After a dramatic few days leading up to A+E’s splashy upfront presentation tonight, the cable programmer largely breezed past all of the corporate drama and put on a focused, 50-minute show emphasizing its networks’ strong bond with women.
Abbe Raven, a 34-year A+E veteran who retired from the company in 2015 after rising from secretary to CEO, has just returned as acting chairman to oversee a search for outgoing CEO Nancy Dubuc’s replacement. (Dubuc announced Monday she was leaving after 20 years at A+E, and a day later took the CEO role at Vice Media.) Raven took the stage at the New York Public Library after some introductory remarks by Dan Abrams, who hosts A&E hit Live PD. She got a hearty round of applause and a full-throated welcome from ad buyers who fondly recall her stewardship of the company.
“It’s not about me!” she protested, waving her hand. Addressing Abrams (and also the news of the week), she quipped, “We’re so excited for your upcoming series with Nancy … Grace,” a line that got a solid laugh. “It’s not only great to be back at A+E Networks, but to be back at the New York Public Library, where, believe it or not, my very first job was upstairs in the periodicals room.” The gig, when she was just 17, was “where I began to experience the incredible power of storytelling,” Raven said. At the end of her remarks, obliquely referencing the transition in the exec ranks, she told ad buyers in the audience, “We thank you for your loyalty and your trust.”
Beyond those moments in the early going, the night moved smoothly, offering steady doses of talent and fewer stats, bullet points and specific show clips than many upfronts strain to deliver. As promised earlier in the day, A+E stacked the lineup with woman presenters, including Queen Latifah, Leah Remini, Marcia Clark and Toni Braxton, and attendees walked away with gift bags proclaiming “A+E: Women Up Front.” A&E, Lifetime, History, FYI, LMN and Viceland all got some spotlight, but without network brass ever setting foot onstage. Talent from each network carried the message, testifying about why each network was the right home for their show.
Passions sometimes ran high, such as when Olivia Munn delivered an emotional speech — a different one than one she had originally planned, she said — about the dog that recently died in the overhead luggage bin of a United Airlines plane. While some of her friends wondered how the dog’s owner, a mother of an 11-year-old and a baby, could have allowed that to happen, Munn said, she saw larger forces that had likely kept the woman from causing a fuss on the plane. “We ignore our own intuition because we want to be polite,” she said. “We’ve been taught as women that even when we speak up for what we think is right, we are disturbing the peace.” Kristin Davis, appearing on behalf of projects she backed for Biography, also choked up when recalling the strength of refugee women.
Braxton, one of the top draws on Lifetime, who just signed a new deal with the network, confessed she would need to speak extemporaneously because she wasn’t wearing glasses and could not read from the TelePrompTer. She also struck a distinctly different tone than other speakers, appearing genuine and warm but also momentarily absent-minded. (Maybe it was the lack of glasses?) “In this time of #MeToo and … what’s the other one? #TimeOut? Am I saying that right?” she ventured. When the crowd called out, “#TimesUp,” she repeated, “#TimesUp! Even better. #TimesUp. … I’m proud to be a woman and I’m proud to be on Lifetime.”
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