Entertainment

How SkyShowtime’s CEO Aims to Shake Up the European Streaming Landscape – The Hollywood Reporter

It’s showtime for SkyShowtime.

The European streaming joint venture of Comcast and Paramount Global is launching in the Nordics today, Tuesday. Its monthly price will be €6,99 ($6.99) in Finland, SEK 79 ($7.37) in Sweden, NOK 79 ($7.77) in Norway and DKK 69 ($9.28) in Denmark. Following its debut in these markets, the service will become available in the Netherlands and Portugal on Oct. 25, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

Its launch in the remaining of the 22 total markets, including Spain, Andorra and Central and Eastern Europe, is planned over the coming months and the first quarter of 2023. The territories encompass 90 million homes.

The two Hollywood giants teamed up for SkyShowtime, which uses the brand names of Comcast’s European pay TV giant Sky and Paramount’s Showtime, to serve these European markets where the companies saw a better chance for a joint streaming presence.

Ahead of the Nordics launch, the company had highlighted that the service would feature such Paramount+ favorites as Halo and Yellowstone, as well as Showtime Originals like Yellowjackets and Dexter: New Blood. Among series premieres will be Showtime drama American Gigolo, Sky Originals The Rising, plus Law & Order season 21 from Peacock. And among new blockbuster films hitting SkyShowtime following their theatrical and home entertainment releases will be Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion. (SkyShowtime’s official launch trailer is here.)

SkyShowtime CEO Monty Sarhan and his team of about 115 employees, around half of whom are based in the U.K., with the rest spread across such core markets as the Nordics, the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary, have been hard at work, gearing up for the big first launch on Tuesday.

Sarhan knows the inside of both venture partners. He had joined Comcast’s Comcast Cable unit in late 2019 as senior vp content acquisition, where he negotiated many of the firm’s content partnerships, after working at premium TV service Epix, now owned by Amazon’s MGM, as executive vp and general manager.

While working at Viacom — which in 2019 merged with CBS into ViacomCBS and was earlier this year renamed Paramount Global — he was part of the original launch team at Epix, which began as a joint venture, serving as its head of business affairs. Before that, Sarhan served as vp in Viacom’s media networks division.

From the SkyShowtime office at the Sky campus in Isleworth in West London, Sarhan talked to THR about the opportunities and challenges of launching a streaming service in more than 20 markets, why he is bullish even at a time when some streamers are facing growth challenges, the popularity of the brands and content of the Hollywood companies behind it, as well as his plans for SkyShowtime original content.

Sky parent Comcast and Showtime owner Paramount received regulatory approval to form the SkyShowtime joint venture earlier in the year, and now you are debuting in your first markets. How aware are people in your target markets of the Sky and Showtime brands and what they stand for?

We are seeing a great deal of anticipation and excitement about our arrival in Europe, across all of our markets. And what I can tell you is this: our studios, Paramount and Universal, are two of the greatest entertainment companies in the world today. Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal and Sky, and Paramount, which has all of their fantastic brands, Paramount, MTV and Nickelodeon. So they have come together to create this first-of-its-kind streaming service that brings [together] all of this great content in one place. And the two studios, Paramount and Universal, are actually the two oldest studios in Hollywood. And today, right now, they are the two biggest studios. They have three of the top five movies in terms of box office. All of those will be premiering on SkyShowtime: Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World Dominion, Minions: The Rise of Gru. We are coming out of the gate extremely strong. People are going to be drawn to those brands. They know when they go to a darkened movie theater and they see the Paramount mountain or the Universal globe that they are in for an entertainment experience unlike anything else. Those brands have tremendous resonance. They have each been around for over 100 years. So we tap into all of that. And I think we are very proud to be the home for that content across Europe.

In addition, there is all of the great content we get from Sky Studios, from Showtime, we are tapping into some great intellectual property. We are going to be premiering American Gigolo based on the Richard Gere movie from the ’80s. Those brands, including the show brands, have resonance and meaning. And so, we believe that content is king, in the words of [Viacom founder] Sumner Redstone. People are going to flock to watch the content they care about and that they want to watch. And SkyShowtime is the only place for that content.

Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye in ‘American Gigolo.’ Photo Credit: Warrick Page/Showtime

You are highlighting global Hollywood brands that everybody recognizes. How important is it to offer such franchise films and series?

There is always great demand for amazing content. And we have so much great content to speak of. On the film side, I mentioned some of the top titles, we also have things like The Northman and Belfast coming to the service later on this year, and just more and more big premieres. If you look at the volume of films that we are going to be getting on an average year, it is going to be over 30 films a year. That is an amazing offering. The same goes for the series we are getting from Sky Studios, from Showtime, from Peacock, from Paramount+. In the Nordics, we are getting Yellowjackets season 2, Yellowstone season 5, American Gigolo will be premiering. From Sky Studios, we are getting The Rising. If you think about it, Comcast and Paramount have three streaming services, three very competitive streaming services in the United States [in Peacock, Paramount+ and Showtime]. We are getting the best of that content. We are almost like three streaming services in one. That is a great way to think about who we are, what we are and what the content proposition is for consumers here in Europe.

To what degree do you have to supplement the Hollywood content franchises with either local content that the two partners already have in specific markets or that you can acquire? And will you also launch SkyShowtime originals as part of that mix over time?

[We have] things that even have local resonance, European productions, things that have actors from the Nordics. The Northman has [Swedish actor] Alexander Skarsgard. [Danish actress] Clara Rugaard is in The Rising. Let the Right One In from Showtime will be premiering. That is based on a book from the Nordics [from Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist]. So we feel really good about the content proposition having meaning and resonance for audiences.

We realize that people want storytelling that is authentic, that is meaningful, stories that speak to them, and that representation matters. And so local programming, original programming, is a big part of our value proposition and is one of our content pillars. So we will be having SkyShowtime originals.

When can we expect to start seeing those?

What is really amazing is that we received regulatory approval only in February. So we have only been at this for seven months, I only came here in February. And in the space of those seven months, we have ramped up the business significantly, we have hired over 100 people, across all departments and functions, from technology and data to distribution to programming, you name it. And so we are still building out our programming team.

What distinguishes us most is that we were created for Europe, we were created for these over 20 markets. We are not a flyover service. These markets are not an afterthought, these markets are all we think about. We start with the consumer in mind. That is how we think about the world. And we think about these markets. And that exhibits itself in everything we do. We have six offices throughout our region. We have local teams throughout the region. Those teams encompass people on the business side – distribution, marketing, content. We want everything we do to be relevant and meaningful. And so especially on the content side, there is huge demand for American content and huge demand for European content. Local content is tremendously important. As I said, representation matters. And so we are ramping up our team to get into the originals business very quickly.

It is something we are focused on. Our philosophy is quality over quantity. So it is very much about finding the right projects. It is not about rushing into doing originals for the sake of doing originals. They have to resonate with the audience. They have to resonate and make sense for our brand. And so we are really focused on doing that and getting it right. I am focused on getting it right versus doing it fast.

Some companies have cut back on local and regional originals and are looking more for content that can do well more globally. How do you think about content having to be local versus global and being able to travel? How do you position yourself there?

First of all, let’s talk about the value proposition for the service. Price is extremely important. You can’t be immune from what is going on in the world. There is a cost of living crisis across Europe. We have double-digit inflation and so we are launching and making sure that we speak to the consumer and understand what the consumer is going through. We are launching with really attractive price points across our territories. If you have seen the Nordics pricing, you will see that we are priced below Netflix, below HBO Max, below Disney+, below [Nordic streamer] Viaplay. That is very intentional. We want to resonate with audiences and consumers in these markets.

The way I think about content is it starts with authentic storytelling, storytelling that is meaningful to these audiences and broad enough to travel. So it has to do both.

Could the content then also end up on, say, Comcast/NBCUniversal’s Peacock and Paramount’s Paramount+ in the U.S.?

Potentially. If it makes sense for our parent companies to take that content into their territories. Those are decisions that they will make for themselves. Right now, we are focused on making sure that SkyShowtime launches and is successful in our territories, and that we have the content that consumers in our territories want. That, first and foremost, is my priority. That is what I am focused on.

How do you think about your 22 markets in Europe and how different are they? Can you group them into regions with similar sensitivities?

What was interesting, and what drew me to the opportunity at SkyShowtime, is that it is over 20 markets that are very different and very diverse. And it is almost, as I think about it, like a puzzle. We treat every market and every region differently. In fact, the way we are organized is that we have regional offices, regional general managers – one who covers Northern Europe, one who covers Central and Eastern Europe, another who covers Iberia. So we want to be relevant and important to all of those. I like to say that I am not launching one service, I am launching multiple services. Our approach, our strategy, our philosophy is different and is custom-tailored for every part of our regions.

You mentioned you can offer subscribers popular film and TV content. How important are feature films as part of the content mix for a streaming service?

Movies are an essential part of the premium proposition of any subscription service. And studio movies especially are really important. The value of studio movies, the value of the movies that we get from both Paramount and Universal,l is that these are big-budget blockbusters. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars producing these movies and marketing these movies. And so when they come to SkyShowtime, and they premiere exclusively on SkyShowtime, they come with a tremendous amount of awareness with the consumer and a tremendous amount of brand awareness. Everyone knows Top Gun: Maverick, everyone knows Jurassic World Dominion, everyone knows Minions, everyone knows Sing 2. So that has tremendous value to a streaming service. Those are big draws to bring subscribers in. They are absolutely critical for acquisition.

Series as well play an important part. Series play an important part because they help you establish a brand. Brand awareness is a very important part of being a streaming service. And so when you are the exclusive home for a series, when the series is branded SkyShowtime, that resonates, that sticks in the consumer’s mind. And so series play an important part. The great thing is the way series work is people keep coming back for more and more, episode after episode, they come back season after season. And so that is why series are very important, not just from an acquisition standpoint, but a retention standpoint. We are strong in both. We are very lucky.

Again, we are getting the best of three streaming services. And so whether it is the volume of movies, as I said, a minimum of 30 movies a year. Series we will probably have around 30 a year. That is great. And these are big-budget important series: American Gigolo, Yellowjackets, Yellowstone. And then you think about Sky Studios, all of the great shows that they have been launching, big European productions: The Rising, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Fear Index. All of that is going to be on SkyShowtime with the movies.

‘The Fear Index’ – Courtesy of Sky Studios

For the movies, what is the windowing, and is it the same in all your markets?

The studios are still determining what their release strategy is in the post-COVID world. There are some movies that will have shorter theatrical releases and some movies that will have really long theatrical releases, look at Top Gun: Maverick. That is a movie made for theaters that is designed to be experienced in theaters, and so that has had a really long theatrical run. So, windows are going to vary. And when things premiere on SkyShowtime is going to vary. I can tell you our goal, our intent is for everyone who has SkyShowtime, regardless of which market they are in, to experience the same content at the same time.

Will the different brands and properties of Comcast/NBCUniversal/Sky and Paramount/Showtime promote SkyShowtime in various markets?

It is one of the great advantages of this being a joint venture. We are the exclusive subscription streaming service for both companies in these markets. And we benefit from the tremendous assets that each of these companies have. They have invested so much into this business, they have invested their best assets, their best content, two of their most premium brands, their technology, all of that. That is who SkyShowtime is. That is our DNA. So we have fantastic DNA. And what they also bring to the table is all of their other assets. And so there will be opportunities for us to leverage those assets, their presence in each of these countries. They have been operating in these markets for decades. And so, of course, we are going to lean into that when it makes sense. We are working through those details and what that looks like in each of our markets.

You mentioned the advantages of the joint venture set-up. Traditionally, joint ventures can also be a little tricky when partners disagree or their cultures clash. Do you see potential challenges and does your personal experience working for both companies in the past help there?

I see only advantages. I have experienced only advantages of this being a joint venture. These companies are remarkably alike. I always like to focus on the similarities. I have had the privilege of working at both companies. I actually love both companies. And I loved working at both of them. I had a fantastic time working at Paramount. I love Comcast, I love Sky. I love their cultures. And having worked in both companies, I think, gives me a unique perspective. I have experienced both companies, I have relationships, deep relationships with both companies. I know the culture of both companies. And there is just tremendous alignment. At their heart, both of these companies are entrepreneurial companies.

Look at what they have done with SkyShowtime. Deciding that there is a significant opportunity in Europe, creating a vision together of how they are going to enter these markets, putting their best assets together. Their histories are entrepreneurial. That is, again, part of our DNA. They know how to start businesses. They know how to build businesses from scratch. They have built successful global businesses many times over the decades. And I have to say I have a fantastic board that shows the commitment of both companies. I always say that they are so invested, they are so passionate about SkyShowtime.

Do you and your team have any subscriber targets? And any thoughts on which of SkyShowtime’s 22 markets are going to be your biggest?

All of our markets are important. And we see tremendous opportunity. Streaming is only primed for growth across all of our markets. It is a huge opportunity. We don’t have any public subscriber targets, and we benefit from the fact that we are private. We don’t have to report publicly. What I can tell you is this: we believe in our markets, we believe in the opportunity, we know the opportunity is huge.

There have been recent signs of subscriber growth stalling in streaming, including at Netflix, which has caused some debate on Wall Street about whether this is the end of streaming growth or just a hiccup. Has this changed any of your approaches or strategies and what is your take on the outlook for streaming?

The U.S. is a very different market. The U.S. narrative is not the European narrative. First of all, let me say this: streaming as a business is really only about 15 years old. And if you look at it, there are five or six major streaming services. I don’t think anyone 15 years into the advent of television said: “It is over, there is no more growth in television.” I don’t think anyone ever said five channels are enough. So there is plenty of room. Streaming is only growing, it is only poised to grow, especially in our markets.

Do believe in the idea that there will be more mergers or other forms of consolidation over time and that there will ultimately be three, four or however many streaming services?

The history of the media business is one of consolidation. There has always been consolidation. There are new businesses that start and there has been a tremendous amount of consolidation. It is such a dynamic and amazing time to be in streaming right now. It is hard to predict what the future looks like. But that is why we love this business so much. Every day is exciting. Every day is different.

Is there anything else that you would like to share or highlight?

I would just emphasize that our strategy is one that is entirely focused on these markets. I think that is what distinguishes us. We are announcing that our launches in the Netherlands and in Portugal will be on Oct. 25. So we are excited. We are pushing forward very quickly on our European rollout and our expansion.

We focus on quality over quantity, we focus on curation. We are very cognizant of the fact that we live in an attention economy. The most precious resource that any of us have is time. Our brand has the word time in it, SkyShowtime. And so we want to be a place where people know that they are going to find the content they care about quickly, that this will be a great place for them to spend time.

I assume launching in 22 different markets is not easy…

There is a great deal that goes into launching and making sure that the launch is successful. Part of being successful in these markets and being committed to these local markets is customization. Our platform is available in 18 languages. Our content is available in 18 languages. Getting everything right, getting our marketing right in 18 languages, all of that takes time. And we have only been at this since February. As a team, we speak 21 different languages. We are from 15 different countries. And we have all come together to create this amazing, wonderful new service.

Interview edited for clarity.

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