TV Upfront

Why A&E Networks Wants to Operate More Like a Publisher

Will Bring Back 'Biography' Franchise

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A&E Networks quietly hired "editors-in-chief" earlier this year. The cabler, whose channels include Lifetime and History, isn't launching a magazine, but it does want to operate more like a publisher. And during this year's upfront, A&E Networks wants advertisers to view the company less as a collection of TV businesses and more as storytellers.

The company, which makes its pitch to advertisers and agencies on Tuesday night, is focusing its efforts on creating culturally relevant brands, starting with its Lifetime and History networks. There has been a shift internally to refocus on a clear target audience and mission so that the networks become more like voices in the broader conversation than standard TV properties, said Amanda Hill, chief marketing officer, A&E Networks.

To do that, its editors-in-chief and their teams are creating thematic content areas, such as "Women in Tech" at Lifetime, designed to imitate the channels of digital publishers.

"Most TV brands are a result of what our shows are," said Peter Olsen, exec VP-national ad sales, A&E Networks. "Print brands in the digital space have more of a voice and intimacy with their audience. It has always been shows first and brands second, we are trying to flip that."

In January, A&E Networks tapped Lea Goldman, the former editorial director of Refinery29 and executive editor of Hearst's Marie Claire, to lead its editorial efforts at Lifetime and FYI, and brought in Tiffanie Darke, former News U.K. creative content director, to oversee the A&E and History channels. They are charged with creating an editorial strategy for the brands on-air and across digital and social platforms.

For History, this means doubling down on the idea of knowledge, with a mission to raise collective intelligence. "Knowledge really means something right now," Ms. Hill said. "It has become far too easy to become not smart."

And at Lifetime, the goal is to be the brand that understands women better than anyone and tell stories of possibility, she said. In recent years, Lifetime has predominantly aired loud reality programs, such as "Dance Moms" and "Bring It," known more for drama than particularly representing women.

Lifetime will turn toward showcasing women who traditionally have not had a platform to tell their stories, focus on championing different types of role models and celebrate diversity and womanhood, Ms. Hill said.

As part of the refresh, A&E Networks will also be updating logos and on-air graphics of its networks.

Traditionally, A&E Networks has created content for brands tied to a specific show or talent. The company is now offering marketers the opportunity to buy into these themes.

There is an editorial calendar in place, but the plan is to respond quickly to current events and pop culture, Mr. Olsen said, adding that at times advertisers won't know exactly what they are getting until it happens. This means marketers could make more of an investment in A&E Networks' brands than specific content.

"If something were to happen tomorrow, for us to create or movie or show around it would take six months," Mr. Olsen said. "We can't claim to be a relevant company if it takes six months for us to respond."

As A&E Networks looks to refocus the mission of its brands, it is also bringing back one long-running franchise. The company announced on Tuesday it will revive "Biography," the documentary series that once ran on the A&E channel and later the Bio channel.

"Biography" will begin airing on the A&E network, History and Lifetime across all platforms this spring. Initial projects include a look at the life of the late Christopher Wallace, or "the Notorious B.I.G," as well as a six-hour miniseries on the death of rapper Tupac Shakur.

The return of "Biography" comes as networks like ESPN find success with biographical programming like "30 Under 30" and Netflix invests more in documentary programming. The new iteration of "Biography" will be more filmmaker-focused and will include short-form and social content.

Mr. Olsen said there will be a reduced commercial load in the series and a limited number of sponsors who can buy into the program across platforms.

As the pay-TV industry shifts towards skinnier cable bundles and a la carte subscriptions, the idea is to create a brand that can stand alone in the new distribution landscape, separate from any one channel, Mr. Olsen said.

Of course, A&E Networks already had a standalone Bio channel, which it renamed FYI in 2015.

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