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
Headshot of Jason Lynch

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.

“When we decided last year not to do it, there was no permanent decision,” Olsen said. “You can very easily get lost in that April-May timeline with newfronts, upfronts and broadcast. We rethought it and said doing a big brand event early, it gives it more time to seep in and actually activate off it. We like this timeframe.”

So the company decided to make its upfront event focused on the networks and brands and save its big sales pitch for its client and agency dinners, which are continuing this year. “Everyone is talking about audience, but the only way to get great audience is through great shows and great brands, so let’s focus on them,” Olsen said. “Then the sales force will be in your offices, talking to you about what this means for client X, Y and Z.”

Those individual meetings will touch on the capabilities of A+E Precision, the company’s audience targeting tool. Olsen said he did a “handful” of linear and digital deals on the platform last upfront, and is looking to do a dozen more this upfront. (Regarding the new OpenAP audience targeting platform that Turner, Viacom and Fox are launching as an industry standard, “we’re open to whatever works for the business,” said Olsen.)

With The Bridge, the company’s in-house creative agency, and 45th and Dean, its branded content studio, A+E wants to help brands target audiences, and not just specific programs.

That’s also the feeling behind the company’s new approach to its nonprime dayparts, where it’s organizing themed programming blocks. “The feel is to almost create a digital vertical on linear,” said Olsen. The company runs an outdoor-themed block on History Saturday mornings combined with library shows like Swamp People and custom content. “The goal is that three-hour block feels like one experience,” said Olsen of the black that has attracted brands like Yeti and Polaris.

This summer, the company will be launching an auto block on History, likely on Sundays, where the content will be more forward-looking, looking at innovation in the auto space, than History’s usual programs, which are focused on past events. Also in the works is a fashion and beauty block on Lifetime.

While many competitors make data a big part of their upfront pitches, Olsen said, “We’re looking at it as, you have to have creativity and specific audience platforms to really make the data story work, and that’s what our focus is. These enthusiast blocks are about bringing a very, very targeted audience, that our audience tools can amplify.”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.