Sam Brooks interviews Walter Iuzzolino, the man behind TVNZ’s new curated algorithm-free channel, Walter Presents.
When you sign onto any given streaming platform, you’re likely to be bombarded with several shows before you get to the one you want or even get an idea of what you’re looking for. Some of them are shows that the platform is pushing heavily (has anybody, ever, watched The Ranch on Netflix) or shows picked by the algorithm based on what you’ve watched before (so, yes, it’s probably your fault you’re being recommended a bunch of bad true crime docs after watching Tiger King). Many of us have probably spent as much time trying to find a show as it would take to watch an entire episode of that show. Well, fear not: Walter Iuzzolino is here to help you.
Walter Presents, now streaming as a part of TVNZ on Demand, is a curated channel that features the best drama from around the world, using Iuzzolino’s expertise as a television producer in London for 20 years. The shows, 13 in total from all around the world, including Belgium’s 13 Commandments and Code 37: Sex Crimes, Iceland’s Cover Story, and The Lens from the Czech Republic. He launched the service in the UK in 2016, and it has since been picked up in countries like the United States and Australia, but now we’re lucky enough in New Zealand to enjoy the fruits of Iuzzolino’s labour too
As Iuzzolino explains it, “When I watch a piece of television or when I go to the cinema or buy a book, it’s not really because I’ve seen it pop up in an ad on the internet, but because a friend or family member has said, ‘Walter, you’ve got to watch this. It’s amazing. You’re going to really love it.’ And when I hear human passion, that persuades me to consume a piece of content. I’m 100% more likely to go and give it a try.”
In order to prepare for the series launch in 2016, Iuzzolino took an entire year off to watch television. He estimates he spent 4,000 hours in front of the box. Four years later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had well exceeded Malcolm Gladwell’s proverbial 10,000 hours.
When Walter Iuzzolino speaks, it’s not with the calculated coldness of a programmer, whether past or present. It’s with the enthusiastic, delighted energy of someone with a genuine passion for the form. Like someone in a honeymoon phase that has somehow lasted the length of a marriage.
We spoke over the phone a few days ago, and he needed little prompting to excitedly explain a series. “I’ve been working in television for 20 years now, both at Channel 4 and then at Channel 5 here in the UK, and I’ve always had a huge passion for international drama. Coming from Italy, I was used to watching a lot of European drama in general, and when I moved to London, I was very surprised by the lack of variety and texture of what was on offer here,” he says.
“I remember missing those voices, and the different tones of pieces from France and Germany. I knew a lot of great stuff was being produced all over the world. It just didn’t come here. So it was always my dream and my ambition to start something – to launch a brand and a channel.”
Before that, though, Iuzzolino was a producer. He’d worked a lot in the UK as a commissioner, producing shows that ran the small-screen gamut from fashion to property to travel to the likes of The Undateables. After being immersed in that world for a long time, he sold his production company to Discovery in America.
He had a choice: continue his life producing documentaries and lifestyle television or take a year to launch his dream channel. So that’s what he did, alongside two friends who had reached the same point in their career. They set themselves a goal: give themselves a year, and if it didn’t work, they’d go back to their old lives. “It was pretty scary to find myself from being fully employed with all the really good, nice benefits and protected job to being in my kitchen, watching thousands of hours of drama.”
Iuzzolino would start at eight in the morning and finish at eight at night, and took the job incredibly serious because it was meant to be a livelihood. It couldn’t be a hobby. By the end of that year, he had a strong proposition, and culture seemed to have caught up to him and his passion. This wasn’t the world of 2000, where people blanched at the idea of reading subtitles out of a critically acclaimed foreign film. This was 2016, where some of the best shows of the past decade (The Killing, The Bridge, Homeland) had been adapted from foreign language shows, and people wanted to see where they’d come from. People were interested in it, and so Walter Presents was launched, with a curated selection of Iuzzolino’s favourite dramas from around the world.
Iuzzolino has three criteria for a show to be picked for Walter Presents, and they need to meet at least two of the three to even be considered. The first one is quality; the quality of the writing, acting and directing has to be exemplary. “Every piece that comes onto the service needs to be beautifully shot, beautifully acted and the writing needs to be impeccable. So that’s the first benchmark.”
The second is the audience response in the country of origin. If a show tanks in its original country, it’s not very likely to be a huge hit elsewhere. “I’ve always been fascinated by the reason why millions of Italians watch this drama on a Sunday night, or why is it that all of France goes crazy about these titles? [Walter Presents] is about big, shiny, sexy mainstream television. I like big commercial hits.”
The third, and final, criteria seems obvious: critical acclaim. Awards. The stuff that glitters, basically. “I need to select pieces that cross over beyond public acceptance, pieces that become elevated and a bit more timeless.”
The point of the service is to exist as a counterweight to the algorithmic selection practised by most services – the haphazard business of ‘if you like this, maybe you’ll like this, who knows!’. It’s not an algorithm based on shows sharing actors or some vague sense of genre, it’s a person who has watched more television in a year than you’ll watch in your entire life, and has sorted the wheat from the chaff.
He sums it up with an elegant metaphor. “It’s the difference between going to a supermarket to buy your essentials, and going to a lovely deli where there’s a man behind the counter and you ask if they’ve got anything nice today. Then that man introduces you to great stuff that they know, because they’ve bought it and tasted it themselves.”
Iuzzolino is that man behind the counter, and television watchers couldn’t be in better hands.
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