The success of Sky Atlantic’s multi-award-winning Chernobyl was “a pivotal moment” for Sky, according to Zai Bennett, the pay-TV company’s managing director of content.
“Up until then we’d been making pretty good telly – and we continue to make amazing telly – the year before Chernobyl we won the BAFTA for Patrick Melrose.
“But I think Chernobyl was the moment everybody said: ‘We’ve got to take you guys really seriously.’ We’re shoulder to shoulder with the very best people in the world now.”
To date, Chernobyl has won seven RTS awards and numerous other prizes.
Bennett said he was surprised by the initial popularity of Chernobyl when it made its debut on Sky Atlantic: “I knew it was brilliantly made but I thought at best it might get towards one million viewers, but it smashed it through three and a half million.”
Hits could never be guaranteed. “You’re making shows to ensure your brand and your service feels whole and balanced and you’ve got enough of the right things for different audiences. And the level of quality is high.”
Bennett was speaking to the RTS as Sky unveiled an ambitious slate comprising 125 original TV shows and films this year, a 50% year-on-year increase.
Sky aims to spend £1bn per year on original content by 2024 and is expected to breech that having announced a big push into movies.
Sky Cinema will feature some 30 original movies in 2021 with such stars as Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard and Hugh Bonneville.
The hefty investment in original content is being viewed as Sky’s response to the success of direct-to-consumer services led by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Referring to the glut of shows across broadcast and streaming services Bennett said: “There are a lot of shows being made which are good shows. I still don’t think there are a lot of great shows.”
While scripted shows lead Sky’s commitment to content, he said that documentaries were also key to the platform’s success.
Bennett told documentary makers to think about putting narrative first and to avoid being news driven. “It’s about theatrical, premium experience and storytelling,” he said.
He singled out new films about Stephen Hawking, Tina Turner – both of which had great access to their subjects – and Bruno Vs Tyson, available on Sky Documentaries from February 26.
The success of Sky’s documentaries would be determined not by ratings but by whether people talked about them and recommended them to their friends.
After comedy and drama, factual shows were valued the most by Sky subscribers.
Sky recently announced that it wants one in five of its employees to come from BAME backgrounds by 2025.
“Sky likes setting itself a target and beating it,” said Bennett. “We’ve had (diversity) targets in production and on screen since 2014.”
He added: “There’s no excuse on screen for not being inclusive…Behind the screen it’s the same thing. We’ve all got choices about who we employ.
“Rather than be draconian and to say to indies ‘Fix it for us.’ We need to ask ‘How can we help you? Is it about giving you more time to make show, or more money, so you can bring people on and train them’?
“The way we look at it is every show is bespoke and the solution to making sure they are inclusive is bespoke.”
Zai Bennett was In Conversation with Channel 4 News's Minnie Stephenson for the RTS on January 25. A full report will be published in the February edition of Television.
Watch the event in full below.