Gary Davey, the CEO of Sky Studios, has ruled out signing deals with talent as he stressed the primacy of strong stories following hits like Chernobyl and I Hate Suzie.
He said he would not emulate Netflix and Amazon who had respectively agreed exclusive contracts with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
“The idea of having a talent deal is dangerous,” said Davey, who singled out Sky’s I Hate Suzie, HBO's The Undoing and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit as among his favourite current shows.
“What matters first is the story and then finding the right people - whether it’s the writers, producers, directors, cinematographers.
“I just worry about the idea of having a commitment to on-camera talent and scrambling around trying to find a project to fit.
“That seems to be arse-backwards and risky. We much prefer an organic approach to development where we start with the story outline and spend an enormous amount of time getting scripts right working closely with great writing teams.
“We then attach directors and cinematographers and on-camera talent.
“It might be an old-fashioned approach, but I think that’s the one that works best.”
He added that pairing writer Lucy Prebble with Billie Piper for I Hate Suzie proved the wisdom of this way of working.
Davey described I Hate Suzie as “a masterclass in anxiety” insisting that signing up Piper before Sky had the story was not the way to go.
He also stressed the importance of pleasing Sky’s subscribers, a point borne out in a three-legged stool he keeps in his office. One leg has the word content printed on it while the others have innovation and service written on them.
“It sounds trite, but those three things are unique to the DNA of Sky. Early on we identified that our customers love big, ambitious drama – big in terms of scale, ideas and budgets.
“We could see the appetite for this kind of content growing, even though a lot of our customers also have Netflix, Amazon and of course the BBC is still delivering fantastic drama.
“The appetite doesn’t seem to be waning. A company like Sky needs to make a bit of a declaration of independence from the traditional Hollywood studio suppliers.
“It was vital we achieved a critical mass of high-quality original content that was targeted at our customers.
“We’re not making our shows for the world market. If our shows reach the world market, that’s incidental to the core mission to serve the Sky customer base.”
Increasingly Sky was “a sophisticated aggregator of content” providing access to the likes of Netflix et al.
“It’s all about the customer experience so Sky shows have to compete with BBC, ITV and Netflix shows and the customer decides.
“It’s the most incredible, dangerous democracy that God ever created and it’s brutal. Our customers will abandon shows quickly if they don’t like them.
“It keeps us on our toes in what we’re choosing to make, how we make it and how we encourage customer engagement.”
Gangs of London had been a big hit for Sky and was selling well internationally.
Davey said that Chernobyl was always going to be a hard act to follow but Sky had managed it with Gangs.
He recalled: “Chernobyl wasn’t a great idea. I remember trying to pitch it to my bosses. They said ‘You want to make a drama out of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? Really?’ But having read the script…You can’t make a great TV show with a poor script.
“But there’s (also) the last 25% - the magic that can only happen on the set. This is the genius of Jane Featherstone, to bring those people together – cast and crew, the designers…The infinite number of things that can go wrong.
“When it all coalesces, that’s when you create something special.”
The multi award-winning Chernobyl showed up the irrelevance of overnight viewing figures, he continued.
“The first episode was watched by only 260,000 viewers but within seven days it was in the millions.”
He said that when the UK went into lockdown in March production was halted on 29 Sky Studios series.
Shooting began again in June. “We’re now back in full flight,” Davey explained.
Gary Davey, CEO of Sky Studios, was in conversation with Kirsty Wark, part of the RTS Digital Convention sponsored by YouTube. A full report will be published in the December-January edition of Television.