A+E Networks aims at returning to the longform awards circle with the big-budget $50 million miniseries Roots, a remake of the acclaimed 1977 mini. It also is the biggest production to date for the three-year old A+E Studios, which A+E Networks’ Nancy Dubuc launched on her first day as CEO with the goal of owning more original programing. Roots, which debuts this weekend, follows praised new Lifetime series UnReal, with History dramas Six and Knightfall coming up. Roots also is expected to help the ratings rebound of History and A&E, currently off year vs year. In an interview with Deadline, Dubuc discusses the company’s scripted strategy (could A&E become an all-reality network again?), recently rebranded FYI and Viceland and the future of Bates Motel, Dance Moms, Duck Dynasty and Craig Ferguson’s Join or Die. She makes news with a Project Runway renewal and also hints at a third-season pickup for UnReal.
DEADLINE: What does Roots mean for the evolution of the A+E Studios?
DUBUC: It means we’re on the right path. I think it was almost three years ago today, June 1, that we launched the studio, and when I think about what it means, it’s not only a proud moment for the studio and for the brand, but also shows the promise that it has for the future, and how important it is to have the capabilities and the infrastructure to not only create IP like this, but attract other creators to A+E Studios and A+E Networks as a home that can really drive quality television.
DEADLINE: Roots is a very expensive production. Will it generate a profit for the studio?
DUBUC: Absolutely. To do projects like this and frankly just to do scripted in general, the traditional license window model at the fees that were being demanded and needed just isn’t going to work anymore, and I think over time we’ll see people who have a stomach for it and people who don’t.
DEADLINE: And you do?
DUBUC: Well, I hope so. Yes. Owning content and original content has been our lifeblood — we’ve never been a suite of brands that’s been reliant on a movie library or on rented series from other networks. We believe that the strength of our brands rests in content that we own and control that’s original, and it also is going to allow you to control your own destiny regardless of where distribution patterns or technology goes or where the growth areas of your business are.
DEADLINE: What is next after Roots on the scripted side? You had an issue on new drama Six where Walton Goggins replaced ailing Joe Manganiello during production.
DUBUC: Six is going to be in late July, and I will actually see a cut on Friday, but I’ve been watching the dailies and it looks spectacular. So Six will be first — we’re using Roots to heavily market it. Knightfall will begin shooting this summer. The Infamous (A&E) pilot is in post and UnReal of course just won the Peabody. Walton Goggins has been just phenomenal.
DEADLINE: So everything is on track on Six? Production is back to normal?
DUBUC: I think we lost like two weeks, but we’re back on track. We didn’t miss a beat.
DEADLINE: If the show is to continue to a second season, would it move locations? (Season 1 is filming in North Carolina, which has gotten backlash from Hollywood over anti-LGBT ordinances.)
DUBUC: I would imagine it might, but I haven’t heard that pitch yet from the studio, so I’d like to give them a chance to make that decision.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Infamous. When you do think you will make a decision on the pilot?
DUBUC: I would imagine about a week or so.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the scripted strategy across the brands. History has three series (Vikings and the upcoming Six and Knightfall), Lifetime has two (Devious Maids and UnReal) and A&E is down to one with Bates Motel after Damien was cancelled. Are you going to be pushing through in scripted on all three networks?
DUBUC: I think we’re always looking at that, and I absolutely believe that there’s a very strong home for scripted with History. This idea that in some ways what I love about the brand is that it’s better than fiction, and that we have the ability to really own a category in a different way and be the definitive word on some of the greatest stories of our time.
Obviously all of our brands are heavily in the unscripted business as well, and Lifetime is heavily in the movie business. I don’t envision that changing, but I think with the level of scripted content that is across all media and the expense that it takes, passion and creativity have to drive those decisions overall.
DEADLINE: A&E traditionally has been associated with unscripted fare. Do you foresee a future where it could go all-unscripted and History becomes the scripted brand of the two?
DUBUC: Yeah. I think it depends. Bates is a big show for A&E and we still have another season of that to come. I can absolutely imagine a day, but it really is creatively dependent that a project walks in the door, and we absolutely have to do it and it has nothing to do with historical fact and it has no appeal to women. The beautiful thing about our portfolio is that we could find a home for that because we have A&E. I think first and foremost A&E is definitely in the unscripted business, though I’m not ruling it out. But clearly if I were going to double-down I think History is the great opportunity for us to do that and declare that.
DEADLINE: On Bates Motel, do you know if Season 5 would be the final season?
DUBUC: I don’t know that. Genuinely, I don’t know that.
DEADLINE: On the unscripted side, what is the future of A&E’s flagship Duck Dynasty? How long do you see that show going?
DUBUC: We have 30 more episodes in the pipeline, both delivered and shooting now, that will go into next year. Next year seems like an eternity in our business right now, so when we get there we’ll work with the family and sit down with them and decide what’s next together. I would imagine probably the end of the summer into the fall we’ll make a decision.
DEADLINE: On History you tried some new things with Craig Ferguson’s Join Or Die, with Dan Harmon. How do you evaluate those experiments and will any of those shows continue?
DUBUC: I think it’s important for History to keep experimenting with their shows. The more documentary-driven, the returning series, are the bottom of the iceberg under the ocean that keeps it moving, and then it’s important to take those swings and see if we can ignite a spark with new audiences. I think that’s one of the things that we’re very good about doing across all of our brands, making sure that we push ourselves to push the audiences to think differently. I loved the Ferguson show. I thought it was a really good swing. We’re looking at some ideas with him around the conventions and then we’ll evaluate after that. But I don’t foresee us stopping those kinds of experimentations like the Night Class (late-night block). It’s not a primary driver of our business and it’s not eating up a big percentage of the programming budget, but I think it’s very important to do.
DEADLINE: Will you stay in late-night with History and Lifetime? Is that attractive to you?
DUBUC: Yeah. the broadcast networks go into local news at 11 o’clock, so it takes a big entertainment competitor off the dial. We’ve been able to really drive numbers at 10 and 11. Look, our bread and butter is still 9 and 10 and that’s what we’re focused on, but where we can attract younger audiences who are viewing later, that’s an ideal spot for us.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Lifetime’s brand evolution. You have Devious Maids, indicative of where Lifetime was, and the first example of where you want to go with UnReal. You’ve taken some time, there’s only backdoor pilot in the pipeline currently, Sea Change. What is next in the scripted area for Lifetime?
DUBUC: We have the Selena Gomez project in development as well, so we have high expectations around that. We’re also developing A Midsummer’s Nightmare, which is sort of an anthology concept which each season would take a classic Shakespeare tale, but twist it to a little bit more modern thriller aspect. I know there’s another Shakespeare project out there (ABC series Still Star-Crossed), so I’d have to really give some thought to it: Is it duplicative or is it not distinct enough for us?
But when I look at Lifetime’s programming and the evolution of Lifetime, we started this journey with a brand in late 2010, and when I look at the entire lineup of programming the only show that is the same is Project Runway from just four years ago, and so being able to repopulate a brand with almost 100 percent original programming in the short period of time that we’ve had this brand in our portfolio, when we began that journey it had less than 15 percent original programming.
So, I’m pretty pleased with the progress at Lifetime, and I’m very pleased with the Fempire positioning and some of the work that’s been going on, on a marketing basis and the creative execution that I’m seeing on air. Lifetime never had any unscripted shows really. It just had Project Runway which was a bit of an island. Its movie brand was tarnished, and it didn’t have any scripted series.
And so to look at it today and how the movies just having had garnered the highest number of Emmy nominations in the network’s history last year, to have UnReal which we adore and is our critical darling, to have Devious Maids, and to have big unscripted series driving the numbers and the age of the network, I think it’s a pretty good place to be, and the work that I see coming is building on all of that foundation. But really, UnReal is what we want to grow, we want to show our commitment to the viewer with UnReal.
DEADLINE: You mentioned veteran Project Runway. Will it continue on Lifetime?
DUBUC: Yes. There’s three more seasons of Project Runway that have been picked up, as well as two more season of All Stars. (For details on the renewal, which also includes Project Runway Junior and new series Fashion Inc, read our story.)
DEADLINE: What about the other Lifetime hit unscripted franchise Dance Moms? Will that continue?
DUBUC: Yes. And also I’m thrilled with what I’m seeing with The Rap Game as well; it grew every episode this season. Next season, every single episode has a major guest star coming so we’re really, really pleased with that. We have Gold Medal Families, we’ve been following a couple of Olympians all the way through to Rio. The Little Women franchise is working. Bring It! is working. So we’ve able to build on the Dance Moms audience with these shows, and so I’m feeling pretty good about their lineup.
DEADLINE: Do you have contingency plans for Dance Moms without Abby Lee Miller, who has had legal problems?
DUBUC: Our contingency plan is The Rap Game and Bring It! are big audience drivers for us and those shows work and they attract a very similar audience, and we have episodes (of Dance Moms) that we’re sitting on and have through the remainder of this year so we do have a bit of a stockpile, but that’s our plan.
DUBUC: … and also Tiny House and Arranged, I’ve got a couple things working.
DEADLINE: Have found the network’s sweet spot? Will you try to do more talk shows after Kocktails With Khloe?
DUBUC: I think that the strategy around FYI is really a corporate strategy and that’s that every one of our brands that we invest in have to matter, and that we need to commit to building brands and investing in those brands, or we need to get out of that business.
DEADLINE: You rebranded Bio as FYI and now you are doing the same with H2 into Viceland. We won’t see ratings for Viceland until the summer, but from inside what is your take on the start of the channel?
DUBUC: I’m trying to give Viceland some breathing room. You don’t launch channels in a day. We’ve seen that happen even with OWN, you look at how long it took them to find their groove and it was years. I think we’re going to find our groove faster because right now what I’m focused on is just making sure that each week, week in, week out, the reach of the network is growing and that’s what I’m seeing. It’s also going to take them a while to get the volume of original programming to support the schedule. What is not appreciated is that you don’t flick a switch and it has 500 hours of library that it can use to populate the 24 hours a day they need to be on. But we see growth every week and we see reach growing every week, and that’s what I’m focused on. I think for a network as small as Viceland or even FYI, one breakout show can make a huge difference.
DEADLINE: Do you see a breakout potential in any of the current or upcoming shows on Viceland?
DUBUC: Weediquette is working quite well, but I’m not allowed to talk about the numbers per the Nielsen arrangement. There’s a show that’s coming — Nirvanna The Band the Show — it is a comedy breakout that I think is really funny.
DEADLINE: Looking at the big picture, will we be able to sustain all basic cable channels in your portfolio? At the broadcast upfront presentations, a recurring theme was that basic cable is in trouble with ratings declines. What is your take?
DUBUC: I don’t think cable’s going anywhere. If anything, we have an advantage because curating content is going to get more and more difficult for audiences, and the one thing that hasn’t changed with all the change that’s going on in media over the past decade is audiences’ ability to zero in on between 15 and 17 brands or channels. That hasn’t changed. So I think you need to be in that set, whether it’s traditional distribution or nontraditional distribution, you have to have a strong brand that audiences trust and know what they’re going to get when they go there, and I think we’re in incredible shape with the distinctiveness of our brands. There’s no murkiness around what some of our channels stand for.
DEADLINE: And going back to Roots, what are your expectations?
DUBUC: Look, we want and deserve awards recognition for this. I think the cast did an incredible job, showing up every day and giving the caliber of performances that they did on any project is an incredibly difficult task, but to do it the way they did it with this material I just think is above and beyond. Forest Whitaker was incredible. Anika Noni Rose, Regé-Jean Page and certainly Malachi Kirby, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them on the big screen very soon.