A+E Networks Shifts Upfront Push From Content to COVID-19 Social Initiatives

Company also looks to move away from traditional demo transactions

a man onstage at A+E's 2019 Upfront
A+E Networks' annual upfront event was supposed to take place Wednesday night.
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Just two and a half weeks ago, A+E Networks was still making preparations for its annual upfront event, which had been set for Wednesday at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Of course, those plans quickly went out the window due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the company to cancel its event and completely revamp its upfront plans and strategy.

After regrouping, A+E Networks is heading into the upfront with an overhauled approach: downplaying the programming plans it had initially planned to tout, and instead focusing on its COVID-19 initiatives and other pro-social community efforts.

“We certainly feel a responsibility as a company. We’re invited into 90 million homes every day, and we’re trying to do our best to entertain and inform,” said Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales at A+E Networks.

To that end, A+E Networks will focus more on its corporate social responsibility outreach efforts, including working with the American Red Cross as well as the Ad Council and CDC’s new marketing initiative, by sharing info on its networks, donating money and airing PSAs.

The company is also sharing free educational materials on History.com to help the millions of students who have had to switch to distance learning, and making some History Vault programming available for free.

Starting tomorrow, A+E Networks will be sending its Upfront Showcase privately to agencies and clients. The 25-minute video will include programming announcements for the coming year, but the company will no longer be releasing that news publicly.

After canceling its upfront event, A+E Networks had initially planned on screening the Showcase during in-person agency meetings, but quickly realized that wouldn’t be feasible as COVID-19 continued to spread. The next plan was to hold a “virtual upfront” during which marketers would still watch the footage remotely at roughly the same time, but that too was scrapped.

“What started off as a plan to have everyone see it in a similar timeframe, more like a big upfront, we’ll now show it to people over a three- or four-week period depending on when that particular account comes up for air,” Olsen said.

A+E Networks will work with each agency and client on their preferred methods of sharing the video. It will screen the video for them during a virtual meeting and offer Q&A around it, or will allow the clients watch on their own timetable. “We’re trying to take a pretty flexible approach,” Olsen added.

In addition to the hush-hush programming preview, the video will play up the strength of its signature networks, including History’s shift toward documentaries, Lifetime’s push into movies (particularly around the holidays as part of the two-month It’s a Wonderful Lifetime marathon) and A&E embracing the “live, front-row experience,” said Olsen.

The Upfront Showcase will focus on the “brand clarity” of its History, Lifetime and A&E networks, said Olsen. “A couple of years ago, it was a little broader. Now, I think each one has narrowed its focus a bit and I think that comes across pretty well, as well as the community and prosocial things that each brand has really stood for, for a long time. It’s a little bit more muted approach than obviously we’d planned a few weeks ago.”

Traditional demos ‘just don’t work anymore’

Going into this upfront, A+E Networks looks to move away from transacting on traditional demo guarantees, like adults 18-49, which “just don’t work anymore,” Olsen said. “It’s not where the spending power is; it just doesn’t make sense.”

Instead, he’s looking to pursue deals that will be a blend of standard demos, guarantees on strategic targets and business outcomes, and total audience deals. Depending on the client, the deals could incorporate one, two or all three of those approaches, blended into an annual framework.

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