a coup, it is, of course, BT’s audacious football rights deals that signpost serious intent. BT dished out just under £1bn for two packages of Premier League football rights earlier this year, a cost dwarfed by the £4.2bn Sky stumped up for five packages of rights in the blind bidding process.
It meant that, while the satellite operator got more matches to show –126 per season versus 42 for BT Sport – it paid just over £11m per game while BT paid only £7.6m.
It was the 83% jump in the price paid by Sky, compared with a 30% rise in BT’s bill, which punctured Sky’s reputation for deal-making acumen, according to one media analyst.
He notes that the satellite operator “passed the price increases on to consumers straight away”. While consumers might feel the pinch, Morgan Stanley analysts point out in a recent research note that Sky’smove shows “pricing confidence” based on the company’s “grip on a number of major content strands, such as EPL football, the new output of the key movie studios and HBO”.
Bushell, a former Sky high-flyer who ran operations in Ireland and Italy for Rupert Murdoch’s satellite empire, says BT TV’s strategy is to address the middle market “that is looking for a great-value selection of pay-TV but not necessarily the full-fat offering”.
Others see it slightly differently. “BT is using ambush tactics against Sky and they’re working with the AMC deal, while stealing in to take the Champions League football games from under Sky’s nose and with the Premier League packages,” says one media analyst. “It shows that there is reward when BT doesn’t take Sky head-on in the battle.”
Bushell remains tight-lipped about future deals and acquisitions, but says these will be informed by a strategic pledge to remain “financially disciplined” while striving to continue to be “a consumer price champion”.
In the national press, the battle between BT TV and Sky to sign up customers to service bundles that span pay-TV and broadband has been portrayed as increasingly “vicious”, as they go toe to toe for business.
It may seem like a big gamble to pin a channel launch on an unproven spin-off show
BT has AMC, Sky has a marquee deal with HBO; both platforms offer box sets and on-demand services; and Sky publicly regards Netflix as a service consumers can choose to have alongside their Sky subscription, rather than a competitor, while BT has Netflix as an add-on to its menu.
Both are tablet- and smartphone friendly and both are addressing the growing pay-lite TV market: Sky’s Now TV – a pay-to-play, dip-in-and-out service – is growing in popularity.
Only time will tell whether BT, armed with the financial firepower of a company with a market cap of £39bn (compared with Sky’s £19bn), will be able to build on its 1.2 million BT TV subscribers and grow towards Sky’s 12 million-strong customer base.
But whether or not an army of AMC-backed zombies will help BT TV’s assault on the UK’s 25 million-plus television homes, the battle for subscribers is a gripping drama in itself.