Realscreen’s Trailblazers: Robert Sharenow on A&E’s “new era”

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. ...
January 22, 2018

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. With Trailblazers, realscreen salutes those behind some of the high points, profiling individuals and companies that — through innovative and brave approaches to their work — have been behind some of the more inspiring projects to emerge in 2017.

We begin our look at 2017′s Trailblazers with A+E Networks’ Rob Sharenow, with profiles of our other Trailblazers rolling out throughout the week.

As a veteran executive at A+E Networks, Rob Sharenow has never been shy when it comes to offering his take on the status of the non-fiction content industry. But a quote taken from a session at the 2014 Realscreen Summit still pops up in panel discussions at assorted events — his assertion that, at the time, unscripted and non-fiction television was undergoing a “creative crisis.”

In 2017, one of the nets under his watch, A&E, had a banner year courtesy of such critically acclaimed, award winning and well-rated programming as Bunim/Murray’s Born This Way, Big Fish’s Live PD, IPC’s Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, and the continued success of Lucky 8′s 60 Days in. But Sharenow still sees plenty of room for improvement for the industry at large.

“There’s still a glut of garbage that is clogging the system,” he says from his New York office. “People have to sift through a massive amount of content to find the gold, which is why I look at our brands as needing to carefully curate our choices. People need to rely on us, as the gatekeepers of these brands, to be consistent.”

Upped to president of programming across the A+E portfolio this past July, Sharenow is justifiably proud of the aforementioned shows and the impact they’ve had on “ushering in a new era” for A&E — an era that is squarely focused on non-fiction and unscripted content, with the net announcing a pulling away from scripted in April.

The move has paid off, as have investments in feature docs through A&E Indie Films, headed up by Molly Thompson and under the A+E Studios umbrella. Serving as EP on several of the division’s successful theatrical docs — including Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated and Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts to name a couple — Sharenow gushes: “They’ve kept the bar really high and that’s something I’m looking to translate across all the brands.”

The year ahead should see interesting moves from History into more documentary storytelling, and aggressive moves into emotionally charged formats for Lifetime, such as the U.S. version of This Time, Next Year, which premiered this month. And, for the published novelist who just so happens to run programming for A+E, perhaps another book… or two.

“I’m constantly working on stuff and I’m working on two things simultaneously,” he says. “One thing is for my publisher, and the other is a novel I’ve been working on for 15 years. My wife calls it my ‘white whale.’”

A&E has had a great year, in large part due to a refocusing on high-end unscripted and non-fiction fare. What tone is the net looking for in content now?

A&E definitely embraces what we call “brave storytelling” — being able to approach a subject in a way that hasn’t really been done before. We also talk a lot here about the “front row experience” and putting people as close to the real experience as filmmaking can get. Also, being part of the cultural conversation — A&E is at its best when it speaks to culture in a way that other brands don’t. The shows can become touchstones through which big subjects are tackled and discussed.

What do you see in the immediate future for History, with Eli Lehrer on board as EVP, and for Lifetime?

With History, we have a category killer brand in the name of the network. I think you’ll see us own a moment or a subject matter in a very definitive way, both domestically and globally.

One of my pet peeves is when someone else does big history — PBS, for example, just had success with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. We need to own that, and be the brand that people think of when they think of historical documentary.

There’s a really exciting opportunity for Lifetime. I still think of it as a relative newcomer in the non-fiction field, but it has done an extraordinary job in establishing franchises with shows such as Dance Moms, Bring It, The Rap Game, Little Women and obviously Project Runway. My goal for that brand is to really go after reality and non-fiction formats that speak directly to women.

  • Our “Trailblazers” feature first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.