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Summit ’21: A+E Networks’ Rob Sharenow on programming through a pandemic

A+E Networks’ Rob Sharenow took to the digital stage on Wednesday (Feb. 2) during the 2021 Realscreen Summit Virtual Marketplace to discuss his thoughts on the challenges of creating and scheduling ...
February 3, 2021

A+E Networks’ Rob Sharenow took to the digital stage on Wednesday (Feb. 2) during the 2021 Realscreen Summit Virtual Marketplace to discuss his thoughts on the challenges of creating and scheduling content in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

In a keynote conversation with Gio Benitez, the host of A&E’s forthcoming I Survived a Crime and an award-winning reporter for ABC News, Sharenow said that overseeing the network group remotely during the earliest months of the pandemic felt similar to managing a “three-ring circus” in terms of figuring out communications and what exactly was possible from a production standpoint.

“The production community has done an incredible job figuring out fixes and solves on how to shoot and produce like normal,” said A+E’s president of programming. “There’s also a big audience intolerance now for things that look [as though they've been produced during] COVID… and that happened really fast.

“I’ve been really impressed with how the unscripted community has been able to adapt so quickly.”

As a result, A+E Networks was hampered little by COVID-19 as the American multinational cable group was able to lean into its core – or what Sharenow calls “the valued proposition of each brand” – with A&E serving as the company’s leading unscripted brand and audiences flocking to the comfort of Lifetime movies.

“One of the things that’s given us a lot of stability as a company is knowing who we are,” Sharenow stated. “We really do have clearly defined brands, we know what we do well and we have the benefit of long-range planning.”

“We had a lot in production and development that reached pretty far into the future,” he added. “That allowed us a bit of a cushion to better plan than some others who do not have a really clear brand promise.”

The benefit of working within the unscripted industry is that the genre allows producers the flexibility to pivot and adapt quickly. Sharenow provided two examples of his team’s successes: History Channel, led by executive vice president and general manager Eli Lehrer, managed to conceptualize, produce and launch the mystery series The Proof is Out There (Six West Media Group), while A&E managed the same feat with I Survived a Crime (Law&Crime Productions).

While Sharenow can see a break in the clouds in the months to come, he fears that one of the biggest hurdles the industry at large will face in the year ahead will be a lack of patience.

The executive warned that programmers tend to want to rush a project to air when it’s one they particularly like, to see if it works with audiences. “There’s such a demand for content that there’s a risk of undercooking things and ruining your shot at a great idea,” he warned.

He encouraged those across the industry to find new inspiration in the idea that things won’t return to ‘normal.’

“We’re in a different time in general in that people need to care about what you’re doing,” stressed Sharenow. “This moment in culture has awakened an awareness in all of us and I want our stuff to matter.

“I also want to see more innovation,” he concluded. “There’s been a lot of creative storytelling, but I want to see unscripted take the next leap and reinvent something in such a radical way that it creates a new boom of content that everybody’s wild about. I want to see that fevered consumption of the ‘new’. That’s where our production partners and the true creatives come in because that’s what we want.”

QUICK BITES

On diversity and inclusion in the industry

“This is mission critical for us as a company, for the whole company. Broadening our spectrum from a diversity perspective is happening on all levels.”

“We’re really committed to changing our company itself and bringing more diverse voices to our workforce. But we’re also expecting that from our production partners. We’re really valuing and demanding that our producers diversify their teams because that’s what we’d want to see in our production partners. If you’re going to have content that resonates authentically with diverse communities, you’re going to need diverse makers.”

On international coproductions

“We are very open to innovative deal-making. There’s not a one-size fits all; it’s really about finding the balance that works for both sides. It really depends on the project and finding the thing that can thread the needle in one market or another.

“We’re definitely open to those conversations, although we definitely favor a full rights control. I’m not going to lie to you – we really want to control all rights of our projects and that’s the hurdle we have to jump over, but for the right project we can innovate and make a deal.”

On relationship building

“The best way to get programming ideas [to greenlight] is to build an individual relationship with a programmer. The mistake a lot of producers make is to go to the top; you’ll get a quick answer but it may not be the one you’ll like. I do believe in forging those individual relationships.

“When I was first an executive, I was director of programming, which is one of the lower rungs on the totem pole; that’s where I made all of my relationships and everything happened for me because I was super passionate and had nothing to lose. If I liked something, I was willing to risk a lot to get the shows I believed in on the air.”

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