A+E Networks’ Patrick Vien & Edward Sabin

Distinctive story­telling and IP ownership have been the drivers of A+E Networks’ growth over the last several years, domestically and internationally, with a bouquet of brands available in some 200 markets. Patrick Vien and Edward Sabin, executive managing directors of international, tell World Screen about the importance of owning content and the role of digital initiatives in generating creativity, engagement and viewer loyalty.

WS: What are your strategic imperatives as you grow your international businesses?
VIEN: The first is growing our brands. Second is expanding our intellectual property. We have been producers of programming since the beginning of the company’s history. We have about 16,000 hours in our library, and we produce over 1,000 hours per year. An example of how we’re building those brands through programming is History of Football for HISTORY. In 160 markets, we’re going to interrupt the programming schedule before the World Cup and celebrate football with a big 14-day, 24/7 television event. So, celebrating our brands and maintaining their cultural relevance is a big strategic priority as the world of distribution of content continues to evolve, and we’re in a position to introduce very immersive and inventive programming. History of Football is an example of how we’re attacking that both as a brand manager and as a producer of content.
SABIN: As we think about super-serving our user, our viewer, our client, there are two watchword strategies: becoming more local and becoming more digital; everything that we do goes through that filter. We have a business that’s been built on the strength of what’s come out of our U.S. brands and producers. The next phase of continued growth is to say, How do we get to those users wherever they are? How do we speak to them in a way that they understand? A really good example of that is our recent launch of HISTORY and Lifetime in South Korea. Those are the most local brands that we have launched in the history of our company. The goal is for those channels to be built to feel like truly Korean channels, not like imported American channels with some Korean programming. They’re also highly digital; our new program launches have digital partnerships intricately involved in the conception of them. South Korea is the first market where we’ve had an original scripted local-language production, which we did in partnership with a digital brand. That’s a great example of combining local and digital in one fell swoop.

WS: A+E was one of the first companies that understood the value of owning its own content and IP.
VIEN: That was imperative for us to control our destiny and be relatively agnostic about how we wanted to reach audiences around the world. That’s how we amassed that 16,000-hour library, and that’s how we continue to nurture the ownership of that as we continue to produce. We produce a huge amount of factual television programming; we are one of the predominant—if not the predominant—TV-movie producers around the world. Our formats business continues to grow and expand, and in the last few years, A+E has launched A+E Studios and is a premium producer of scripted television. All of this is for the benefit of our brands in the U.S. and around the world, but also for the global marketplace. Fundamentally, being an IP company is the strategic backbone of who we are, and the company has a terrific reputation for being a magnet for great producers, creators and talent. That could not be more a part of our everyday set of activities; it’s what we fundamentally do. Even though there’s going to be evolution as to how programming is presented, our view is that the most culturally relevant brands are transitioning into a truly cross-platform world, where there are opportunities to leverage our content in multiple ways. Fundamentally, for us, it’s about quality content and about the strength of our brands. Above all, as a global content company, we are able to support our culturally ascendant brands in the manner in which viewers have come to know and love them, and also to cater to viewers on new platforms.
SABIN: From day one, we understood the importance not only of owning all of our content but actually being a creative partner to the producers who delivered us that content. Ownership of content wasn’t merely a commercial reality; it was a creative reality as well. And the next phase of how we want to execute on that is to find brilliant producers around whom we can build production presences in key strategic international territories. And what is a creative international territory will depend on, obviously, the viability of the local market as an IP hothouse and export market, but also where we have brands and channels and other businesses.

In terms of turning the digital page, we think about it in three buckets: first, migrating our brands that have been and continue to be very successful on existing platforms to new digital platforms so the channels that we all know and love are available wherever, whenever, in partnership with our affiliates around the world. Second, launching digital-first brands, as we’ve done with Lifetime Movie Club and HISTORY Vault in the United States and now Kriminal on Amazon in the U.K. Third is creating digital content. Our Southeast Asian digital studio, which we launched recently, is a good example of that; we are in the business of producing short- to mid-form content for digital platforms driving significant traffic throughout the entire Southeast Asian region. We’re looking to modify and duplicate that success in other parts of the world as well.

WS: Innovation is important to viewers and producers. Tell us about Live PD.
VIEN: As we dominate in factual, there was a lot of effort to think about what could be next. Live PD is deeply immersive; it is live for three hours on A&E in the U.S. on Fridays and Saturdays. It monitors police activity simultaneously in six cities throughout the U.S. It has turned A&E into the number one cable network on Fridays and Saturdays, further solidifying its strength in the true-crime series genre. It allows the viewer to be a participant, to be a voyeur. It’s an experience that’s quite different from any kind of television—even live television—that’s been produced before.

WS: Is third-party content also important?
VIEN: We are certainly internationalizing ourselves as a media and IP company, and one of the ways to do that is to partner with producers and build production companies in different parts of the world so that we are sourcing talent, stories, content and characters from all over the place. Another area that touches on third-party content is scripted co-production. At A+E Studios, we’re in partnership with [producers in other countries] looking at how we can bring more scripted television to the marketplace.
SABIN: It’s also a philosophy we have in expanding our format business. Tornante, Michael Eisner’s company, has entrusted our sales and production teams to represent Snap Decision [internationally]. It’s on GSN in the U.S. We’re talking to producers and third parties all the time—whether they have ideas that need some funding or perspective from a market outside of the U.S. or just some distribution muscle, which we have in spades, given the great content and library that we represent—to partner with them to go international. You’ll see more third-party formats being represented by us as well.
VIEN: In some cases, we’re looking at formats that we can give birth to outside of the U.S. and then bring to market. We’re in partnership with producers and in discussions with British, Spanish and Italian broadcasters where we might bring a format to life in one of those markets and then internationalize them. Up until a few years ago, the company’s history was more, start first in the U.S. and then export. [Now] we’re very much [working in] an ecosystem that’s become multidirectional.
SABIN: At MIPTV, we had a program that was devised, produced and executed for the very first time in Poland called Thrift Queens, which is a great example of what Patrick described in terms of our ability to be multidirectional and not merely relying on the great benefit that we have of working with the U.S. teams that are so successful.

WS: Does the company also remain committed to TV movies?
VIEN: We couldn’t possibly be more committed to that space. Lifetime is the nucleus of TV movies for us in the U.S. We’ve got more than 300 titles in our library and with every passing year, we’re looking at an expanded slate. We’ve had a wonderful experience as we continue to elevate our relationships with talent and filmmakers. Catherine Zeta-Jones worked with us last year on Cocaine Godmother, which proved to be a great success. At MIPTV, we had Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, which has garnered great results for us on the content-sales side as well as global viewership. We’re continuing to look at how we can work with great filmmakers. We’re looking at book publishing titles and at working with people who are very talented on-screen.

WS: Have you launched other digital initiatives?
SABIN: Several months ago, we launched a digital studio in Singapore to serve the Southeast Asian market in recognition of ad-sales opportunities that existed outside of the traditional linear ad-supported business. We saw our ad-sales clients clamoring for ways to reach their audiences beyond producing television-length programs for our channels, and we also recognized that we had in our marketing and producing teams highly skilled, very successful producers of content of all lengths. So, we took a look at our creative prowess and staff under our roof and said, Is there an additional way to empower these folks to reach new viewers on new platforms and have a different kind of a story to tell advertisers? So, with our talent, we’ve launched a studio that is publishing 400 to 500 clips a year of short- and mid-form content. We’re averaging somewhere between 30 million and 40 million streams a month of our content, which dwarfs all our competitors. We’re even beating some digital-original-first brands. We’re super proud of that, and that’s a formula that we’re looking to duplicate in other parts of the world as well. It allows us to reach new consumers, evolve our brands and work with new sponsors.
VIEN: Another example is how that can be a creative field for us. History of Football, for example, is going to be on the linear services. A lot of the original series will be on catch-up, but we’re also producing great, original, football-related programming that’s going to be distributed via the YouTube channels that can get up to 70 million unique views per month. There are different ways of using that realm of creativity in part to reach another audience, to make them aware of something that you’ve got on your service, or to create original content simply for that kind of consumption. An example of the latter is our digital storytelling hub in the U.S., 45th & Dean, which produced a series called Second Chance with Snap, and we’re into our second season of that. That remains for short-form, but that can be fodder for longer-form programming. The word digital is an odd word because, quite frankly, almost everything already is, but it’s that realm of new programming distribution and conception that can lead to bigger business or can be a strong accompaniment to business. We’re big in that arena in the U.S. and increasingly around the world.