Sky Vision chief Jane Millichip is a TV executive who confounds the corporate stereotype, says Tara Conlan
Like the sheep and pigs that she rears with her husband at their Cotswold home, Sky Vision Managing Director Jane Millichip is a rare breed. A mixologist, surfer and former journalist, Millichip has worked across television sales, commissioning and acquisitions. She is renowned for her business acumen and an ability to build relationships with producers.
Her wit and incisive distillation of trends were in evidence at September’s RTS London Conference. There, she warned that drama was in danger of experiencing a sub-prime-mortgage-style crisis unless new sources of finance emerged.
Sitting in a meeting room in the vast, new Sky Central building in West London, she says that some people thanked her afterwards for addressing “the elephant in the room… I kind of feel like someone had to at some point. It was one of those quotes that kind of sticks.”
She adds: “I don’t want to be the naysayer of TV drama. All I’m asking for is that we all think more broadly, more strategically, about drama funding in order to maintain these ambitions. In many ways, we’ve never had it so good in drama and I want that to continue.
“The model is not broken,” Millichip explains. “We had our biggest launch slate of dramas this Mipcom, and we have very high expectations.”
With eagerly awaited shows such as Tin Star (starring Tim Roth), the glamorous Riviera and a second run of Arctic drama Fortitude, Sky is building a reputation for pacy ensemble dramas that score internationally.
“Someone asked me if we’d reached peak drama,” she says. “I don’t think we have, because we’ll never tire of telling each other stories… but have we reached the peak in our ability to fund it in a conventional way? I think we might be approaching that point.”
She is trying to find new forms of funding – while drama ambitions and budgets are rising, the licence fees that broadcasters pay producers are not.
“A successful, sustainable content business needs multiple pipelines of revenue"
“More and more of the deficit funding of the distribution business is required for core funding. Therefore, it is no longer an advance against distribution rights, it is core funding. And it’s taking more of the world sales to recoup that deficit – ultimately leaving a smaller back-end. I’m trying to push up the value chain a bit and look for funders who derive their value from somewhere other than the international pot.”
Having started out at Haymarket magazines on Car and Accessory Trader (“My first published article was three pages on in-car air fresheners”), Millichip spent eight years as a journalist.
At TV World, she found herself “publishing an edition of the magazine which I put Bananas in Pyjamas [an Australian kids’ show] on the front page. I thought: this isn’t exactly Woodward and Bernstein.”
So she took up an offer of a sales job at distributor Intel. She subsequently rose to running the nascent Sky Vision nearly four years ago, via Living, RDF and South Pacific Pictures. She oversees sales operations in London, Singapore, Los Angeles and New York.
The distributor’s revenues have since grown tenfold to just under £100m per annum. Some of that has been via the acquisition of stakes in seven production businesses, but sales at the division’s core distribution business have risen from £8m to £33m. She finds it “particularly pleasing [to be] growing that significantly in a business where our earnings are all from sales commission”.
Around 50% of Sky’s original shows are sold by Sky Vision. Sales are doing well across the catalogue, with new comedies, such as Sick Note, starring Rupert Grint and Don Johnson, performing strongly, as are new dramas, such as Riviera.
In July 2014, Sky Vision took the first step to broadening its business by buying 70% of Great British Bake Off producer Love Productions.
This was followed by an investment in new indie Znak & Co and a 60% stake in Jupiter, a US company specialising in factual entertainment and formats
“A successful, sustainable content business needs multiple pipelines of revenue,” says Millichip. “I felt that, to grow Sky Vision, we needed the Sky originals pipeline, a third-party pipeline – which is still vital to our lifeblood – and our own production pipeline.”
Five more production investments followed, including The Secret Life of the Zoo producer Blast! Films and Sugar Films, co-founded by ex-BBC Chief Creative Officer Pat Younge.
“Even the story about the presenters was completely misrepresented in the press"
“It’s really important to invest in the talent… we are adamant that they retain their own brand, name and flavour,” Millichip argues. “The culture that you foster, particularly in a creative business, is important… We’re engaged with our production businesses, but it’s a light touch. We don’t tell them what they should be producing and why.”
That light touch was in evidence when Love controversially chose to leave the BBC and sell The Great British Bake Off to Channel 4. Millichip sits on Love’s board.
“I still maintain that every effort was made to make a deal with the BBC.
“Having negotiated for more than a year, there was a point at which the relationship had become untenable… We had every intention of making a deal with [the BBC].
“But when, finally, that was not possible… when they still had not come to a resolution at the end of the last meeting, we passed a board resolution allowing Love to walk, which it did.
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t done lightly. But Love had our full backing to do so. We’d spent many long hours discussing the situation. We knew that Channel 4 was very keen. Love went straight there and David Abraham and Jay Hunt [Channel 4’s CEO and chief creative officer, respectively] were fantastically decisive in making Love an offer.”
Millichip insists that newspaper articles painting the BBC as the victim of a rapacious producer were incorrect. She maintains that Love “has nurtured that show through thick and thin. It is a fantastic producer and format developer and has tweaked and enhanced the format brilliantly over the years, particularly in the transition from BBC Two to BBC One.”
She continues: “Even the story about the presenters was completely misrepresented in the press. It wasn’t possible to negotiate with the talent until all the conversations with the BBC had been concluded due to confidentiality reasons.
“Channel 4 knew that and it was prepared to take the show with or without the presenters. Obviously, once Channel 4 bought it, it opened discussions up and we are very glad that Paul [Hollywood] came with us.”
Millichip believes that Channel 4 “will treat the show very well” and that “the increase in budget will be a brilliant thing for the show… In many ways, it’s a reconciliation of many years of the show being underfunded.”
As an internationalist working at an international company, she welcomed Sky’s merger with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia. She says that the broadcaster is now well-placed to weather the currency fluctuations following the UK’s Brexit vote.
Outside of television, she and her husband have been on “a quest to make the perfect air-dried Cotswold ham” and breed Gotland sheep to “bring hogget (it’s a bit like teenage lamb) back to the British table”.
In the corporate media world, Millichip is a tonic, revealing: “I’ve done mixology at our launches. That slightly backfired once when we did a pre-sales launch of Fortitude. I knew about half the buyers there.
“I invented some Nordic cocktails – I’d made up names associated with the show – and was mixing these drinks. When it was time to do the speeches, I took off my apron and got onto the stage – and I could see half the room looking at me thinking, ‘Why is the cocktail waitress making a speech?’”
If her charcuterie foray proves even half as successful as her day job, she could be providing the canapés next time, too.