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RSW ’13: A+E’s GMs talk past, present and future

During Realscreen West's final session, the general managers of A&E, History and Lifetime discussed future programming strategy, past failures and why landing a pitch meeting with them may not be the best way to get a greenlight.
June 7, 2013

Failure is not typically a topic network execs address extensively during television conference panels.

But at this year’s Realscreen West, the closing session featuring A+E Networks’ top programming honchos David McKillop (A&E and Bio), Dirk Hoogstra (History and H2) and Robert Sharenow (Lifetime) saw the execs looking back at the shows that didn’t quite make it, and the lessons learned along the way.

“A&E has a culture that allows us to take risks,” McKillop told the crowd after moderator Leslie Greif of Thinkfactory Media asked each panelist to share their favorite bombs. “We celebrate our failures. We have a champagne toast every time something bombs big time.”

Without the bombs, McKillop reasoned, there would not be successes like A&E’s ratings hit Duck Dynasty, Lifetime’s Dance Moms and History’s successful forays into scripted drama with Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible.

For his part, Hoogstra chose the 2009 documentary series Warriors as his formative failure. The show, which examined a different warrior culture each week, missed the mark as information and entertainment. Its inability to attract an audience ultimately helped develop his programming ethos for History.

“It was a time when we were pushing to be more character-driven,” he explained. “The show did OK, but it didn’t work, and what I realized is that it wasn’t one or the other… I realized I have to find an entertaining show and figure out how to take that and incorporate the History DNA into that [afterwards].”

In addition to failures, McKillop, Hoogstra and Sharenow – each of whom recently added general manager titles to their roles in an executive shuffling following Nancy Dubuc’s promotion to president and CEO of A+E Networks – also discussed future programming strategies, scripted series and why landing a pitch meeting with them may not be the best way to get a greenlight on their channels.

McKillop explained he is looking to build on A&E’s success with Duck Dynasty by programming “lighter fare.” The show, a comedic reality hit about a family of erudite Louisiana hunting entrepreneurs, picked up four honors at this year’s Realscreen Awards and its recent season two finale attracted a record-breaking 9.6 million viewers.

Although A&E is not abandoning hard-hitting shows along the lines of recently cancelled staple Intervention, McKillop said he wants to grow the cable channel’s reputation for humorous reality programming.

“Bad behavior has always made good television and that will always happen. But I think Duck Dynasty proves the exception to that rule,” he said, adding that he’s not looking for “comedy” or “immaturity” but shows that tap into Americans’ desire for levity in an intelligent way.

At Lifetime, Sharenow is looking for ideas that defy the stereotypes around female-skewing shows. “We have to be a top entertainment brand with the coolest shows,” he said. “We’re not a heavy channel. We’re never going to be the Intervention channel.”

Hoogstra’s plan to produce more scripted programming in the wake of Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible‘s successes was a popular subject among delegates during the Q&A portion of the session.

Echoing Dubuc by calling scripted “a complement” to History’s core unscripted business, he said the network has ambitions to start doing scripted coproductions in addition to more fully funded dramas. He also said that he would never rule out formats such as talk shows or game shows, but said the market’s focus on programs with repeatability means that a talk show or game show conceit is better off embedded in a docuseries.

Storage Wars is really a game show,” McKillop added.

Finally, when asked the best way of landing a pitch meeting with the panelists, each exec agreed that producers are better off winning over a junior exec that is in a better position to advocate for a show idea within the network – and know the best moment to spring an idea on an unsuspecting exec VP of programming and general manager. Moreover, if the first exec a hopeful producer pitches to is the top dog, the door can instantly slam shut if the answer is no.

Sharenow advised finding an advocate amongst the brands’ development teams, as going after the top execs can result in meetings that might be “really short and not very productive.” He adding jokingly of the trio: “We’re dead inside,” to much laughter from the room.

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