As A&E is reaching a turning point in its ratings comeback with the first back-to-back months of viewership growth in almost four years, the A+E network is recalibrating its programming strategy, returning to its roots as an exclusively non-fiction brand. Following the end of A&E’s signature drama series Bates Motel earlier this week, there will be no more scripted programming on the cable network going forward.
The move had been in the works for awhile; while A&E launched a number of unscripted series over the last two years, including recent breakouts 60 Days In, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, and Live PD, there have been no scripted greenlights — pilot or series — since 2015. A&E’s head of scripted, SVP Gabriel Marano, already had transitioned to A+E Studios where he reports to EVP Barry Jossen.
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Scripted programming has had a continuous presence on A&E for the past 9 years, though no series introduced since the 2013 debut of Bates Motel lasted more than a season. After an initial foray in the arena with the Sidney Lumet legal drama 100 Centre Street, which aired for two seasons from 2001-02, the network launched a major scripted push in 2008-09 with the miniseries The Andromeda Strain and drama series The Cleaner and The Beast, both of which ran for two seasons. Besides the well-received Psycho prequel Bates Motel, which just wrapped its five-season run, A&E’s biggest scripted success came with dramas Longmire and The Glades, both of which aired for three seasons. (Longmire has produced three more for Netflix following its cancellation by A&E.)
“I am extremely proud of all the scripted that we’ve done,” said Rob Sharenow, EVP and General Manager, A&E and Lifetime, who took over A&E in 2015 after previously working in the network’s nonfiction department from 2003-2011, rising to head of nonfiction and alternative. “I think Bates Motel was one of the best shows on television but to be candid, it was a bit of an outlier on the schedule, there wasn’t an ecosystem of scripted to support it. I think it’s a testament to the power of the A&E brand that we’ve had the success we’ve had in scripted given the limited amount of investment we’ve made in that area. But I think in today’s world where we really try to clarify and focus our brand for the consumers and to lean into what we are best known for, what we are best at, I think it was a good time to say, ‘We are going to double down on nonfiction content where we are having a lot of success. The market’s really hungry for it.'”
It is symbolic that the new chapter of A&E as a fully unscripted brand starts with the return of the show that first established the network as a nonfiction destination, Biography. The biggest show on A&E for 20 years, earning 44 Emmy nominations and several wins, Biography is being revived across the A+E Networks, starting with a two-hour documentary about the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G., which premieres on A&E on June 28.
In addition to Biography, A&E’s signature nonfiction series include The First 48 and the Emmy-winning Intervention, both of which have been on for more than a decade, joined in 2010 by Storage Wars and in 2014 by Wahlburgers, both of which became franchises, spawning additional shows. The network found a mega hit in the 2012 Duck Dynasty, which propelled the network to meteoric ratings highs early in its run. But with its decline, so did A&E’s fortunes.
After going through a slump the last couple of years with no major new hits, A&E has been on the upswing again, posting the first year-to-year ratings gains since 2013 in September (A25-54), December (A24-54, total viewers), March (viewers) and April (A24-54, total viewers). Sharenow attributes the recent success to breakouts 60 Days In, currently in Season 3 with a fourth season already shot; Scientology and the Aftermath, renewed for a second season to air in the summer; and Live PD, which “has been really transformative for the brand.” Live PD‘s initial 8-episode run was extended, and the live show has expanded to two nights a week. It is currently slated to air weekly on Fridays and Saturdays through May 13, with talks underway to extend that further through the summer. Sharenow also noted that over the past 12 months, A&E’s Born This Way and Cartel Land won Emmys while Life, Animated received an Oscar nomination.
“That is an amazing aggregation of great stuff all hitting at once,” he said. “It builds upon a foundation that was already there with shows like Intervention, The First 48, Nightwatch, not to mention Wahlburgers and a lot of the stuff that has been an ongoing part of our DNA for quite a long time.”
The momentum in nonfiction likely played a role in the decision to phase out scripted programming on A&E. Also factoring in is the fact that the genre is well represented within A+E Networks by stronger scripted brands.
“From a portfolio perspective, we have within our family Lifetime and History,” Sharenow said. “I think that Lifetime is a premium scripted destination, it always has been and will be. We just announced the Greg Berlanti series, You, we have UnReal, we’re really looking to build upon that with both series and movies. And on the History side, History in my opinion has some of the best, most successful shows on television in Vikings and Six, and that’s another area our company is looking to invest more.”
There will be a programming investment in A&E too where resources will be redirected to documentaries and docu series. “We will be increasing the number of hours,” Sharenow said, adding, “We are very careful to curate based on the quality of the project.”
On the heels of the success of Live PD, A&E is developing more live programs.
As for the network’s existing scripted development, will the projects be released or redirected to sister networks History and Lifetime?
“It really depends on the project,” Sharenow said. “Everything is being evaluated based on what the opportunity is both internal and external. There isn’t a cookie-cutter response based on the project.”
As the cable universe becomes more fragmented, networks have been looking to narrow their brands to distinguish themselves from the competition. After briefly expanding into half-hour comedies, USA Network pulled away from the genre to focus on its core drama programming that viewers associate with its brand. Similarly, three years after it entered the unscripted arena, AMC pulled out to focus on its core scripted business.
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