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A+E CEO On Making Big Programming Bets, Like KKK & Leah Remini Series, As Costs Rise

Deadline logo Deadline 1/17/2017 David Lieberman
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Non-premium TV networks face a conundrum as they try to chart their course in an increasingly competitive market, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc told an opening session today at NATPE.

A model built around shows that have to be repeated over and over is “not holding up in a world of time shift and SVOD,” she says. At the same time, packing 80% of the schedule with premiere episodes “may not be sustainable.”

She notes that “there’s an arms race in the high end premium stuff” bought by outlets such as HBO and Netflix.

But “the middle is the area that makes me most nervous…We need to figure out how to do things much more efficiently so it frees us to make the big bets.”

It’s difficult because “costs have risen dramatically over the past five or so years. That’s not sustainable for even big businesses like ourself buying hundreds and hundreds of hours of unscripted [shows] a year.”

As a result, Dubuc says, “there needs to be a bigger focus on creative innovation in the unscripted arena as opposed to business models.” When a network or producer develops multiple versions of a successful show or format “that ultimately doesn’t serve the consumer, doesn’t serve the health of the ecosystem long term.”

The search for edgy content led to controversy: Last month A&E cancelled plans to air a docuseries, Escaping The KKK,  after it disclosed that “third-party producers” had paid for access to at least some of the people who participated.

“The investigation is ongoing,” Dubuc says. “We’re not sure yet where the issues really lie.”

The series about the Ku Klux Klan “was greenlit a year and a half ago, long before we we had any sense about where the nation would be right now. I think there’s a combination of seeing around the corner of a theme that was emerging, ending up in a moment in our nation’s history [that] none of us were expecting….and dealing with producers who may or may not have been following documentary protocol.”

She adds that the company must “take a close look at making sure that we’re more surgical and more tailored in dealing with our production community and producing partners in [developing] stricter guidelines around how and when shows are produced. But we’re going to do that after the investigation is complete. We can’t do that without knowing the full story.”

Dubuc also endured what she calls “creepy” responses to the 10-episode documentary Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.

“My Facebook feed, my personal feed, is all anti-Leah,” she says. “The church is  buying my profile. My friends think it’s wild, like: ‘What did you do?'”

She adds that she’s “very proud” of Remini’s willingness to publicly discuss her experiences with Scientology. “It’s a courageous thing to do. If we can be changing some lives along the way, that’s the holy grail on television.”

More broadly, the CEO says that in a cluttered market networks need to be recognized as destinations for certain kinds of programming — in A+E’s case for women, history and non-fiction entertainment.

Social media have become useful platforms for marketing. But networks must watch “the amount of content investment and brand investment that’s going into social that isn’t monetizable.”

What’s more, “it should be less about ‘Watch this Wednesday at 9:00, and more about a continuation of a story in a different way that makes you curious and makes you go out and seek it.”

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