Planning an annual upfront event is hard enough for a media company, but it’s even tougher when the CEO abruptly announces just three days earlier that she’s stepping down, as A+E Networks’ Nancy Dubuc did on Monday.
However, the show must go on. Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales for A+E Networks, said that Dubuc’s sudden exit won’t change his months-in-the-making upfront pitch to buyers at tonight’s event, which will be held at the New York Public Library.
“What we’re trying to stress to clients is [that] the brands are in a very good place,” said Olsen. “There’s a ton of stability.”
That stability, Olsen said, extends to the exec team. Abbe Raven, A+E’s chairman emeritus and former CEO who retired in 2015, will return to the company as acting chair and will oversee Dubuc’s transition. Meanwhile, Paul Buccieri, president of A+E Studios and A+E Networks Portfolio Group, and David “Digger” Granville-Smith, the company’s COO and CFO, will run day-to-day operations in Dubuc’s absence. According to sources, they are also the most likely candidates to replace Dubuc.
Until a new CEO is named, “there’s a tremendous amount of stability, because the executives that were in place, that were already somewhat empowered, are just taking their current roles and taking on a little bit more,” said Olsen. “Abbe still has an office, and we see her on a regular basis.”
While Olsen’s message is unchanged, there will be one notable difference at tonight’s event: Raven will speak in place of Dubuc, who is heading over to Vice Media as its new CEO (Shane Smith will serve as executive chairman, focusing on strategic deals and content development). Dubuc will no longer attend tonight’s upfront—even to support Vice Media’s Viceland—in order to keep the event’s focus on the brands rather than her departure.
The upfront will feature all women presenters from across the portfolio, including Toni Braxton (Lifetime movie Faith Under Fire), Marcia Clark (A&E’s true-crime series, Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48), Kristin Davis (Biography’s History, Herstory series for Women’s History Month), Olivia Munn (History’s series Six), Queen Latifah (Lifetime’s Flint movie and executive producing The Rap Game) and Leah Remini (A&E’s Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath).
During his closing remarks after the presentations, Olsen will discuss the power of premium and long-form storytelling. “TV is still in the driver’s seat,” he said. “We’re starting to see even more ammunition for clients to prove inside their own buildings that TV still dominates.”
The company also has new ammunition to provide: A+E was one of the media companies testing Data Plus Math’s attribution measurement platform formerly known as “Thor,” and Olsen said the early data, which he’ll be sharing soon, is encouraging. “We finally have a tool to prove what we’ve always known, that TV drives sales,” he said.
A+E will go to this upfront to market the idea of focusing on a brand and genre level more than a show level. With Peak TV, “marketers are being drawn more to platforms. There’s so much out there, they don’t know the shows anymore. So the brands and brand-based genre storytelling is huge,” said Olsen.
That message, he continued, is more effective than the “gimmicks” touted by competitors. “A six-second spot, to me—there’s no long-term benefit from that to the industry,” said Olsen. “That’s a short-term gimmick. If we can prove that TV drives sales results, that’s going to matter.”
That’s why A+E is further delineating its biggest brands, “which we think ultimately bodes [well] for a better chance at long-term success,” said Olsen.
History is the home of premium documentary and scripted storytelling (with shows like Vikings and a just-announced ambitious docuseries, History 100; see below). Lifetime is recommitting to original movies, “which are going to be rolled out more thematically” with different themes throughout the year, said Olsen.
“They’re trying to own movies, not just like Hallmark for one month of the year, but for the entire year,” he added.
And A&E’s against-the-grain retreat last year from scripted into nonfiction programming has paid off with 12 consecutive months of viewer growth, thanks to shows like Live PD and Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, the latter of which was just renewed for Season 3.
“This is the first time in a few years we can stand up there and say, ratings are up,” with both A&E and History seeing lifts. “We feel really good about where the Lifetime plans are going over the next 15 months, so I think there’s a little bit of feeling bravado and confidence about where the brands are,” Olsen explained.
Last fall, Olsen reconfigured his ad sales team to sell inventory cross-portfolio and cross-platform, so this will be the first upfront under the new structure. This upfront, he’ll be looking for new partnerships along the lines of Lifetime teaming with Ford Motor Company to produce custom content for Her America: 50 Women, 50 States, its digital series spotlighting women across the country. Olsen said the pieces from Lifetime and Ford are “creative and authentic to their respective brands.”
New shows from History, A&E and Lifetime
A+E’s networks made several programming announcements ahead of the upfront. Among the highlights:
- History will launch a new documentary franchise dubbed History 100, its own version of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. History 100 will be comprised of 100 documentary films from filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Barbara Kopple; the films will spotlight compelling events from the past 100 years. Subjects include the Operation Eagle Claw (the attempted Delta Force mission to end the Iran Hostage Crisis), the cola wars between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Watergate and the rise of the video game industry.
- History will return to live programming on July 8 with Evel Live, in which professional motorsports star Travis Pastrana will attempt three of daredevil Evel Knievel’s most dangerous stunts.
- A&E is rolling out several new docuseries. Examples include Many Sides of Jane—about a single mom of two from Boise, Idaho with dissociative identity disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder) and more than nine personalities—and The Accused, which takes a look at what happens to defendants (and their families) accused of a crime they believe they didn’t commit.
- On Sept. 9, the Lifetime movie The Bad Seed, a reimagining of the 1956 horror film starring and directed by Rob Lowe, will premiere and lead into new scripted drama You from executive producer Greg Berlanti. The network will challenge Hallmark’s movie dominance during Christmas by premiering 14 new original movies during November and December. Lifetime also signed production deals with Queen Latifah and Toni Braxton to create new documentaries and specials for the network.