Our look at Realscreen’s Trailblazers for 2014 continues with Jana Bennett, president of A+E Networks’ FYI and LMN.
Reinventing a network is one thing, but reinventing a genre is quite another.
When Jana Bennett, former director of BBC Vision, was named the president of A+E Networks’ entry into the lifestyle space, FYI, there was expectation within the unscripted industry that the network, a top-to-bottom rebrand of Bio, would strive to offer up a slate that could woo platform-promiscuous millennials back to cable, or at least, over to FYI.
As its launch in July approached, Bennett spoke often in interviews about her aim for the network to appeal to the multi-hyphenate nature of a generation currently left in the cold by the bulk of lifestyle programming. “[People] don’t have just one interest,” she told realscreen prior to the net’s launch. “They may be a mother, foodie, a maker and a traveler.”
With a veteran development team in place, led by SVP Gena McCarthy and including VPs Liz Fine and James Bolosh, Bennett and crew tapped into the talents of established television producers – such as Kinetic Content, who brought the network one of its biggest hits thus far in the U.S. version of Married at First Sight – and content shops that made their mark online, including Collective Digital Studio, whose YouTube phenomenon Epic Meal Time made the leap to cable via FYI.
For producers on either side of the content equation – linear or digital – Bennett’s call to “rip up the rule book” when pitching the network should serve as an open invitation to attack the myriad subgenres within lifestyle content – food, lodging, fashion among them – with as much creativity as possible. For Bennett, who has previous experience in revamping an American cable brand through her time with TLC at the turn of the millennium, overseeing FYI and sister net LMN provides her with yet another opportunity to innovate.
One year in, what shows can you point to as the ones that best exemplify FYI?
With FYI being about how we live today and the notion that life can be lived across a number of interests as opposed to being too compartmentalized, the shows that we think represent the brand are hybrids in some ways.
Something like Tiny House Nation – I like that very much, partly because it’s been very successful, but partly because it’s embracing trends such as extreme downsizing and being very creative in a smaller space. I think that sort of tiny house movement taps into a lot of things going on today. I think Married at First Sight, which is our biggest hit, was successful because it was authentic, and stripped back the artifice that we’ve seen in reality that’s been very produced. Epic Meal Time is a good example of how FYI is partnering with and embracing the YouTube community.
Have there been any similarities in the process between launching this net and effectively rebrandng TLC?
One of the similarities is the idea of going beyond the TV bubble and tapping into what people are really doing, and finding ideas out of those social trends. Another is finding a point of difference in the approach to making shows.
Back at TLC, at that time you never really saw any mistakes being made in home improvement shows. They were very much about the “how to”, and everything was always kind of perfect. What we did at TLC was bring in some shows in which it would be fine for things to go wrong… If you look at the digital world and the huge success of vloggers and YouTube stars, you see that they have a direct connection to their audiences. We need to step back a little bit and let people have a voice that is fresh and raw.
There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about the health of the unscripted content industry. How do you think it will fare in the year ahead?
Unscripted is an amazing area full of programming possibilities, because it’s about whatever we choose to make it about. Life is full of twists and turns, so there is no lack of potential ideas. Great shows will find audiences. But there has to be many points of difference, and reinvention is essential.
I also think that we need to be willing to embrace the creativity happening in the non-linear world. It’s not a huge divide now, and that should be an even greater source of creativity, in terms of crossing over with talent or producers, and in terms of our own ability to have crossplatform programming.
I think great things will come out of that. This is a more creative time than any other I can think of.