A+E Networks’s Nancy Dubuc

DubucA+E Networks has grown from two channels that launched in 1984 to a global media group that has adapted to the changing TV landscape and consumer habits and has expanded internationally.

With a stable of brands that includes A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, LMN, FYI, Crime + Investigation, and the new VICELAND, A+E Networks reaches 330 million households in 180 territories.

Nancy Dubuc, the president and CEO of A+E Networks, has been with the company for 15 years and has witnessed its growth firsthand. Before being tapped for her current position in 2013, she oversaw the creation of A&E’s nonfiction slate, revitalized HISTORY and rebranded Lifetime. Along the way, she has received numerous Emmy awards and nominations.

Today, A&E and HISTORY are top-ten entertainment brands in the U.S. A&E has original scripted series like Bates Motel and unscripted fare such as Storage Wars, while HISTORY offers such nonfiction series as American Pickers and Pawn Stars, along with scripted events such as Vikings and the upcoming SIX.

Lifetime, a leading women’s brand that was traditionally home to TV movies and series, has broadened its portfolio to include unscripted shows like Project Runway and the Little Women franchise. It gambled on a new approach to scripted with UnREAL, which offers a fictitious behind-the-scenes look at a dating competition reality show. The bet paid off, as the series, returning this year, has drawn high ratings and critical acclaim.

A+E Networks has long pursued a strategy of owning most of its programming, which fuels its international-distribution and consumer-products businesses. A+E Studios, which was established in 2013, has been instrumental in extending that strategy to scripted programming. Along with UnREAL, the studio has also produced Texas Rising and Sons of Liberty, among other series.

On the studio’s slate for this year is the mega event Roots, a remake of the trailblazing 1977 miniseries about an African American slave and his descendants, which will premiere across A&E, HISTORY and Lifetime on May 30.

As Dubuc tells World Screen, TV events are important because, in addition to creating buzz, they draw top-end talent, audiences and critical acclaim. But factual series remain essential to all the networks in the group. Her management teams, which have recently been reorganized, are constantly looking for new voices and storytellers to appeal to the portfolio’s core audiences and to reach out to new ones.

WS: Tell us about the deal with VICE Media. What does VICELAND bring to A+E Networks and how does it fit into A+E Networks’s portfolio?
DUBUC: VICELAND is a joint venture between A+E Networks and VICE Media that launched in the U.S. on February 29 in approximately 70 million homes. The channel features new, original unscripted programming produced in-house by the many talented young filmmakers at VICE who have unique voices. Shane Smith, Spike Jonze and Eddy Morretti are building a channel with a very personal point of view that is meant to resonate with the younger audience that the VICE brand is known to attract. The content covers a diverse range of topics, from social and political issues to food, fashion, travel and more.

A+E Networks has a diverse and rich portfolio of brands. Our lead brands—A&E, HISTORY and Lifetime—deliver adult, male- and female-focused audiences, respectively, in the 25-to-54 demographic. [We] complement these brands with VICELAND and our lifestyle brand FYI, and we can now deliver our advertising and distribution partners a robust suite of brands that attract diverse demographic audiences.

WS: In a crowded television landscape, how important are events? Tell us about Roots and other events.
DUBUC: We think that television events need to be appointment television, so it’s important to identify unique stories and content that we can own and that will translate into must-see TV. Roots is our next big event, which will premiere in the U.S. on May 30, and will also air globally.

Produced by A+E Studios, Roots is the biggest undertaking for us as a company to date. It’s an eight-hour miniseries that covers a time period stretching from 1750 to 1865. The series was shot in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Louisiana in the U.S. We have assembled a star-studded cast of award-winning actors, including Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anna Paquin, Derek Luke, Anika Noni Rose and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. After a search in 15 locations across North America, Africa and Europe, we cast two very talented new actors in key roles: Malachi Kirby, as Kunta Kinte, and Regé-Jean Page, as Chicken George.

We have an equally talented production team behind the camera with Mario Van Peebles, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and Thomas Carter each directing. Questlove is serving as executive music producer for the show. We have something truly special on our hands and can’t wait to share it with the world.

WS: Roots was a groundbreaking event when it aired in 1977; not only for the way it was scheduled—over eight consecutive nights, and the finale remains one of the top-rated episodes of all time—but also for the subject matter it portrayed and the impact it had on American culture. Tell us about the Roots A+E Studios is preparing. How did the project come about? How have you approached the subject matter for today’s audience?
DUBUC: The idea to produce a re-imagined and contemporary version of Roots was internally developed by our HISTORY programming team during a development brainstorming meeting.

As we started to investigate the idea, we saw that in the time since Alex Haley wrote [the novel] Roots and the original miniseries aired, so much new history and [information] about the slave trade and the era covered in the story has been uncovered.

Our version incorporates new scholarship, research and production methods. We drew upon new research to design the Kingdom of Niumi and incorporated details from historical scholarship about slave markets, uprisings and daily life into the story as only HISTORY could.

Mark Wolper, who is the son of David Wolper, the executive producer of the original Roots, is executive-producing the series, along with LeVar Burton, who originally starred as Kunta Kinte. They are both playing active roles in the production and handpicked Malachi Kirby to star as Kunta Kinte.

I am enormously proud of Roots, and I think it’s one of the best dramas we have ever produced.

WS: What message is A+E Studios sending the creative community? What projects are in the works?
DUBUC: We launched A+E Studios in late 2013. Today we have over 50 projects in development or production, including series, limited series and films.

We are looking to build long-term relationships in the creative community and have struck overall deals with top creative talent such as Carlton Cuse, Rachel Winter, Michael Hirst and Meryl Poster. On the whole, I would say A+E Studios is a creative and collaborative environment for showrunners, writers and producers, and we take great pride in working with the creative community to deliver content that resonates with viewers.

In addition to Roots, we are in production on season two of the critically acclaimed series UnREAL for Lifetime. The series has been sold into more than 100 territories. The second season will premiere later this year, and promises to be as provocative as the first.

We also have two series in development at the studio for HISTORY. The first is SIX, a military action drama produced with Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company in association with William Broyles and David Broyles. The series follows a group of Navy SEAL Team Six soldiers on a mission that goes awry.

The second series in development is Knightfall, about the Knights Templar, which is produced in association with Jeremy Renner and Don Handfield’s production company, The Combine, and Midnight Radio.

Lastly, we’ve recently announced development on an anthology series about American cults, in association with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories Productions.

WS: What is Lifetime’s mission today and how does its programming speak to that mission?
DUBUC: The Lifetime brand has always stood for empowering women, both in front of and behind the camera. Last year we launched an initiative called Broad Focus, which aims to push the industry to hire more women directors, writers and producers. Industry-wide, just 7 percent of movies were directed by women [in 2014], while at Lifetime, nearly 30 percent of our movies were directed by women. Hiring women makes good business sense—Lifetime’s top-five original movies in 2015 were directed by women.

Additionally, UnREAL has an all-woman production team. The series is an important component of Lifetime’s programming promise—quality content with great stories and characters. We could not be more proud of UnREAL.

WS: Scripted drama is currently very popular. What opportunities does this offer in the unscripted space?
DUBUC: Right now, we’re seeing traditional docs coming back in a big way. Unscripted programming has been, and continues to be, the mainstay of our networks. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the factual space; however, as content producers and providers, it’s incumbent upon us to develop fresh, original ideas.

We have some provocative and groundbreaking series in development, and I’m excited to see how our viewers react.

WS: How wide are you casting the net as you look for new ideas and new voices for the next standout unscripted show?
DUBUC: We’ve had some real success with a number of unscripted series that are unlike other shows on television, such as Alone and The Curse of Oak Island on HISTORY, A&E’s buzzy new series Fit to Fat to Fit, and Lifetime’s The Rap Game.

But we’re also working with tried-and-true producers such as Jon Murray and Bunim/Murray Productions, creators of the original reality TV series, The Real World. Jon brought us a groundbreaking series called Born This Way, which follows a group of young adults with Down syndrome. It’s an amazing series that gives a voice to these extraordinary individuals and their parents.

WS: What are some of A+E Networks’s upcoming unscripted shows?
DUBUC: We have a lot of new series in development across all our brands, but one that I’m particularly proud of is 60 Days In. Throughout the history of our company, A&E has been a leader in the true-crime genre. 60 Days In is a great example of taking a fresh approach to the justice/crime genre. In the series, seven innocent people enter the dangerous world of incarceration at the Clark County jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in an effort to expose internal issues and what happens behind bars. Each person has his or her own reason for participating. It is truly compelling television. 60 Days In is garnering a lot of attention, and we believe it will resonate with viewers.

WS: A&E and HISTORY have new management. How will they build on the successes of these networks?
DUBUC: Paul Buccieri joined us just over a year ago as president of A&E and HISTORY. I’ve known Paul for several years, and worked with him during his tenure at ITV Studios, one of our important production partners. I’ve always admired his work and his programming and business instincts, and he has a well-earned reputation globally for being an innovative content creator and deal-maker.

Paul has built strong management teams for each of the brands. He brought Jana Bennett from FYI to HISTORY as president and general manager, and he named Paul Cabana as executive VP and head of programming for the channel. Jana joined A+E Networks in 2013 to develop and launch FYI. She and her team did an amazing job conceiving the brand and its programming. I have great faith in the vision we have created for HISTORY and look forward to the new content that will begin rolling out soon.

At A&E, Rob Sharenow was brought in as executive VP and general manager, a role he also holds at Lifetime. Rob has a great sense for the A&E brand as he was previously head of [nonfiction and alternative] programming for the channel. He joins Elaine Frontain Bryant [executive VP and head of programming]. Rob and Elaine developed or served as executive producers on a number of acclaimed A&E series, including Intervention, Storage Wars and Beyond Scared Straight.

Rob and Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming at Lifetime, have developed a great vision for the Lifetime brand, and I’m very excited about the direction that channel is taking as well.