SoHo Q&A With Sky Channels Chief

A year after the launch of SoHo, Travis Dunbar, Sky’s director of entertainment, reflects on the premium HD drama channel’s successes, strategies and significance:

As SoHo marks its first anniversary, which shows have proved (i) most popular and (ii) least popular?

Overall, drama has performed better than the lighter, more comedic series on SoHo. Perhaps predictably, HBO’s big hitters Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, as well as big-budget epic Pillars of the Earth, based on Ken Follett’s best-selling novel, have garnered the highest viewership.

Other strong performers include Hell on Wheels, The Killing, Strike Back, Top Boy, The Newsroom and Magic City.

Series such as Treme, Mildred Pierce and Bored to Death, shows which were never designed to be broad-based crowdpleasers but still have huge engagement from their loyal following, have been less popular.

But, as we promised at launch, SoHo isn’t about ratings or mass appeal series, but about quality content screened in full in a peak time slot.

How important are ratings to a show’s future on SoHo? For instance, will it take longer for low-rating shows to screen here than top-rating (ie. S3 of Treme compared to S2 of Game of Thrones)? Is there a risk of series that don’t rate well being dropped after only one or two seasons (even though they’re ongoing in the US)? Do series that rate poorly have fewer re-run opportunities? 

As we promised at launch, we’re committed to continuing series on SoHo regardless of ratings. The most popular series will obviously be our priority when fast-tracking content.

Some shows abandoned by other networks or unplayed by others who had the rights have come to the schedule later as a result, but for new shows like Girls, irrespective of their smaller ratings when compared to other series, will play as close to the US as possible.

In the specific instance of Treme, we are rescreening the first two series to lead into the third early next year.

When making decisions around repeating content we do take into consideration popularity of the series on its first broadcast, but there are also other factors such as international talkability and award wins for example, and also whether a series is still in production.

We’re more likely to rerun season one of Girls, for example, ahead of the season two launch, rather than rerunning a cancelled series like How to Make It in America.

How many subscribers does SoHo have? Has interest in SoHo grown over the year or did it plateau soon after its launch? 

SoHo has been the most successful premium channel launch in the history of Sky.

The initial subscriber response was phenomenal and showed that we are providing a service that people want, and is consistently growing as you would expect with any premium tier.

That said we never expected this to be a channel for everyone by the very nature of the content, so we never expect it to exceed Sky Sport or Sky Movies, which are incredibly broad in their scope.

Has SoHo’s day-&-date-ish programming had an impact on free-to-air networks? Would Four’s “same week as the States” initiative and TV3 screening Homeland within hours of the US have been likely pre-SoHo? Or are the initiatives reflective of rapidly changed FTA dynamics?

I would say SoHo has had some influence on this, which is also reflected in TV3/Four recent move to number episodes and series in their onscreen episode guides.

But to Mediaworks’ credit, I don’t think that’s anything more than recognising a good idea and implementing it by realising the changing nature of series consumption in the digital area. If they had thought of it first, we would have co-opted it too!

It’s simply a great example of how broadcasters have to offer an increased service to their viewers and subscribers in order to keep them in a highly competitive broadcasting landscape.

Do you think SoHo has made it harder for FTA channels to succeed with cable drama-ish fare, like The Killing and The Borgias, because SoHo has become synonymous with the genre?

While SoHo would love to claim the high ground here, it’s simply a matter of context – meaning the right shows going to the right environment.

With the exception of The Sopranos on TV2 and Sex and the City and Sons of Anarchy on TV3, there has been virtually no long-running consistently high-rating cable or upscale drama shows on New Zealand free-to-air television.

This is simply because these shows were never made as broad commercial propositions to be seen on FTA television.  They are an invention of pay TV and by their nature more challenging in their tone and content, and theoretically more engaging to their loyal, discerning but undoubtedly smaller audiences.

It’s unusual for a FTA programmer to place a challenging, serialised, premium cable show, full of commercials where there are no natural ad breaks, right after a broad-based FTA network procedural, or even broader local reality show and expects concurrent ratings.

Indeed, it happens so rarely that it stands out. [Ex-TV3 programming chief] Kelly Martin did a wonderful job of launching Sons of Anarchy off the back of Outrageous Fortune and the audience stayed.

But, as I say that is a rarity. They are completely different content propositions made for completely different platforms and environments.

In the year ahead, are there plans to broaden SoHo’s programming mix?

SoHo will continue to air the strongest possible mix of drama, edgy comedy, HBO films and documentary films, big-budget epics as well as a range of library content from Californication and The Wire, to HBO’s iconic Angels in America.

It would be imprudent to tinker with the very deliberate template we created for SoHo.

HBO will continue to be the principal supplier and they make shows that are both small and epic in scale, with content that is always challenging, intelligent, provocative, insightful and ultimately rewarding in a way that regular FTA shows can never be.

We are committed to SoHo continuing to be the most unique channel on New Zealand television and subscribers can look forward to some great new content over the coming months, including the new Alan Ball series Banshee, True Detective starring Woody Harrelson, and Showtime’s Ray Donovan, as well as new series of The Hour, Top Boy and Girls to name just a few.

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2 Responses to “SoHo Q&A With Sky Channels Chief”

  1. Good to hear, but no info about HBO’s other series like Deadwood or Carnivale in HD.

  2. I would be keen to know whether or not the next season of True Blood will air first on SoHo rather than on Prime. This show looks so much better in HD. I understand that the ratings on Prime for the last season of True Blood were very disappointing also.

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