Walter Iuzzolino, the titular curator of the new Channel 4 venture Walter Presents, was interviewed by Steve Hewlett for the Media Show on BBC Radio 4 this week. Here are the highlights, but the interview can be heard in full on the BBC website.
SH: How did you end up with Walter Presents?
WI: I’m not an insane megalomaniac. The name was not my idea. This is just a passion project. I’ve always loved international drama. I’m Italian so I was raised with a rich diet of international drama, because they dub stuff there – albeit very badly. Italian television is dubbed. It means that language is no barrier to accessing drama. There is no such thing as Italian drama or English drama – there is just drama. So as a kid I was exposed to quite a lot of really interesting stuff from German cop shows to telenovelas.
SH: What gave you the idea of trying to put together a collection for the UK. Why the UK?
WI: I moved to the UK 20 years ago and I was quite struck with the understandable Anglo-American nature of drama here so why not replicate it? I was struck with the absence of more languages in the sense that subtitles have always been considered niche and art house. I knew, where I came from, that there was incredible mainstream fun content in all languages, and ten years ago BBC4 started in a pioneering way with Spiral, which I think is an absolutely extraordinary piece of television.
SH: And then The Killing…
WI: Yeah, but I remember that Spiral was the one that got me because I remember watching it and thinking “if this works, the time is right – let’s do it”. It started to become really mainstream and really sizeable audiences realised that it’s good fun.
SH: So when you put the proposition together, how did it end up at Channel 4 rather than the BBC?
WI: First of all the proposition was always that I and my colleague Jason Thorp and Jo McGrath would sit down and curate a selection so we spent two years watching thousands of hours of drama and picked out what we thought was the very best.
SH: Is this before you pitched it?
WI: The three of us got together and we set up a company and we gave ourselves a year to really make it happen. We went out there, and the last time we counted it was 3500 hours, but now it will be more than that, from all over the World and it’s not genre specific so we went everywhere.
SH: Tell me how it got to Channel 4 then…
WI: I worked as a commissioner. I produced shows for Channel 4. I’ve always loved Channel 4. I think the DNA of Channel 4 was absolutely perfect for something that was, in a way, so contemporary.
SH: Why not the BBC though?
WI: The BBC are not in the business of going into business with private people to set up services. And so, the BBC have cornered a beautiful market, which is the Scandi Noir, and that’s what they do and they do it really well. But I thought that there was much more texture to be had from all sorts of pieces from all over the World.
SH: If it’s not too crude a question, what’s the business model? How does it work?
WI: It’s very straight because, imagine it’s a mini Netflix, right, only it’s entirely free of charge and it’s built on advertising. So you watch the programmes and then there are adverts in the same way as there are in any Channel 4 hour.
SH: What I’m slightly sceptical about is that could generate enough to pay the rights fees for all these thousands of hours or hundreds of hours of drama…
WI: Well, time will tell if it will work. Honestly though, there is a point to be made here. I think that both Jay Hunt (Chief Creative Officer at Channel 4) and David Abraham (Channel 4 Chief Executive) have been absolutely incredible with this. Not only because they move at the speed of light and there is something incredible when you are a creative or an entrepreneur walking through the doors and having a chat with someone and getting an instant response and reaction. I think at a time, and in an era, when everyone from Netflix to Amazon is desperate for your 6.99 a month subscription fee… To take premium content that we associate with subscription and making hundreds of hours of that available entirely for free is a fantastic act of creative madness. And also, what I think is important, is that it shows their real desire to accelerate the convergence between linear and streaming.
SH: Do you expect to make any money out of this?
WI: I would hope so in a few years, but God knows. The truth is this is actually born of an act of passion, so as of now I pinch myself every morning thinking “oh God, this is actually my job”.
SH: When you are looking at your thousands of hours, what criteria do you apply?
WI: Three very simple criteria we applied from the start. The first was that the shows needed to be big hits in their country of origin. So nothing in it is Art House or niche or intellectual in that way, and so they needed to be seen by millions of people in their country of origin. So they are our Mr Selfridges, they are our Bridges and so on, and so forth. The quality needed to be the quality of Homeland, House Of Cards, Bridge and Borgen so the quality bar in terms of excellence in writing, acting and directing. And then we also looked at award winning pieces nationally and internationally. And if two of these three criteria fit we went for a show.