Walter Presents, a subscription VOD channel shaped by one quirky man’s programming preferences, launches today on most U.S. digital platforms, joining a very full slate of competitors in the race for eyeballs in digital TV. Founder Walter Iuzzolino is betting backers’ money that his taste in international TV shows will capture an audience willing to spend about $7 a month to see his favorite programs.
Walter Presents is an explicit attempt to put the curator out front, in the name even, rather than depending on a computer algorithm that suggests “You Also May Like.” As such, it may be some corner of the future where individual vision still has market value.
Iuzzolino is an unusual choice for American TV curator. He’s Italian born and lived in London long enough to acquire a distinctive mid-Atlantic accent. He has a doctorate in American literature at the University of Genoa, and a long background in television, most notably as commissioning editor for Channel 4, programming and producing prime-time shows for the big UK network.
The network launched in the United Kingdom a year ago – after Iuzzolino spent 18 months and 4,000 hours watching and licensing all kinds of international dramas – as part of Channel 4’s ad-supported All 4 VOD service. Walter Presents’ U.S. version debuts with 34 foreign-language TV dramas from 12 countries, in all more than 300 hours of on-demand programming chosen by Walter himself. The channel promises to introduce two more series each month.
The channel’s chances of success may depend on how well Iuzzolino can continue to uncover, and license, more great global content for discerning viewers willing to pay for his choices, on top of all the good stuff they already pay for. He’ll have to become a brand name himself to do it, so viewers come to depend on his tastes to help drive their choices. That may be easier said than realized.
Over the years. only a few TV programmers have been credited with almost single-handedly shaping an entire channel. The few examples include Fred Silverman at ABC in the 1970s, Brandon Tartikoff at NBC in the 1980s, Les Moonves at CBS forever, and arguably, given her ownership of ABC’s Thursday night lineup right now, Shonda Rhimes. Can Walter Presents make Iuzzolino the first solo curator to shine in the digital video era?
To be sure, Walter Presents is more than just Iuzzolino, whose own media kit declares him “a passionate, warm and compelling eccentric.” Jason Thorp and Jo McGrath, veterans of outlets such as Fox International and Channel 4, are CEO and head of marketing respectively.
Walter Presents had a promising first year in the UK as an ad-supported VOD channel tied to Channel 4, its major backer. Because it’s licensing rather than creating shows, its cost of product is much lower, as long as Iuzzolino can keep spotting and licensing the best international shows at a reasonable price.
And there’s clearly a market out there for quality dramas, no matter the language or country of origin. PBS lived off BBC shows for years, and these days even Netflix is commissioning foreign-language shows such as “Narcos” and “Marseille.”
In the digital video space, networks such as Pongalo and DramaFever rely on licensed versions of soapy dramas first aired in Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico and South Korea. Pongalo even translated one Venezuelan hit into ABC hit “Jane the Virgin.” Perhaps Walter Presents can find a similar audience.
“To me, SVOD was absolutely what made sense,” Iuzzolino said. “The broadcast environment is changing forever. Three to five years from now, TV won’t be what we call TV. What was niche will become mainstream. I had no doubt that our product was sophisticated, upmarket. It wasn’t elitist, wasn’t cine club. It was very shiny and glossy but wasn’t bland. It’s very much like a premium TV channel” such as HBO.
A few years from now, it’s likely many of us will be using doing for our own customized “TV” lineup what Iuzzolino is is doing for his channel, picking and choosing from many options to get what works for us.
“You construct your own package in a more personalized fashion,” Iuzzolino said. “You also embrace your own curation back into a world of supermarkets” such as Netflix and Amazon.
Now to see if one man’s curatorial tastes can drive a business, and spare us at least some portion of the tyranny of the “You Also May Like” algorithm.