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A+E Networks Showcases Brands, Culture and Storytelling at Upfront

Variety logo Variety 3/22/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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A+E Networks took a big departure from the traditional upfront hard sell to emphasize the distinct culture and storytelling styles at its core networks.

The cable powerhouse’s dinner presentation at Jazz at Lincoln Center Tuesday night offered heartfelt testimonials from company staffers about the influence that TV has had on their lives.

There were a few brand-image pitch reels and plugs for upcoming shows — including “The Breach” scripted anthology series for History that will bow with the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and “Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History” — but the primary message to the roomful of media buyers was the intense focus on storytelling and emotional engagement.

A+E Networks president-CEO Nancy Dubuc kicked it off by sharing memories of watching “General Hospital” with her grandmother after school, which nurtured her love of TV.

“The holy grail was Saturday night — ‘The Love Boat,’ ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Dubuc said.

She confessed to writing a paper while in college examining the “societal differences between ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘Murphy Brown.’ ”

All of the time spent watching and thinking about TV led Dubuc to thrive as a producer and programming executive. “TV is our window on the world,” she said. “It’s a powerful medium for great stories that become part of our very, very personal journey.”

Dubai emphasized the company’s focus on honing not just the shows but the brand images presented by A&E, Lifetime and History in an effort to stand out in a crowded TV landscape. “We’re trying to create the connections of today that become the next generation’s memories of tomorrow,” she said.

To underscore that point, a series of executives took the stage to reminisce about favorite TV memories. Marcela Tabares, of A+E’s audience insights department, spoke of coming to the Bronx in the late 1970s as a kid after fleeing Colombia with her family. “Television helped us navigate our social identity in this new world,” she said.

Meghan Hooper, a co-productions and acquisitions executive at Lifetime, recalled her childhood obsession with “Sesame Street” (“every valuable lesson I learned in life I learned from that show”) and her teenage obsession with Lifetime movies. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Lifetime’s past influences her efforts to deliver a diverse range of characters and perspectives.  “I want to make sure we’re creating characters that will exist in the world around us,” she said.

Devon Hammonds, a programming executive at A&E, spoke candidly of her connection to the “Intervention” franchise. “My sister is an addict,” she said. “I know all too well the perils of addition.”

Rob Sharenow, exec VP and g.m. of A&E and Lifetime, read a copy of the pitch letter he sent to A&E in his bid to get a job as a writer on the “Biography” franchise, which will return to the cabler later this year after a lengthy absence. He got called in for an interview but didn’t get the gig. He called it a “rather stunning moment of poetic justice” that he’s now getting his chance to work on the franchise.

Steve Ascher, an executive producer for History, talked about being a fifth grader on Jan. 26, 1986. His class had been exchanging letters with Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire elementary school teacher who landed a spot on the Challenger space shuttle mission in an effort to teach kids about the universe and the space program.

Ascher and his classmates gathered around the set in their classroom and watched the tragedy unfold in real time. The experience led him to a career in TV news and production.

“When it comes to making you viscerally feel these generation-defining moments, nothing does a better job than television,” Ascher said, with conviction.

This being an upfront, the closer was of course A+E ad sales head Peter Olsen, who talked about the life-changing experience of getting his Farrah Fawcett poster as a 12-year-old and a Fonzie-inspired leather jacket. He was interrupted on stage by Desus and Mero, the host of Viceland’s late-night series of the same name.

“On the streets I’m known as Young KPI,” Desus joked. Mero gave the buyers a street-wise tip: “The best thing is to get in early on a cool thing. Trust me, I’m f—–g cool.”

(Pictured: Marcela Tabares)

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