A+E Networks programming president Robert Sharenow talked co-productions, returnable series, Live PD and “COVID fatigue” at the virtual Edinburgh TV Festival yesterday (Aug. 26).
Sharenow (pictured), who took up the role in 2017, oversees all content for A&E, Lifetime, History and the entire A+E Networks channel portfolio.
The executive shared insights into where opportunities lie across the company’s brands for producers, in a conversation with Peter White, television editor for Deadline,
Realscreen compiled a few key takeaways from the session below.
CO-PRODUCTIONS AND GLOBAL RIGHTS
Sharenow noted A+E Networks are in “active production” with UK producers such as October Films, Raw TV, Nutopia and Blast! Films.
“Some of the newer development that I’m most excited about has come from the UK, which is interesting because we’re being very selective and focused now in our curation of our greenlights,” he said.
Both in and outside the UK, Sharenow said the company is in a position to make “dynamic and unique deals.”
“We are looking to co-produce and bring in different partners in different ways,” he said.
As for A+E’s approach to rights, Sharenow said he’s “open for conversation about everything.”
“I’m going to be honest, we like to have global rights for sure, particularly on our non-scripted,” Sharenow said. “We don’t have an incredibly rigid template for anything and we will always entertain the right deal and would never let some sort of precedent for the sake of itself get in the way of us doing what we want to do that can really advance the brand or the business.”
RETURNABLE SERIES AND TALENT-LED PROJECTS
In its May upfronts presentation, A+E Networks revealed documentaries in the works at History with former U.S. president Bill Clinton and actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio.
A second three-part edition of Men Who Built America will be executive produced by DiCaprio and Appian Way and produced by Stephen David Entertainment.
Details on the Clinton project, meanwhile, are few, with the network stating it will “explore the history of the American presidency and the struggle for a more perfect union.”
Though, Sharenow said it isn’t a requirement for producers to bring big name talent to a pitch.
“DiCaprio is not just a pretty-face-talent attached to the project. He was already deeply invested in the subjects that we’re doing. One of the first things we did with him was about frontiersman; he had just done the Revenant and was deeply steeped in that history,” Sharenow said. “So it was kind of natural. We’re not like, ‘Hey, find me this celebrity and we’ll do the project.’ That’s really not what it’s about. It was about an organic attachment to the subject, which drove both the Clinton and the DiCaprio [projects].”
Sharenow pointed to Food That Built America, one of History’s most successful series in 2019, which told the stories of innovation and rivalry that shaped America’s culinary landscape.
The show is now being extended into a full docuseries about the history of food.
“That’s a perfect example where there wasn’t any mega star attached. It was just subject-driven, execution-driven. One of the things we are looking for is how do we open the aperture of History and make it more inviting to more audiences,” Sharenow said.
“That’s becoming more and more important in the U.S. market, people are watching things together… We’re not a family network but having that opportunity to have as wide a tent as possible with some of this stuff is important.”
Sharenow said he’s hesitant, however, to ask for specific types of content.
“I’m always distrustful of executives asking for things because that’s always asking for trouble, because if I was such a genius I’d just have my guys do it themselves. I started as a writer-producer and whenever I was on the other side of it and the executive was asking for something I’d always roll my eyes and think, ‘That’s never going to work,’” he said. “One thing that I’ve been a little hesitant on in the history space is popular culture because I think finding the right voice for popular culture for us would be challenging.”
The “holy grail” for the History channel, he said, would be a core history subject with series potential.
“The real and exciting thing for us would be to really turn that into a returnable, and that’s obviously most exciting for the producers too because they want the ongoing business and to be able to build on something,” he added.
CLOSED-ENDED FORMATS AND LIVE PD
A+E Networks is “heavily invested” in finding new formats, Sharenow said, with “a lot” of projects in the pipeline.
Yesterday (Aug. 26), History revealed it had commissioned a 10-part unscripted competition series featuring former Home Improvement stars Tim Allen and Richard Karn.
“But we have a lot of other formats that are closed-ended, returnable and we want to hear all that and I think we definitely have been talking to UK producers about this,” Sharenow said.
“I don’t think it’s been announced yet, but we have a core history format that I’m very excited about. It just explores core history in a very innovative way with a talent. Contemporizing the voice of history through these formats is something that I’m highly motivated to do.”
That push for contemporary formats could see some of the older, “heavy hitter” series replaced, Sharenow said.
“We’ve had so many successful formats that we’ve grown a little fat on them and some of them could be cycled out,” he added. “That’s a big priority for us.”
In response to a question about artefactual — the genre pioneered by History – Sharenow said he’ll “always lean into and want to see what’s going on in that space.”
Though, he said the bar is “incredibly high to find a fresh voice and a fresh way to do it.”
“One of the things that’s going on in our culture right now and, particularly in our business, is there’s no tolerance for the middle,” he said. “You can’t you can’t enter the marketplace of artefactual with something that doesn’t feel special or really interesting or twist the genre in a really exciting ways.”
Elsewhere, sister network Lifetime most recently ordered six new seasons of the Kinetic Content-produced reality format Married at First Sight.
Sharenow said the relationship space is “a very fertile area of production and development” for the women-skewing brand.
“The thing that Lifetime needs more than anything is closed-ended formats. Lifetime has had great success with Married at First Sight and with Surviving R. Kelly… But my other channels, History and A&E, have a lot of closed-ended formats that really fuel our business and superserve our audiences, so a lot of what we’re putting in development are those,” he said. “We need to cut through. We need to be a little provocative and a little saucy.”
As for whether the network will continue to build on its Surviving docuseries, with spin-off Surviving Jeffrey Epstein having aired Aug. 9 and 10, Sharenow was tight-lipped, but divulged that a few yet to be announced projects were in development.
Addressing the cancellation of A&E’s hit docureality series Live PD — which was axed in June in the wake of national and global protests against police brutality — Sharenow said plans are in motion to fill that gap with such shows as Live Rescue.
In response to a question from White regarding whether the slot will be filled with a big, new order or spread out over a number of commissions, Sharenow said there’s no “one size fits all” solution.
“We are looking at several different new shows. It’s hard to make a massive commitment to anything these days because it’s just hard to launch new things in general, so I think you want to be somewhat cautious and hedging but I do think that opens up opportunities,” he said.
“I’m still a true believer and what I mean by that is I do think that when the content is there the audience follows. I think that when a show is meant to catch fire or can catch fire, it will… Part of it is, it’s just an extreme challenge right now to break out and to feel unique and to feel like it’s something that the audience hasn’t seen before.”
As A+E Networks looks to build out its programming for the next six to 12 months, Sharenow said there’s a sense of “COVID fatigue” in how shows are produced.
“Part of it is getting producers back in the mindset that we’re not just looking to fill the shelves in this moment where the shelves seem a little bare because of COVID, but really having things live up to the standard of television,” he said.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by how our company has managed through this because we have been able to stay in production on a lot. I think the nature of the content — we do a lot of documentary, some clip-based shows, small crews — has allowed us to sort of bob and weave into the production opportunities, some of it being made remotely. So we are actually feeling really good about our pipeline over the next year.”