A+E Networks Looks to Its Future by Turning to the Past

Reboots of Roots, War and Peace and The Omen fuel its upcoming slate

Let's get the disappointing news out of the way first: A+E Networks' upfront presentation Thursday night lacked the big announcement many were hoping for—confirmation of reports earlier this week that the company is turning over its H2 channel to Vice Media. (Perhaps they're saving that news for Vice's NewFronts presentation on Friday.)

But those who gathered at New York's Park Avenue Armory were still treated to several big announcements—just not Vice-level big—as Nancy Dubuc, president and CEO, revealed future plans for Lifetime, History, A&E, FYI, LMN and H2.

"Throughout this media evolution, we don't intend to just survive, but we will thrive," said Dubuc, who also dropped an unscripted yet energetic f-bomb on stage. "We aren't afraid to take creative risks." Though given the highlights of A+E's upcoming slate, she's also not afraid to tackle A+E's future by drawing from the past and rebooting several beloved TV shows, books and movies.  

Chief among them is a new take on the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots, a "cross network event," which will be simulcast next year on History, A&E and Lifetime. LeVar Burton, who starred as Kunta Kinte in the original miniseries based on Alex Haley's novel, is on board as co-executive producer for the new miniseries. "We will be introducing Roots to an entirely new generation," said Dirk Hoogstra, History evp and gm. "It's a huge responsibility."

As Dubuc noted, Roots was "the highest-rated event in TV history," with more than 100 million viewers tuning in to the finale.

A+E's three biggest networks will also team up with The Weinstein Company and BBC to simulcast a limited series based on the 1869 Leo Tolstoy novel War and Peace. Gillian Anderson, Paul Dano and Lily James star in that adaptation, which will air in 2016 after premiering later this year on BBC. "It's contemporary, it's gripping and it's action-packed," said Rob Sharenow, evp and gm and A&E and Lifetime.

Meanwhile, Damien, the follow-up to The Omen—following a grown-up Damien Thorn (aka the Antichrist from the 1976 film)—had initially been slated for Lifetime, but has now been relocated to a more appropriate home: A&E. The channel that also has Psycho prequel Bates Motel—whose success helped fuel A+E's revival craze—has increased Damien's six-episode Season 1 order to 10 episodes.

In non-reboot news, Dubuc touted in-house production company A+E Studios, which produced Lifetime's upcoming drama Unreal and several History miniseries—Houdini, Sons of Liberty, Texas Rising—and has more than 40 projects in various stages of production. It "gives us more flexibility and opportunity to be creative not only with our programming but with your proximity to it, wherever it's seen," said Dubuc.

On the digital side, Dubuc said that A+E's various streaming apps have been downloaded 35 million times and yield more than 1 billion annual video views.

She also previewed Lifetime's upcoming series Unreal, a drama debuting June 1 from former Wieden + Kennedy content producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, which goes behind the scenes at a Bachelor-like reality dating competition.

Among A+E's other upfront announcements and highlights:

  • Fit to Fat to Fit, an A&E series that follows 10 personal trainers who stop working out for four months and eat what the average overweight American eats.
  • History's Alone, an unscripted series that strands 10 survivalists in the Vancouver Island wilderness and gives $500,000 to whoever lasts the longest. The network is billing it as "the biggest survival attempt in history."
  • Sing It!, Lifetime's docuseries in which two rival New Jersey a cappella groups train with top coaches and compete in weekly competitions. "It's the real-life Pitch Perfect," said Sharenow.
  • Lifetime announced its first original scripted non-linear content, launching Fall Into Me, featuring eight separate series of six-minute romantic dramas "catering to a variety of women's fantasies," said Sharenow. "I can't believe I'm saying 'women's fantasies' at an upfront."
  • History also has the digital series Shotgun, a game show in which contestants try to answer questions while riding "shotgun" in a racecar speeding around a track.
  • FYI (the former Biography channel) ordered 14 episodes of Food Porn, which will be executive produced by Bethenny Frankel and hosted by New York restaurateur Michael Chernow, who will search for the country's most popular #foodporn-hashtagged food.