Why did you decide to launch Walter Presents with Iuzzolino?
Walter came to us with an utterly compelling proposition – it’s so incredibly rare to find an individual who has sat in a room and scoured the international market for the very best fine dramas. There’s a massive appetite for new and different content, and he came in with these insights into new and interesting shows from around the world that we could be part of. It also really speaks to our remit of serving different audiences: we can treat English viewers with shows they’ve never seen before and wouldn’t otherwise have heard of, but we’re also catering to the fact that lots of our viewers [in the UK] are from other countries and speak other languages as their first language.
Channel 4 had already had success with The Returned (a supernatural thriller from Canal+, about a group of residents in a rural French town who return from the dead). Did this provide some encouragement to invest in foreign language drama?
Deciding to put a French drama on at 9pm on Sunday night, in the Homeland slot, seems like an act of insanity in retrospect…. But having seen the piece, we thought it was of such good quality and we thought airing it would be a really good way of testing out audience interest [in subtitled series]. Subtitles used to be seen as a huge barrier to entry, and everyone thought viewers wouldn’t want to sit through them, but this wasn’t a show in the successful Scandi noir or political space, and we still had audiences north of two million turning up to watch it every week. That, for us, showed a real change in audience behaviour.
And why launch the service online? Is it partly a response to the growing popularity of streaming services like Netflix?
We co-exist with Netflix, we do co-productions with them, so we’re not trying to combat them, but we are seeing that people’s behaviour has changed in terms of how they watch things and Walter Presents responds to that. Viewers can tune in and watch Spin on TV on Sunday, or they can sample a bit of Flemish drama at lunchtime if they like – it’s about having that range available across multiple platforms.
How will you decide what shows are broadcast online, and which make it on to television?
We’re still in the process but in the end, it comes down to the fact that Channel 4 is a mainstream, terrestrial channel. It’s not a niche player, so I need shows that appeal to a large audience. Deutschland 83 is a great example of that, and I don’t think that show would be on any other channel – from the music to the costumes, it just feels like something that if it was made in English would have been made for 4, so shows really need to exude our brand. We’ll also have a regular slot on More 4 every week, so will show series for a slightly older audience on there … and then we’ll have smaller, boutique pieces that you can binge watch on All 4. The fact that it appears on all these different platforms is a really innovative way of getting content to our audience in lots of different ways, but we’ll apply the same rigour as we would any other programming decision when it comes to quality, because we’re an ad-funded broadcaster.
Why name the brand after Walter?
Walter so brilliantly embodies the values of what our service is there to do. Every time I see him talk to an audience, or appear on screen, he just instantly captures this passion and excitement for the content.
The curation is really important: one of the things I find depressing about having a Kindle is the fact that I can’t just browse a shop, so I’m constantly going to friends to ask for recommendations. Walter is like a trusted friend for people who love foreign drama, and it’s become like a badge of quality almost overnight – people know he will pick a real range and mix of shows, and it feels as though someone has loved and crafted this selection.
I think there’s often a sense of overload when it comes to deciding what to watch on television – you can watch hundreds of hours at any given point, and you have all these recommendations [based on algorithms] – but with Walter Presents we’re humanising that process. It feels real, and the cut-through we’ve had shows that people really respond to that.
This article was published in the March 2016 print issue of Creative Review, as a part of a bigger feature titled Welcome to Walter’s world…