sky atlantic

Succession

I’ve been keenly awaiting Succession for a while. It comes from Jesse Armstrong who created Peep Show and more recently has done a lot of work with Armando Ianucci on things like The Thick of It and Veep, the latter being from HBO as this is.

What’s interesting is that, simplistically, this is a fictionalised version of the Murdoch family, with a powerful patriarch and his squabbling offspring. And of course, Sky Atlantic, who have an output deal with HBO giving them rights to much of the company’s programming, are in a large part owned by the Murdochs. Indeed right now there’s a complicated chain of acquisitions going on with Disney buying Fox, including its Sky assets, while Comcast tries to buy Sky and sneak it out of Disney’s hands.

I was initially surprised when this big budget drama didn’t instantly appear on Sky Atlantic. Surely they weren’t having cold feet about it? 

It turned out that Sky Atlantic wanted to put the whole series out in one go, so they waited until the end of its US transmission and all the episodes were available. And more to the point, although the series has the venere of being about the Murdochs, it’s somewhat more than that.

As an aside, it was entertaining hearing Matthew Macfayden on The One Show earlier this week, explaining that in the US there were a number of media families.

This is all true, but the Roy family is remarkably similar in structure to the Murdochs. At the head of the family is Brian Cox as Logan Roy – a cracking role. As with Murdoch, he originates from the ‘colonies.’ Scotland in this instance. He’s showing signs of age, and some of his children question some of his decision making. His heir apparent, is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the most business focused of the children. The eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck) is a free-spririted libertarian, spending his time on a farm, not doing a great deal apart from overseeing the company’s annual fundraising gala dinner, and living with sort-of-girlfriend, who he’s sort-of-paying to be his sort-of-girlfriend.

Roman Roy (Keiran Culkin) is a waster who spends his time not taking anything too seriously, but it does mean he gets all the zingers. He’s only really in the business because he’s a son and therefore part of the family. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is the one family member trying to fashion her own career as a political consultant. But she’s still close. Her husband to be is the charmless social climber Tom (fantastically played by Matthew Macfayden), who knows he’s marrying into wealth… and power.

And then there’s Marcia (Hiam Abbas), Logan’s third wife, who’s mysterious background tends to make you wonder if she’s all she seems. 

Waystar Royco, the business that everything revolves around seems to have a publishing arm, a TV arm (including a news channel), a movie studio and a theme park business – the latter being the only bit that Murdoch doesn’t really have.

Given all this, how can anyone possibly equate Logan with Rupert, Kendall and Roman with James and Lachlan, Shiv with Elisabeth, and Marcia with Wendi Deng/Jerry Hall?

In fact, despite the similarities in the familial structures, the series goes off in some slightly different directions. The tone is, for the most part, surprisingly light. This is a soapy cousin of Veep, with many of the cast being caricatures to an extent. Culkin and Macfayden both get to have a lot of fun with their characters, as does Nicholas Braun who plays the dim-witted great nephew of Logan, and being pushed into the family business by his mother. There’s a fantastic scene when Tom takes him on a night out and they end up in a nightclub where Tom steers them up into an exclusive, and entirely empty, VIP section. Learning as he goes, he wonders allowed if it’s sort of like the rest of the nightclub, but without all the fun stuff on the dance floor down below. They sit there drinking from their $2000 bottle of vodka in silence.

But this isn’t solely a comedy, and there are serious questions being asked at times. I won’t spoil the season ending, but it’s played out remarkably well. 

In the end, this is a family drama with set amongst a particularly dysfunctional family. Yes, the setting is all sleek corporate offices and palatial apartments; private helicopters and glossy functions. But they’re the same kinds of rows, just played at a higher order.

I was hooked and can’t wait for season 2 next year.

Platform Exclusives

On Monday, Game of Thrones finished its fifth series run on Sky Atlantic with an explosive episode. Don’t worry, you won’t find any spoilers on this site (Unlike certain news sites). Anyone who wanted to, could watch it on Sky Atlantic.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If you’re a Virgin Media customer, then you don’t get Sky Atlantic. Sky sees the channel as a point of difference between it’s own platforms and others. So while Sky One and Sky Living are offered to third parties like Virgin Media, Sky Atlantic is held back.

You can, as of Tuesday this week, legally access that entire fifth series of Game of Thrones via platforms like iTunes, Amazon Instant Video or Google Play. But obviously that’ll cost you.

Also this week came the announcement that AMC Networks is launching a UK offering, but that it’ll be exclusively available via BT TV on YouView. AMC in the US has been home of series such as Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Mad Men and The Walking Dead.

But who broadcasts those shows in the UK can vary quite a lot. The new Channel 4 Sunday night series, Humans, is an AMC co-production. The Walking Dead, which is the biggest drama in the US, goes out on Fox TV in the UK, with Channel 5 having had second run rights. Mad Men went out on Sky Atlantic having been poached from BBC Two in the UK, and Breaking Bad and its spin-off are on Netflix (although Breaking Bad is also now on free-to-air Spike). Other AMC shows can be found on Amazon too.

What’s interesting about this deal with BT is that they’ll have exclusive access to Fear the Walking Dead – a new spin-off series set in the same world as The Walking Dead. And to watch it, you’ll need new hardware. BT is seemingly trying beef up its non-sport TV portfolio.

Of course AMC now owns a near 50% stake of BBC America, and this means that you’d anticipate some BBC co-productions down the line between the two broadcasters – John Le Carré’s The Night Porter with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston seems like a good example of this (although I believe this was presented to both parties by a third party who put the package together).

So how this will all fit together with regard to BT-exclusive access to AMC programming in the longer term remains to be seen. However it should be noted that despite the Sky/HBO deal, there are still instances where, say, the BBC does a deal with HBO and Sky is cut-out – The Casual Vacancy being a recent example.

But what this clearly means is that viewers are going to be faced with some hard choices.

At the moment, should I want to watch Game of Thrones, Daredevil and Transparent, I can do one of three things (or a mix of them).

– Subscribe, respectively, to Sky Atlantic (via Sky or Now TV), Netflix and Amazon Prime
– Wait until they become available through DVD/digital
– Pirate them

(I’m not advocating the third, incidentally).

Assuming I’m a Walking Dead fan who also wants to watch the other series, at least until now I could access to the OTT services through an inexpensive one-off purchase of a Google Chromecast, Now TV, Roku or Apple TV box. To see the Walking Dead spin-off, I’m going to need a full-on BT TV subscription and one of their boxes. Or I’ll have to wait until the DVD/digital downloads are made available.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

At the moment, most of these productions are actually owned by third party companies, and they simply licence their output for specific windows to services like Netflix or Amazon. But that has meant that when Netflix launched in France, they had to do so without House of Cards, because it had been licenced to another channel. That’s also why DVDs/downloads are made available of the series in due course – the studio that owns them distributes the DVDs and earns revenues from them – not Netflix. House of Cards tends to be exclusive to Netflix for about six months before the DVD/download option becomes available.

Netflix in future says it wants to own as much of its own programming as possible. In other words, it wants to close off those avenues, or at least have control of them. Holding back programming could make long-term sense in platform building, even if it leaves money on the table in the short term.

In the meantime, I’m not sure that this deal on its own is enough to make a compelling case for anyone to cancel Sky and take up BT TV – as it hasn’t been with their sports rights so far. But I can see some of those AMC catalogue programmes disappearing from Amazon in due course, and I can also imagine that there’ll be a significant amount of piracy surrounding Fear the Walking Dead when fans realise that they need a whole different subscription to watch it legally, unless they’re prepared to wait for the DVDs/downloads.