A year ago, A&E re-calibrated its programming strategy, returning to its roots as an exclusively nonfiction brand by exiting the scripted drama arena to double down on non-scripted and largely documentary series. At the time, the network, which had fallen out of the cable Top 10 to No. 15, was showing the first signs of a ratings turnaround with the first back-to-back months of viewership growth in almost four years.
A year later, A&E wrapped up 12 consecutive months of total viewer growth in February on the ratings strength of such series as Live PD and Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and 60 Days In. The network, which is back in the Top 10 and has four current shows that have won top program Emmys — Scientology and the Aftermath, Born This Way, Intervention and Biography — is staying the course, greenlighting four more non-fiction series.
The list includes Many Sides of Jane, about a single mother of two with Dissociative Identity Disorder; Lost for Life, about a recent Supreme Court ruling that gives juveniles once sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole the ability to have their cases re-evaluated; The Accused, which follows individuals maintaining their innocence after being accused of a crime, from arrest to verdict; and Employable Me, following adults with disabilities searching for their dream jobs as they hone in on their unique abilities.
A&E’s new slate is unveiled ahead of A+E Networks’ upfront tomorrow as the company is transitioning from outgoing president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, who is leaving to become CEO of Vice Media, to returning A+E Networks topper Abbe Raven, who will be serving as interim chairman.
“We doubled down on what we do best,” Elaine Frontain Bryant, A&E’s EVP and head of programming, said about the network’s renewed focus on unscripted. “Our bread and butter has always been high-quality nonfiction that has this kind of emotionally intelligent, boundary-pushing, trailblazing storytelling. We believe that we have always been in this place that speaks to the cultural zeitgeist.”
One of the first A&E series to do that was Intervention, whose most recent 18th season focused on the nation’s opioid epidemic and posted 4% year-to-year viewership growth. One of the latest is Scientology and the Aftermath, which recently finished airing its second season and is being renewed for a third, said Frontain Bryant.
As for what the new season would be about, “I would say it’s certainly staying within Scientology, and I think there’s hope that there can be a little bit more action that can be taken, that it’s a little bit more active. That’s probably all I should say at this point,” Frontain Bryant said.
Scientology and the Aftermath, 60 Days In, Undercover High and Born This Way, about a group of adults with Down syndrome — “these are shows that I don’t think any other network would have even dared to make, and I think that those are the ones we do best,” Frontain Bryant said. “They have strong point of views and they’re certainly not safe choices.”
In the vein of Born This Way is Employable Me, now in the casting phase. “It will shine a light on a community that hasn’t been seen in nonfiction storytelling,” Bryant said. “The series focuses on two people each episode, young adults who have never found any kind of independence but are seeking employment that can give them independence and tap into their “superpowers” we call them, these special skills, and it’s just unbelievably heartwarming.”
True crime is a popular genre on cable. ID is dedicated to it, and Oxygen recently rebranded itself as a crime-focused network. Crime has had a longtime presence on A&E via veteran series The First 48 Hours and Cold Case Files, joined by red-hot newcomer Live PD, whose 25-54 ratings have grown 171% since its fall 2016 launch. There are more series in pipeline including Marcia Clark Investigates The First 48, which debuts next week, and the newly announced The Accused and Lost for Life.
Frontain Bryant noted the difference in A&E’s approach to the crime genre, which has been supported by research they have done. “If Oxygen and ID are largely about past-tense (crime), our audience is coming to us for transparency, for fairness, for justice and stories about accountability and consequence,” she said.
The Accused tells the story of people accused of a crime they believe they did not commit, following them through the twists and turns of their case. “Finding a close-ended format that tells a perfect story in an hour in real time and feels new and fresh is a very hard thing to do, and I hadn’t seen anything like The Accused before,” Frontain Bryant said.
Lost for Life, about convicted criminals sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life in prison who are now pleading their case under the recent Supreme Court ruling, “has this underlying conversation I think is a very interesting one that is at its subtext about our culture — should kids be put away for life or not?,” Frontain Bryant said.
With the topic of guns and school shootings so much in the national conversation, especially following the Parkland, FL massacre, would A&E tackle that in a series?
“I would say that Lost for Life is certainly the closest thing there,” Frontain Bryant said. “It’s not our plan in this moment, but I’m not going to say never. If the right project came up, we would consider it, it would need to be responsible and have a purpose. Certainly it’s a harrowing, harrowing time.”
Last week, Live PD, considered a risky experiment when A&E originally made a bet on it, marked its 100th episode. For now, there are no plans to expand it to more hours a week, Frontain Bryant said. “I think six hours a week already is pretty good,” she said. “I don’t think we want to be the Live PD network, we have too many other exciting things.”
That said, A&E is thinking about ways to expand the Live PD franchise. But after successfully resurrecting Biography recently, the network is not looking to bring back another title from its library, instead “looking for what’s next, what hasn’t been out there yet,” according to Frontain Bryant.
Along with crime series, A&E has been known for its comedic family docu-series, most notably former mega hit Duck Dynasty as well as current popular series Wahlburgers and recent addition The Lowe Files, which Frontain Bryant confirmed would not be coming back for a second season. Then there are also stalwarts Storage Wars and Hoarders, which is coming back for a new season.
“Frankly, we try to have diversity within our slate, Frontain Bryant said. “In terms of the darkness (in some docu-series), we try to show some light too. Our biggest challenge is finding some of the things that give us that light that also connect with an audience. Shows like Wahlburgers and Storage Wars still do that, and so that’s why they’re still on.”
With A&E back on solid ratings footing, Frontain Bryant keeps her plan for the future simple: “more brave storytelling, more growth.”
Here are details about A&E’s newly picked up series:
Many Sides of Jane (working title) – 6 x 60 min
Jane is a 28-year-old woman from Boise, Idaho who has Dissociative Identity Disorder – commonly referred to as multiple personality disorder. Her 9+ personalities, ranging in age from 6-27 years old, appear at any time, usually triggered by stress. Diagnosed only two years ago, she is on a journey to understand what caused the D.I.D. as well as to figure out how she can best co-exist with her many “parts,” as she calls them. As a full-time single mother of two, Jane is also studying for a Ph.D in Biology. She’ll be coming to terms with her childhood, her relationship with her family, and launching her career.
“Many Sides of Jane (working title)” is produced by Renegade 83 for A&E Network. Executive producers for Renegade 83 are Jay Renfroe, David Garfinkle and Erica Hanson. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Abramson.
“Lost for Life (working title)” – 8 x 60 min
There is no crime worse than murder, and no murder more shocking than one committed by a child. For decades the courts showed these young killers no mercy, but due to a recent Supreme Court decision, now those sentenced to mandatory life without parole may get a second chance. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life terms without parole for juveniles was “cruel and unusual punishment,” deeming it unconstitutional. In January of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court said it must be applied retroactively. Now, all of those sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life in prison have a chance to plead their case. Access to the criminals, victims, lawyers, and courts will allow viewers to be taken through the original crime, as well as experience the unfolding of an intense legal battle.
“Lost for Life (working title)” is produced by IPC Television for A&E Network. Executive producers for IPC Television are Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Joshua Rofé and Peter LoGreco. Executive producers for A&E are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Amy Savitsky and Evan Lerner.
“The Accused (working title)” – 8 x 60 min
“The Accused (working title)” tells the dramatic stories of people at the most vital and most terrifying moment of their lives. This gripping series reveals the true inside story of what happens when someone is accused of a crime they believe they did not commit. Featuring the defendant, their family and their legal teams, “The Accused” reveals the personal cost of every charge, watching each case unfold from the defendant’s point of view. It shares every twist and turn of this traumatic experience from their first meeting with their lawyers right up to the verdict allowing viewers to judge the subject’s innocence for themselves.
“The Accused (working title)” is produced by Brinkworth Films for A&E Network. Executive producers for Brinkworth Films are Malcolm Brinkworth and Xander Brinkworth. Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Holcman serve as executive producers for A&E Network.
“Employable Me (working title)” – 8 x 60 min
Finding a job is hard enough, but when you have a mental disability, it can be even harder. Many people with these challenges face unemployment, yet so many people with disabilities have unique skills that make them excellent workers. This groundbreaking series unlocks their “secret powers” to help them land their dream jobs and gain a new independence in life.
“Employable Me (working title)” is produced by Optomen Productions for A&E Network. Ricky Kelehar, Maria Silver and Joseph Eardly serve as executive producers for Optomen Productions. Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Brad Holcman serve as executive producers for A&E Network.