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With Shows Like ‘Live PD,’ Paul Buccieri Brings A+E Networks Back to Its Roots

“Live ‘Cops.’ ”

That was the shorthand pitch-in-the-hallway that intrigued A+E Networks executive Paul Buccieri enough to respond with an immediate yes.

At the time, Buccieri, 53, was about two years away from being promoted to the top job at A+E Networks, the cable programming group jointly owned by Disney and Hearst. He didn’t know then that “Live PD” would be the show to turn around the fortunes of A&E Network, one of the three pillars of the company that’s also home to cablers History and Lifetime.

But Buccieri did know that there was a void in the marketplace for a high-octane law enforcement reality show. He’d overseen the production budget for “Cops” during his run as president of programming for Fox’s Twentieth Television. He saw potential to develop a next-generation iteration of the seminal reality franchise. Producer Dan Cesareo of Big Fish Entertainment pitched a bold vision for a show that would blend multiple live feeds of beat cops on duty with in-studio commentary and legal analysis.

“We knew that this was a show that we could scale up significantly if it worked,” says Buccieri, who was named president of A+E Networks Group in July 2018, three months after his predecessor, Nancy Dubuc, left to lead Vice Media. 

Live PD,” which premiered in October 2016, has been a godsend to A&E, lifting the network out of the ratings slump that it settled into after hit reality show “Duck Dynasty” went through its boom-and-bust cycle between 2012-17. At its peak, “Duck Dynasty” was shattering cable ratings records, with more than 9 million viewers per episode. The show’s fall, however, was steep. By the final season, “Duck Dynasty” episodes were drawing about 1.5 million viewers. 

“Live PD” airs three hours a night on Fridays and Saturdays, ranking as the most-watched series in cable on those nights. It has generated three spinoffs to date: “Live Rescue,” following EMTs; “Live PD: Wanted,” which offers updates on suspects and victims featured on the mothership series; and Lifetime’s “Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol.”

The ratings rebound at A&E has given Buccieri some momentum after taking the reins at a precarious moment for the pay-TV business in general and A+E Networks Group in particular. He’s been tasked with right-sizing a business that’s still extremely profitable for its parent companies — which are 50-50 partners in A+E — but whose long-term trend lines are going in the wrong direction. Unless, of course, an enterprising leader can reinvent the business and grow it in other areas. 

Buccieri joined A+E Networks as head of A&E and History in early 2015. In 2016, he added oversight of Lifetime. When Dubuc departed, Buccieri was the natural choice as successor.

For now, Buccieri has to manage the mandate of being brought in to adjust the business to the realities of the marketplace. That means trimming budgets for shows in some areas and being creative about doing more with less in others. But he’s wielded the scalpel in a smart and thoughtful way that draws on his roots as a producer. He served in the trenches of daytime talk shows and cable series such as “Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular.”

“Paul has come in with a very cost-conscious approach. He’s very determined to make the networks profitable at a time when cable networks are challenged by streaming and the erosion of the audience,” says Kevin Burns, a veteran producer who has delivered shows to A+E Networks for more than 25 years. Buccieri is a continuation of a tradition of A+E executives coming from producing backgrounds — skills that make all the difference when dealing with inevitable challenges and setbacks, Burns says.

“There’s been great communication from them about what they want and what they’re doing,” notes Burns, producer of History’s top-rated “The Curse of Oak Island,” among other shows. “When I have a problem on a show, it’s not unusual for Paul to call and help me solve it.”

The “Live PD” juggernaut has gone a long way to boosting the fortunes of A+E Networks. A+E is one of a handful of old-guard cable programming companies caught in the crossfire of the streaming wars. As the entertainment industry migrates to new platforms, the prospects of niche linear channels — even well-established ones that helped build the cable business — have dimmed. The conventional wisdom is there’s nowhere to go but down as declines in viewership and subscribers steadily eat away at profitability. The reversal of fortune for the ad-supported cable business still has industry veterans reeling. For more than 20 years, cable — with its dual revenue streams from advertising and affiliate fee revenue — was the business model to beat. But no more. 

A+E in particular has a tricky road ahead as it sorts out its streaming future among its parent companies. At present, the A+E group brands do not have a big presence on Disney Plus or Hulu, the streaming platforms that are top priorities for Disney. That has spurred speculation that Disney may be looking to sell its stake in A+E. Hearst is seen as unlikely to increase its stake. Disney declined to comment on the matter. A source close to the situation says there’s little chance of change coming any time soon to the Disney-Hearst partnership.

The gloomy climate for traditional linear cable makes it all the more remarkable that A+E Networks has posted growth in 2019, both in earnings and ratings. The company is starting to see the results of a course-correction strategy that began a few years ago. 

In short, the three flagship channels have stopped trying to be something they’re not — namely, major players in prestige scripted content — and have reconnected to the roots of what made them pillars of the cable business in the first place. 

“We decided we needed to lean in to the audience that we had and be unapologetic about it,” Buccieri says. “We said, ‘Let’s stop chasing after 20-somethings and focus on the people who do come to us. Let’s win there.’”

For A&E Network, that meant scripted dramas such as “Bates Motel” and “Longmire” were dropped in favor of a renewed focus on true crime and intense, in-your-face documentary fare such as “Intervention” and “60 Days In.” “Live PD” gave the channel a cornerstone around which to build.

For Lifetime, honing the brand focus meant embracing the one thing that just about everyone born before 1999 associates with the channel: movies. Lifetime has some 200 movies in the works, running the gamut from women in peril to women falling in and out of love to women looking to change the world. And, of course, women in the throes of Christmas.

In recent years, Lifetime had shifted its focus on that front from tonnage in movies to doing about eight to 10 high-end, star-driven projects a year. When Buccieri assumed oversight of Lifetime, he crunched the numbers and realized that the network’s prestige movies were losing money — in some cases, big money. The same was true for most of Lifetime’s scripted series, such as “Unreal” and “You.” The ratings weren’t strong enough to justify continued investment. 

Instead of running away from the cliché of “the Lifetime movie,” Buccieri decided it was high time the network capitalized on that brand equity. He bumped up the volume of orders of modestly budgeted titles to give viewers a fresh title every week — turning the movies into a reliable series franchise in the same way the Big Three networks once presented a made-for-TV movie of the week. 

Lifetime still plans to do a handful of higher-budget titles a year, the most recent example being the well-received “Patsy & Loretta” biopic starring Megan Hilty and Jessie Mueller as country music legends Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

History has been the most resilient of the flagship channels.

Buccieri is planning a History 25 promotional campaign for next year as the channel marks its silver anniversary on Jan. 1. He sees long-term opportunity for the cabler in History-branded live events and History Con gatherings that will bring out the faithful to interact with historians and experts around themed conventions. The channel is also investing in a series of six 8-hour “mega docs” on notable figures who are rock stars to the History audience, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Buccieri, who spent seven years at the U.S. arm of ITV Studios before joining A+E, says the focus on “brand clarity” for the flagship channels has been a crucial factor in galvanizing the company’s 1,200 employees at a challenging time for the industry. He points out that A+E Networks turns out about 1,600 hours of original content a year, most of which it owns outright. 

A big part of Buccieri’s management focus has been to “de-silo” the company, making the teams at the three channels work much more closely together on programming and marketing initiatives.

“We have tried to be very disciplined about our business, and not to be reactionary but proactive,” Buccieri says. “We have banded together in a way to eliminate distractions and focus on our core business. We feel we’re well positioned for whatever the future brings us.” 

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