Upfronts: A+E Networks Goes Big, Niche and Embraces Vice

A+E Networks channels have hit the gas on content development in all its forms. That was the message delivered Thursday night by the top brass of the cable group from the stage at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory — an apt setting for a presentation on how A+E is arming itself with big-ticket programming to do battle in an increasingly competitive TV landscape.

“We aren’t afraid to take creative risks, which is the main ingredient in our recipe for change,” A+E Networks president-CEO Nancy Dubuc told the packed house.

Dubuc made subtle references to the ratings struggles that the company’s flagship cablers have faced in the past year, citing the rapid evolution of media in “these transformative times.” Primetime viewership of A&E Network was down 28% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2014; History was off 22%, though it remains a top 10 cabler; while Lifetime was down 11%.

But even more than the ratings cycle, the disruption that A+E outlets and other TV networks face is stirred by the rapid shifts in the way viewers are watching TV. A+E’s three flagship cablers are stepping up their efforts to make a dent on both ends of the programming spectrum, from digital-only series to “event” productions such as the remake of “Roots” and a dive into “War and Peace” that will simulcast across A&E, History and Lifetime next year.

The changing content picture for TV was also evident by the inclusion of Vice Media among the array of brands on display around the perimeter of the venue (photo ops with the cast of Lifetime’s “Devious Maids” were popular). A+E Networks bought 10% of Shane Smith’s red-hot content factory for $250 million last year. The History offshoot H2 is about to be transformed into a Vice-programmed channel.

Thursday’s presentation made it clear that A+E Networks is increasingly managing its cablers as branches of a single ecosystem rather than three separate business — hence the emphasis on simulcasts to make the most of A&E, History and Lifetime’s collective reach. Dubuc in her opening remarks was quick to tout the ramp-up of the A+E Studios arm, the production banner launched last year to help fortify the channels with high-end original series. She told crowd of media buyers that the studio has more than 40 projects percolating, giving the channels “more flexibility and opportunity to be creative not only with our programming but with your proximity to it, wherever it’s seen.”

Lifetime’s “Unreal,” the first drama series to come from A+E Studios, got a big push, with stars Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby tapped to introduce Dubuc. The series set behind the scenes of a reality dating show a la “The Bachelor” reflects the effort to bring a harder-edge to Lifetime originals. “Unreal” premieres June 1.

The emphasis on scripted series was hammered in the presentations made by History chief Dirk Hoogstra and Rob Sharenow, who as of February has headed programming for A&E as well as Lifetime. Sharenow acknowledged that A&E “has had its challenges this past year.”

A&E’s numbers have been dragged down by declining viewership for what had been its flagship series, the countrified reality series “Duck Dynasty.” The show’s popularity has ebbed in the months since patriarch Phil Robertson made headlines for controversial comments about his social views, but “Duck Dynasty” still got a shout-out during the presentation. Sharenow talked up the effort to bring a new breed of scripted and non-scripted series to A&E, including “Damien,” a sequel series to the 1976 horror hit “The Omen,” and “Fit to Fat to Fit,” a weight loss reality series involving trainers who pack on the pounds to better understand their obese clients.

The centerpiece of History’s presentation was the return to “Roots.” LeVar Burton, star of the original 1977 ABC miniseries and an exec producer of the revival, made an unabashed pitch in a brief appearance. “If you are a buyer, please do not miss this boat,” he said.

Lifetime’s plans include the digital-only initiative “Fall Into Me,” a collection of short-form programs that are akin to romance novel covers come to life.

Jana Bennett, head of FYI and Lifetime Movie Network, unveiled a handful of unscripted series for FYI, the lifestyle channel that launched last year on what had been the Bio network.

FYI has been a budding success story for A+E that gives the company a foothold in the high-end niche realms mined by such competitors as Bravo, TLC and Food Network. Among the new entries for FYI, “The Seven Year Switch” will see married couples part for two weeks to try living with a stranger; “Food Porn” is a showcase of unusual eats hosted by New York restauranteur Michael Chernow.

Dubuc displayed a sense of humor in her closing remarks before the rock band Fall Out Boy took the stage (to the delight of younger media buyers). “Are you ready to roll into a 30-minute presentation on Big Data and audience targeting?” she quipped, using buzzwords of this year’s upfront season.

Vice’s Smith was in the crowd for the presentation, but there was no mention from execs of the plans for H2, as details of the transformation are still being hammered out. Smith nonetheless got a big endorsement from the stage when a member of Fall Out Boy declared between songs, “Shane Smith is awesome” and expressed his enthusiasm for Vice getting its own 24-hour channel.

For Dubuc, at a time when TV execs are fretting about the exodus of younger viewers, that probably sounded like “mission accomplished.”

(Pictured: A+E Networks’ president-CEO Nancy Dubuc)

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