Presenting Walter: The man who changed foreign-language TV
James R | On 09, Jan 2017
Inside VOD: We take you behind the scenes of the video on-demand industry by interviewing key figures in the streaming world.
Almost exactly a year ago, one man changed the way that we watch TV: Walter Iuzzolino. You know him better as “Walter”, of Walter Presents.
All 4’s online channel, which is dedicated to foreign-language TV, launched in January 2016, bringing us shows from around the world that we otherwise never would have seen. Available for free to stream and download with no need for broadcast schedules or even a telly, it just might be the biggest game-changer for UK TV since Netflix. Exclusive, comprehensive, innovative and accessible, it’s binge-watching bliss.
When he was a boy, did Walter ever dream of growing up to have a website named after him?
“Not at all!” he laughs, as we chat to him partway through Walter Presents’ maiden year about how the service came to be. That title, Walter Presents, might sound bizarre, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s nobody better to name it after. If there’s one thing Walter knows, it’s TV.
Born and raised in Italy, he grew up watching drama all the time on the small screen, albeit dubbed.
“Every night, you would watch drama from a different country but it sounded Italian,” he recalls fondly. “Language isn’t a barrier to the enjoyment of foreign drama, which is a good thing, but it was badly dubbed, so the quality was terrible!”
But that only instilled a taste for the international in young Walter. He’d watch something from Germany on Monday, something American on Tuesday. When he moved to the UK two decades ago, though, something was missing.
“I remember missing all that broad, populist, shiny, fun entertainment I used to get in Italy””
“It was quite noticeable that it was much more UK and US-centric and that meant there was nothing else,” he explains. “While the quality of that was outstanding in its own right – I’m not slagging off US or UK drama – the tonality was quite uniform, it wasn’t as rich and textured.”
The foreign language stuff that was on the TV he describes as having a slightly exclusive “film club feel to it”.
“I remember missing all that broad, populist, shiny, fun entertainment I used to get in primetime and, frankly, in daytime in telenovelas,” he says.
But the tides were turning: almost 10 years ago, BBC Four started to show Spiral, the French cop show. Walter was a fan, after watching it in Italy – dubbed, of course.
“When I saw it was being launched on BBC Four, I thought if this gains enough critical mass and audience, there’s a market for this,” he continues. “Gradually, over the years, it built around half a million audience or more. And on the back of that, the Scandinavian stuff started and it became clear that the audience was there. And that felt like the right time to try to launch this.”
Walter Presents didn’t happen overnight, though. It was several years ago that they first started searching for things to put on the service. The one aim? Move away from Scandi Noir.
“We have a lot of Nordic, we love it, don’t get me wrong, but we wanted to move beyond it. Instinctively, we always thought: Is it possible that no one else can be producing exceptional drama? Is it only really four countries in the world? And it wasn’t. We found some really brilliant things from all over the place.”
The site’s first year certainly has been all over, with shows hailing from Poland, Spain, France, Chile, the Czech Republic and more.
It all started with Deutschland 83 (pictured above), which did well precisely because it wasn’t the normal Nordic affair.
“It was fun, funky and a spy thing,” says Walter. “It had nothing to do with The Bridge and The Killing and it made it stand out, because the grammar and language were different in every sense.”
It was a ballsy move – “Even fellow buyers were gaping at us playing a German drama in primetime!” – but it paid off. The series became the highest-rated foreign-language drama in UK TV history.
And that same principle has guided the site since, not having a set remit per country, but rather a thirst to find the best from anywhere they can.
“We don’t have a quota, it forces you into making choices you don’t want to make,” he explains. “It’s really very much dictated by our passion. Every time, we find something we think is outstanding, which really makes us want to binge on it, we go for it. Obviously, we want to spread our wings as much as possible, but I won’t buy a piece from a country just because it has to be from there. That’s kind of the rule we apply. Doing that, we’ve become quite broad already.”
The horizons are only set to get broader in the future. “More and more countries are sharpening up their act,” observes Walter, who takes a real joy in getting suggestions every day from across the globe for things to check out.
“The most exciting and surprising things have always come from slightly improbable places,” he notes.
Danish vampire series Heartless was one early surprise that made it into the site’s launch line-up.
“I loved Heartless. It’s amazing,” he enthuses. (It soon becomes apparent that he finds it impossible to talk about any TV show without being enthusiastic.) “The interesting thing about that is I thought it conjugated the grammar of the perfect Scandi Noir. The writing and cinematography of that is truly that of The Killing, but the theme was so unusual, you didn’t expect it.”
During the service’s early days, he remembers, the Financial Times did a pick of their best, including Heartless. The thought of the newspaper’s serious, mature readers being lured to a young, sexy vampire piece still makes him laugh.
When they do stumble across surprises like that, does it inspire them to look for more shows from the same place?
“Yes, you’re right,” says Walter. “The first time we found a piece from Czech Republic, which was produced by HBO, then we started digging deeper into the country.”
Locked Up (pictured below), from Spain, was another that was “totally unexpected” for them. It went on to get a Channel 4 premiere for its opening episode, before the whole box set landed online.
“Neither Sky Arts or BBC Four could ever play that, it’s far too sexy for them!” comments Walter, with audible excitement.
While Walter Presents continues to grow, with over 17 million streams in its first 12 months, the world of online video is also expanding. From Netflix’s originals, which include Spanish, French and Brazilian series, to BBC Four’s ongoing Saturday night slots and Sky Arts, the market is only getting more competitive. How aware is he of Walter Presents’ positioning in that landscape?
“Very, very much so,” he says, without pause. (In both his viewing habits and his speech, Walter is a man who rarely pauses.)
Where that might bother or distract some people, though, Walter brushes aside the concern. He’s a generous guy, quick to praise other TV channels, but always confident in Walter Presents’ own, unique appeal.
“It doesn’t worry me in the slightest,” he says. “Our competitors, for want of a better word, are not channels dedicated to this. They are slots. So BBC Four are amazing. They started this trend somehow, but they have Saturday nights. It’s built an audience, it’s built a genre and it’s done it well and consistently, but that’s a tiny fraction of their output dedicated to a very specific angle, which is Agatha Christie-stye whodunnits. I’m being reductive, but they themselves said in an interview a while ago that their audience likes a cop or a couple of cops, a missing child and a lovely forest. They follow that logic with real rigour and it delivers for them really well. Sky Arts have chosen a slightly more eclectic mix – they’ve got one of my all-time favourites, actually, The Legacy, and then they’ve got Gomorrah (pictured below). Their choice is again, in a way, a bit more “Curzon”. We are a channel that’s entirely dedicated, so we don’t need to compare ourselves to them: our job is exclusively this.”
He reaches about for a better way to put it, warming to the subject.
“If you think about HBO, it’s more that. HBO gives you a range that goes from True Detective to Girls to Sex and the City to The Sopranos. Do you know what I mean? Our raison d’etre is foreign-language drama, so our choices are fundamentally different. Our only purpose is to bring the very best foreign-language dram to the UK.”
Are there times when they end up bidding for the same thing? Yes, he admits, but it’s rare.
“Apart from Legacy – Legacy, I would’ve loved, and The Killing and The Bridge they already had first, they found them – but there’s nothing else that has happened since that they have bought that we would have liked to have bought, or vice versa.”
It’s not an easy feat, launching a brand new destination for global drama – before the service had launched, the site’s team had watched around 4,000 hours of TV. Walter, as curator of the channel, does “the brunt of the watching”. It becomes clear the curation isn’t just a gimmick, and that he takes having his name on the brand seriously: when they like a programme, they always watch it to the end to make sure it doesn’t dip in quality.
“We never buy off promos, we insist on watching the whole thing,” he emphasises. “Like good novels, very often, the best programmes start slow and then it really comes together and becomes amazing by Episode 8 – it’s important to watch the whole thing.”
“I always binge-watch. I never watch in linear fashion.”
Naturally, he’s a binge-watcher.
“Yeah, completely. I always binge-watch. I never watch in linear fashion. I always watch two or three episodes. I sometimes juggle, I’ll watch three episodes of one on Monday, three of another on Tuesday. It’s like reading two novels at the same time. I always devour shows quite quickly!”
Does that leave him time to watch other TV? Amazingly, the answer is yes, even if it’s only a little amount.
“I have to be aware of what everyone else is watching and why!” he says, noting he does have a Netflix account. “But you’re right: I tend not to watch much, because I do this for a living. Right now, I’m watching Billions (on Sky), which I love.”
What’s the most popular show so far, particularly from those shows introduced back in January 2016? Apart from Deutschland 83, Walter highlights French crime series Mafiosa as delivering big figures, Kabul Kitchen as being successful and Heartless as “really, really, really big”.
The only thing missing so far is something from his own country, he confesses.
“I’m Italian but I could never find an Italian piece. I love Gomorrah, but that was a Sky piece, so we could never have it. I haven’t found yet an outstanding Italian piece, except for something in my inbox the other day that’s actually starting to look really good… It has a bit of a Scandi language and infrastructure to it. I’m hoping I can buy something from Italy soon.”
He adds that Italy is starting to up its game, increasingly aware that there’s a worldwide audience for its output. Speaking to the creator of Blue Eyes (another Walter Presents show – pictured above) last year, we found out that we’re not the only European country to import shows across the continent: Sweden buys Midsomer Murders from the UK. DCI Barnaby in exchange for Wallander and The Bridge? It hardly seems like a fair swap.
“They probably loved it!” chuckles Walter. “They probably thought it was very exotic!”
But it’s here that Walter Presents is really helping to change the television industry on a larger scale: 10 years ago, a TV show lived and died on its local audience. Now, lots of small audiences overseas can add up. How does Walter see the state of the industry today and Walter Presents’ place within it?
“The truth is the economics are still very challenging,” he comments. “While it’s amazing to have 20k, 30k, 60k people per episode watching something, it’s still a fairly limited number to justify advertising that enables you to keep acquiring the programmes. It still is quite challenging, but what is changing is the global dimension. What used to be quite niche at some point in any given country becomes slightly more mainstream if you project around the world, then the critical mass becomes more significant, absolutely.”
And finally, is there anything on Walter’s wish list that he wants to show? Or a favourite they’ve bought so far? He pauses, only briefly, before remembering a series from the Czech Republic.
“It’s only a three-parter, it’s called Burning Bush,” he reveals. “It’s a political thriller, based on the true story of a student who set himself on fire to protest against Russian occupation, which sounds like a grim, historical piece, but actually, it’s a beautiful, family, kitchen sink drama, where a family is suing the Russian government basically to reclaim the honour of their son. That’s one of my all-time ever pieces of cinema and television.”
Whenever he gushes about a TV show (which is a lot), Walter speaks with the glee of a schoolboy who’s just broken the rules. But looking back after a year, you know what? In a way, he has.
Main photo: Channel 4