Winning the TV ratings battle requires not only strong captains, but stellar first lieutenants. At A+E, three experienced programming execs hold that rank at the net’s brands: A&E, Lifetime, and History. We asked this trio of vets to let us in on how they work with their bosses, the source of their programming savvy and the toughest choices they’ve ever made.
“A&E encourages risk-taking and following your gut with a deep understanding of your viewers and the brand,” says McKillop, who previously helped transform History by guiding hits like ‘Ice Road Truckers’ and ‘Pawn Stars.’
As part of his hunt for bold new shows, McKillop keeps up a constant dialogue with boss and A&E topper Bob DeBitetto. With offices down the hall from each other, the two often talk four times a day.
“Bob will ask the one question that you forgot to ask yourself, and put the project in perspective,” McKillop says. “He’ll say, ‘Is this big enough in tone, characters, tension, drama?'”
One McKillop strategy for finding big shows: Look beyond the face value of a pitch.
“There is always a gem hidden in a pitch. ‘Duck Dynasty’ is a very good example,” he says. “The tape that came in was very male-oriented, rock ’em, sock ’em, guns going off. We crafted a show around those characters that fit the A&E brand. That’s what propelled the show to such a successful launch.”
McKillop aims to stay slightly ahead of the pop-culture curve without going so far out that people can’t relate.
Reflecting how we live today has led to new show categories, what McKillop refers to as the “entrepreneurial transaction space” in “Storage Wars.”
Greenlighting isn’t the tough part. “The hardest decision is cancelling a show,” he says, “Especially shows that have been workhorses for your network, and are beginning to show signs of weakness.”
With 16 Emmy nominations for miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries, History has shown it can enter a completely new category and excel.
“We’re constantly looking to diversify,” Hoogstra says. “All of the things that have worked for us have been somewhat surprising, whether it’s a competition show like ‘Top Shot,’ the British format in ‘Top Gear’ or ‘Larry the Cable Guy.’ ”
Hoogstra’s boss, Nancy Dubuc, looks for ideas that are exciting, no matter what category they fall into.
“I come up with a list of really compelling reasons to watch,” Hoogstra says. “‘Pawn Stars’ is a good example: great family dynamic, great characters, cool items coming into the shop, the drama of selling and buying and the authentication process of learning the detail about this historic item. There’s just a rich list.”
Hoogstra always keeps the History audience in mind, even as the brand expands further by launching its first drama series, “The Vikings” next year.
“Marketing doesn’t have to explain what it is,” Hoogstra says. “We’re a 70% male-skewing audience. You put ‘Vikings’ up on the billboard and our viewers will come.”
Where Hoogstra struggles: Cancellation. “You have to constantly be putting yourself out of business,” he says. “A show that’s part of the brand recognition of your network might be showing its age.”
Since Sharenow moved to Lifetime from A&E in 2011, ratings have risen thanks to series such as scripted drama “The Client List” and reality entry “Dance Moms.”
“We are trying to be a more broad-based women’s brand that welcomes more people with shows that have a bigger cultural impact,” Sharenow says.
Sharenow first met his boss, Dubuc, when he was a writer on History’s “This Week in History.”
“Nancy’s script notes were impressive. That helped set the template for our back and forth,” Sharenow says. “She is a creative thinker and I speak my mind. She is not someone who wants ‘yes’ people.”
When developing shows, Sharenow seeks out strong characters and unique situations. The results can be controversial, as he learned while shepherding “Intervention” at A&E.
“There was an amount of risk that was involved in that show that was really high. … At the time it wasn’t clear that there would be an audience or advertisers who would be willing to support the show.”
More recently, the tough coach on “Dance Moms” drew criticism for her harsh teaching methods.
” ‘Dance Moms’ was a bold entry for us into a very different sphere of reality television for Lifetime,” Sharenow says. “There is something extraordinary about Abby Lee Miller as a character and what she brings to that world.”
Though series remain a priority, movies remain a huge part of Lifetime’s strategy. The upcoming “Liz & Dick” pic, about legendary thesps Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, will be sure to garner plenty of press, and, Lifetime, lots of eyeballs too.