EXCLUSIVE: UK pay-TV operator Sky has acquired a majority stake in Songs of Praise producer Avanti Media as it continues to aggressively invest in independent production companies. The deal has been struck through Jane Millichip-run Sky Vision.

The 21st Century Fox-backed firm has bought a 51% stake in the Welsh company, which was founded by Emyr Afan and Mair Davies. I understand that Sky quietly picked up a minority shareholding in the company last year, over a year after it struck a first-look development and distribution deal with the firm. It has subsequently taken a majority share of the business.

Avanti Media is the latest high-profile British production company in Sky’s production portfolio alongside nine other companies including Love Productions, Blast Films, True North and Sugar Films in the UK and Jupiter Entertainment, Znak & Co and Talos Films in the U.S.

Last year, Avanti Media, which has offices in London and Cardiff, secured the rights, alongside Manchester-based firm Nine Lives Media, to the BBC’s long-running religious program Songs of Praise in a hotly contested bid. Songs of Praise was the first BBC series to be snapped up by independent producers after the British public broadcaster decided to scrap in-house guarantees in October 2016; it was previously produced by in-house division BBC Studios. The Sunday evening show, which presents Christian hymns, is worth around £12M (US$16.5M) to the two companies with 51 episodes produced a year and the initial deal lasting three years.

Avanti has been ramping up its UK and international businesses over the last few years; in October 2016 it hired Neil Grant, who was previously Managing Director of Films of Record and producer of BBC1’s Bafta-Award winning documentary series Murder Detectives, as Creative Director. The company said Grant’s hire would help it grow its factual, features and current affairs content. It has also produced documentaries including Frozen Christmas, which looks at the booming business of decorative ice, for Channel 4, BBC1 insect-based food doc The Bug Grub Couple and C4’s Britain’s Billionaire Immigrants, a look at some of China’s wealthy elite, who are obsessed with all things British and have the money to pay for them.

Sky Vision Managing Director Jane Millichip said: “We have been working with Avanti for two years now, so the acquisition of a majority stake is a natural extension of our joint growth strategy. Emyr Afan and Mair Davies have built an exciting production business with a strong mix of event-based entertainment through to current affairs and documentary, testified by recent commissions; the Mobo Awards on Channel 5; the BBC’s Songs of Praise; and BBC Wales’ current affairs series The Hour. We believe Sky Vision will provide strong commercial partnership, and Avanti is a complementary fit in our growing production portfolio as a Network and Nations and Regions supplier.”

Avanti Co-Founder Emyr Afan added: “Avanti is delighted to join the Sky Vision family of stellar production companies. We applaud Sky’s vote of confidence in our potential, as well as its investment and commitment to Wales ensuring that talent in every part of the UK is seen and heard. This deal provides Avanti with the platform to fulfil our long term creative and commercial ambitions, both nationally and internationally. It’s a game changer for us.”