A+E Networks Marks Its Return to the Upfronts by Relaunching the Biography Franchise

After sitting out last year, company is back to hone its brand messaging

A+E is bringing back Biography, with new specials on Vladimir Putin, Tupac Shakur and Elizabeth Smart.
Sources: Getty Images

After sitting out last year’s big upfront events, A+E Networks is back in the game this year. But that wasn’t the only big return to tradition for the company, which also announced that it’s relaunching its Biography franchise this spring.

The company used its Tuesday night New York event, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, to share details of the return of A+E’s signature documentary series, which ran for decades—its last new episode aired in 2011—and spawned its own magazine, website and even a network, Biography Channel, which was rebranded as FYI in 2014.

Biography’s new iteration will span all of the company’s linear and digital platforms while also including several new linear specials focused on Biggie Smalls (late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.), Vladimir Putin, mobster John Gotti and his son John Jr., Mike Tyson, Elizabeth Smart, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, and a six-hour miniseries on the unsolved murder of Tupac Shakur.

Peter Olsen, evp, national ad sales for A+E Networks, said the company is offering a limited number of sponsor packages for the new episodes of Biography and will then leave room for other brands to come on board later.

While all of those Biography programs will debut on A&E (except for the Putin program, which will air on History), the franchise will ultimately air across the company’s entire portfolio.

Olsen said in its earlier iterations, even when it also became a channel and website,  Biography “was still really about long-form content, and then, frankly, cheap digital content.” But ESPN’s 30 for 30 franchise and documentaries from networks like Netflix have changed the perception of what the genre can be.

“We wanted to go a step further and think of this as an always-on franchise that social and digital are talking about every day,” Olsen said, noting that it takes months to create new linear episodes. “We’ve recently hired these editors in chief to bring almost a journalistic tone to the brand. Not that we’re going to be a news organization, but you need to be able to speak to the audience every day. If something happens in the news tomorrow, you want to be able to speak about those people.”

Also in the upfront presentation, which focused on its three main networks—A&E, History and Lifetime—the company highlighted the opportunities for brands to partner with Lifetime’s Open Road initiative. Documentarians will spend a year traveling around the country, talking to women in all 50 states and creating short films.

“We think it represents putting our money where our mouth is. We want to go out and talk to the audience and hear from them. It’s really being the preeminent brand for women in TV and we hope all media,” said Olsen.

A+E is hoping brands will also gravitate to Lifetime because the network is the new exclusive U.S TV home of the National Women’s Soccer League, where games will air every Saturday during the season.

The company’s other big ad sales focus for this upfront will be Viceland, A+E’s joint network with Vice Media, which replaced H2 a year ago and will also be given a featured role in Tuesday’s event. “It’s still new enough that clearly we’re looking to dramatically lift the number of sponsors,” said Olsen.

Change of heart

A+E’s return to the upfront schedule this year was a bit of a surprise given that last year it became the latest company to scrap its big upfront event in favor of smaller dinners with agencies and clients around the country.

Olsen said A+E’s annual event used to be held in late April and early May, “which is really the end of the selling cycle for us.” The company dropped the event last year after having more success with its dinners earlier in the selling cycle but had a change of heart after losing the thread of some of its brand messaging during last year’s upfront.