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Emmy Q&A: A+E Networks Chief Nancy Dubuc on Television’s Power to Change Lives

Harnessing the power of television to advocate for and raise awareness of social issues is a tricky business.

A+E Networks cablers have embraced a range of causes for more than 30 years, from supporting veterans to breast cancer awareness to the treatment of drug addiction. In recognition of the company’s commitment to public service and advocacy efforts, A+E Networks will be feted on Saturday at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards with the Television Academy’s Governors Award.

A+E Networks president-CEO Nancy Dubuc spoke with Variety about the company’s approach to tackling social issues, the criteria they use to measure success and what it’s like to hear from people whose lives have been changed by programs such as A&E’s “Intervention.”

Where do you start when it comes to getting behind a cause or an issue? 

We do it at the brand level, the show level and the personal level. At the brand level, when you have a female-focused brand like Lifetime, it’s been part of our brand from the beginning to make sure we talk about women’s issues — whether it’s the power of voting, breast cancer awareness, pay parity or Broad Focus (filmmaker initiative). Women have a whole host of issues. How could we be a brand that represents women without representing those issues?

And then you’ve got an issue like preserving history, which is something we need to do as a nation. How do you recognize the importance of preserving history and the legacy of the men and women who have served our country?

A&E has flourished in being able to work through its shows. “Intervention” — it’s remarkable how long that show has gone on, and it’s got an Emmy nomination again this year. We don’t just treat (outreach) as some small adjacency to the show. We looked at how you make a movement out of the underlying message of the show — that people need to think differently about drug addition and recovery. We’ve worked with Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Recovery Project. Many of the people who have been affected by that work may never have seen “Intervention,” and that’s OK. What we have are assets that can drive awareness and the ability to put spending power and brand power and corporate power behind a movement.

But of all the worthy causes out there, how do you decide what to embrace?

It’s hard. I rely heavily on my team, including (A+E exec VP) Michael Feeney, and the passion that we see within our organization. Writing a check is easy. The opportunity for real change happens when there’s a person who comes to you with real passion to create a movement. … This company has a history of service and corporately doing things that people can feel and touch and take pride in. One of our secret-sauce powers is that our people don’t just write checks and place the ads but our employees go the extra mile to get things done.

Can you given an anecdotal example of something that you’ve done on-air that had real-world impact?

One of the biggest things that we’ve able to do is help change the public perception of drug addiction and recovery through all the town halls we’ve done around the country and all the community work we’ve done with our (cable) affiliates. And when we started we saw many of our employees step forward and say ‘This issue has touched my family.’ It’s led to a recognition inside this company about how we deal with (substance abuse).

How do you know when one of your efforts is succeeding? 

Never in a million years in my job as a programming executive did I imagine I would get a phone call from a mother saying ‘You saved my child’s life’ (through ‘Intervention’). Conversely, I get phone calls saying ‘My child didn’t go to rehab. What do I do?’ And you have to talk to them. You have to engage if we’re really going to mean what we say.

You have said that you have a personal interest in the work A+E has done with veterans organizations such as Team Rubicon, which organizes veterans to provide disaster assistance, and History’s promotion of the “Thank A Veteran at Work Day” initiative. 

We have a lot of younger people in our buildings who never thought to thank their fathers and grandfathers for their (military) service. They never thought to sit down and ask them questions. I thought if we could create that kind of emotion in people, that’s what creates a movement to recognize and honor that service. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II, both in the Pacific. One wouldn’t talk about it, and one would. My way of getting at the one who wouldn’t talk about it was this initiative. He told stories about being given last rites as he was sent out from New York on a ship. Being from a large Catholic family, I know what that must have felt like.

With Lifetime’s Broad Focus you are targeting another issue close to home: the need to help open doors for women in the creative community.

Danielle Carrig (Lifetime senior VP) and Michael (Feeney) get all the credit for taking that ball and running with it. When I stepped into the Lifetime role in 2010, I did a listening tour of what was going on for women in this country. There was such a parallel in Hollywood with women talking about how there are stories that are not getting made and that talented young women are not getting the opportunity to direct and write. We looked around and said we have these roles to offer. We can make these opportunities happen here. … We’re working with young filmmakers and giving them the funding to work on scripts and direct shorts in an apprenticeship-type program. Sarah Shapiro (co-creator of Lifetime drama “Unreal”) came to us out of that kind of a program.

What does recognition like the Governors Award mean to your company?

It’s an honor to be at the helm when the company is receiving this award. I looked at the calendar and it was 16 years ago in November that I started at this company. At that time History had just received the Governors Award for its work in education. That’s a great honor for the company to be recognized twice. It’s a great connect-the-dots moment for me.

(Pictured: Nancy Dubuc flanked by Team Rubicon’s Will McNulty, David Petraeus and Jake Wood)

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