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‘Biography’ Franchise Returns as Event Programming Across A+E Networks Channels (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety logo Variety 3/21/2017 Cynthia Littleton
© Provided by Variety

A+E Networks is reviving one of the programming franchises that built the company into a cable powerhouse: “Biography.”

The series that once defined A&E Network will be revived starting in the spring as a recurring program tied to current headlines, milestone anniversaries and newly unearthed material about famous names.

The new-model “Biography” will air in various formats, from multi-part series to two-hour specials. The installments will primarily air on A&E Network but some will run on History and Lifetime as warranted by the subject matter. As part of the revival, A+E’s existing Bio.com digital content hub will receive a major overhaul, adding more video content and resources to coincide with new installments.

Among the docu productions ordered for the relaunch is a six-hour series examing the life and death of Tupac Shakur, a two-hour take on the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. (aka Christopher Wallace), and a four-hour look at the complicated relationship between mob boss John Gotti and scion John Gotti Jr.

“Biography” is expected to return later this spring with the Notorious B.I.G episode.

Rob Sharenow, exec VP and general manager of A&E and Lifetime, said the revival was sparked in part by his appreciation for a recent spate of documentary features including 2015’s “Amy,” about the late singer Amy Winehouse, and HBO’s 2015 Kurt Cobain bio “Cobain: Montage of Heck.”

“There have been several feature films that spoke to people about figures that they love in pop culture,” Sharenow told Variety. “It just seemed like a ripe opportunity for us to jump back in. We have the premium brand in this genre.”

Sharenow emphasized “Biography’s” role in igniting the unscripted docu-series genre that remains a staple of cable schedules today. The success of the show spawned a thousand imitators, from Lifetime’s “Intimate Portrait” to E!’s “Headliners and Legends” to VH1’s “Behind the Music.” 

“We’re in a moment where all of those franchises are gone but there’s an amazing renaissance in documentary and biographical storytelling,” Sharenow said.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is really break the mold with different formats and lengths, but they will always be stories about people and significant moments in (public) life,” he said. “In the case of Tupac it’s going to be a multipart series that artfully tells the story of his life while investigating the theories around his death.”

Although the first batch of installments have a common thread of crime stories, Sharenow says they are pursuing a range of subjects including the stories of a number of prominent women.

“We’re looking for ‘Biography’ to be an ongoing multi-brand, cross-platform franchise,” Sharenow said.

A+E is confident that the Bio.com digital offshoot has potential to grow with the influx of new programming, original digital content and a renewed distribution push because the website has been humming along for years “as a very robust business for us without any linear support,” Sharenow said.

“Biography” ran as a weekly series on A&E from 1987 through 2012. Most episodes were hourlong installments offering an overview of the lives of notable figures in recent history, running the gamut of film and TV stars to politicians to sports figures to business and civic leaders. Silver-haired actor Peter Graves served as the host who delivered a brief introduction for each episode with a combination of gravitas and humor. The former “Mission: Impossible” star was such a mainstay on “Biography” that he was spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” by Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman.

“Biography” racked up so many hundreds of episodes that A+E launched the dedicated Bio spinoff channel. Bio aired from 1999 until it was rebranded as lifestyle FYI in 2014.

With the new “Biography” episodes, the goal is to offer more variety in storytelling and filmmaking approaches. There are no plans for a single host to fill the shoes of Graves, who died in 2010 at 83. However, Sharenow said the intent is to sprinkle “Biography” installments into the schedules of A&E, Lifetime and History in connection with other programming initiatives, which could lend itself to relevant hosts coming in for specific projects.

Other two-hour installments in production include studies of Russian president Vladimir Putin, boxer Mike Tyson, kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart and cult leader David Koresh.

During his early career as a film and TV writer, Sharenow went up for a job on “Biography” but didn’t get the gig. “There’s a kind of sweet irony that I’m bringing it back,” he joked.

Here’s a rundown of the projects on tap for the new “Biography”:

“The Notorious Life of Biggie Smalls” – 1x120min – A&E Network

“The Notorious Life of Biggie Smalls” is a two-hour, deeply personal “Biography” documentary that will trace the life, death and legacy of the late Christopher Wallace a.k.a. “The Notorious B.I.G.” as told by those who loved him most, including his widow Faith Evans, his mother Voletta Wallace, his close friend Lil Cease, the members of Junior Mafia, and some of the biggest superstars in hip hop. Directed by Mark Ford, this documentary is the definitive biography of Biggie Smalls and the first to be officially authorized by his estate. The film will allow Biggie to narrate his own incredible life story, employing archival footage and audio recordings that have never been heard before.  Twenty years after his death, this inspiring and intimate documentary will also focus on Faith Evans as she embarks on an emotional journey to reconcile her turbulent memories, as she works on a new album of duets with her late husband entitled, “The King & I.”  The film will explore the people and places that shaped his life: his youth hustling on the streets of Brooklyn, NY, his rise to fame with his friend and collaborator Sean “Diddy” Combs, his relationships with Faith Evans and Lil Kim, his feud with Tupac Shakur, and his shocking murder on the streets of Los Angeles. This will be the most personal and revealing documentary about the late Christopher Wallace that anyone has ever seen.

“The Notorious Life of Biggie Smalls” is directed by Mark Ford and produced by Creature Films in association with Entertainment One (eOne). Executive producers for Creatures Film are Mark Ford and Kevin Lopez. Executive Producers for eOne are John Morayniss and Tara Long. Voletta Wallace and Faith Evans also serve as executive producers. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Abramson. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “The Notorious Life of Biggie Smalls.”

The End of America: Putin’s Master Plan (working title) – 1×120 – HISTORY

“The End of America: Putin’s Master Plan” (working title) is a revealing two-hour special that will take viewers on a journey to understand how this cunning spymaster and dictator has made to change the balance of power, overthrow the existing order, and threaten American supremacy. Putin’s story will be told through the eyes of experts and rare archival footage, along with a present day investigation. Viewers will hear from former bodyguards and KGB comrades; oligarchs and spurned allies who have run afoul of the enigmatic ruler. Additionally, audiences will hear for the first time directly from American spymasters and agents who fought against him in the past and continue to do so today.

“The End of America: Putin’s Master Plan” (working title) is produced for History by Lincoln Square Productions. Terence Wrong will serve as the executive producer and Rudy Bednar will direct for Lincoln Square Productions.  Zachary Behr and Jen Wagman serve as the executive producers for History.

Who Killed Tupac?– 6x60min – A&E Network

“Who Killed Tupac?” is a six-hour mini-series that focuses on the investigation, twenty years after the death of the dynamic and influential rapper and actor. Famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump will conduct, for the first time ever, a no-stone-unturned investigation.  Crump has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and other victims of gun violence who many believe were denied their due process under law. When Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who went to high school with Crump’s mother, saw that he was fighting for truth and justice for the family of Trayvon Martin, she expressed to him how important that was and asked him to do the same for Tupac and other young black men.  In each installment of this investigative series, viewers will learn about the legendary artist’s life while Crump examines key theories surrounding the murder. This docu-series will be the most fascinating and comprehensive look at the rise and life of a great artist, and perhaps the most high-profile unsolved murder in U.S. history. Through Tupac’s own words and exclusive new interviews with eyewitnesses, family, friends, and colleagues, viewers will come to understand every facet of Tupac Shakur’s complex personality.

“Who Killed Tupac?” is produced by Renegade 83 in association with FGW Productions. Executive producers for Renegade 83 are Jay Renfroe and David Garfinkle. Stephanie Frederic is the executive producer for FGW Productions. Jason Sklaver serves as executive producer and director. Benjamin Crump also serves as executive producer. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Abramson. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “Who Killed Tupac?”

Gotti & Son (working title) – 4x60min – A&E Network

“Gotti & Son” (working title) is a docuseries that tells the story of the legendary Gambino crime family through the intimate and complicated relationship of John Gotti and his son, John Jr., who rose through the ranks eventually replacing his father once he was imprisoned. The documentary promises  unprecedented, exclusive access to the Gotti family to tell for the first time the complete and uncensored story.  The narrative spine of the docu-series is never-before-seen segments from a 90-minute video of the last visit between a dying John Gotti Sr. and his son at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo.  It was during this meeting that John Gotti Jr., asked his father for his blessing to take the unprecedented steps of quitting what might have been one of the last of the great Mafia dynasties. 

“Gotti & Son” (working title) is produced by Kaufman Films for A&E.  Richard Stratton serves as executive producer and director.  Additionally, executive producer for Kaufman Films is Kevin Kaufman. Executive Producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro, Molly Thompson and Brad Abramson. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “Gotti & Son” (working title).

Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography (working title) – 1x120min – A&E Network

In this revealing two-hour episode, Elizabeth Smart provides previously untold details of her infamous abduction and 9-month nightmare in the grasp of her bizarre and cruel captors. Now 29 years old, Elizabeth shares the perspective she’s gained on the agonizing ordeal she endured at the tender age of 14. Marking the 15th year anniversary, Elizabeth, her close family, law enforcement and eyewitnesses reveal new information about the harrowing child abduction case that galvanized the attention of a nation – as well as her remarkable recovery, marriage, motherhood, and advocacy on behalf of victims.

“Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography” (working title) is produced by Asylum Entertainment in association with Marwar Junction Productions. Executive producers for Asylum Entertainment are Steve Michaels and Jonathan Koch along with David Michaels. Executive producers for Marwar Junction Productions are Allison Berkley and Joseph Freed. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Amy Savitsky and Brad Abramson.  A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography” (working title).

Mike Tyson: Autobiography (working title) – 1x120min – A&E Network

How did heavyweight boxing champ Iron Mike Tyson go from being “The Baddest Man on the Planet” to the lovable star of “The Hangover” and a self-described “tennis dad?” In the dramatic two-hour special, “Mike Tyson: Autobiography” (working title), Mike Tyson and his wife Kiki share intimate details of how Mike rose from crushing poverty and juvenile delinquency to the soaring heights of sports stardom, international fame and lavish wealth – then lost it all to self-destructive behavior and drug addiction. Mike and Kiki reveal how Mike turned his life around from “zombie mode” to marriage and fatherhood.

“Mike Tyson: Autobiography” (working title) is produced by Asylum Entertainment in association with Marwar Junction Productions.  Executive producers for Asylum Entertainment are Steve Michaels and Jonathan Koch along with David Michaels. Executive producers for Marwar Junction Productions are Allison Berkley and Joseph Freed. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Amy Savitsky and Brad Abramson. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “Mike Tyson: Autobiography” (working title).

David Koresh And The Siege Of Waco (working title) – 1x120min – A&E Network

In 1993, Mt. Carmel Ranch outside Waco, Texas was the site of one of the deadliest sieges in American history.  A 51-day standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, ended in tragedy. Now, a new Branch Davidian leader, Charles Pace, is living on the same property. His main goal is to repopulate the Branch Davidian sect before the coming apocalypse. This two-hour documentary will weave this current-day narrative with the story of Koresh and his followers. Just in time for the 25th Anniversary of the Waco tragedy, “David Koresh And The Siege Of Waco” (working title) will combine interviews with survivors on location at Mt. Carmel, as well as family, friends, and key ATF/FBI officers, along with cinematic reconstructions and incredible archive.

“David Koresh And The Siege Of Waco” (working title) is produced by Raw TV for A&E.  Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Abramson.  A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights for “David Koresh And The Siege Of Waco” (working title).

(Pictured: Notorious B.I.G, Vladimir Putin, Tupac Shakur)

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