A+E Sales Boss Mel Berning Takes on Broadcast Bullies

More unscripted to come

If you’re a big investor in TV inventory, Mel Berning would like a word about his broadcast competition. “They’re 10 percent off on supply,” said Berning, A+E Networks’ president of ad sales. “So the question is, OK, do you want to pay the failure tax? I mean, name two hit shows.”

Berning’s no stranger to hit shows, as the AETN brands specialize in cranking out the sort of broad reach unscripted fare that also appeals to younger viewers. History boasts the megahits Pawn Stars and American Pickers, and A&E’s Duck Dynasty is an absolute monster, averaging 8.21 million viewers in its third season. “Across the portfolio, with pretty clean targeting, we can play up and down the age skew and the income skew,” said Berning, who superserves three very distinct demographics in History, A&E and Lifetime.

While it’s too early to assay how this year’s upfront will shake out, it’s hard to imagine that the inherent efficiencies won’t continue to work in cable’s favor. Last year, the Big Four booked $9.2 billion in advance commitments, while cable racked up a record $9.8 billion.

Broadcasters aside, AETN’s greatest challenge may lie in the cloning of its successful unscripted series. There’s truTV’s Hardcore Pawn—easily confused with Pawn Stars—and Spike’s Auction Hunters—which looks just like Storage Wars, among many others. The secondhand shows do well, too.

Controversy also shadows the genre. Former Storage Wars star Dave Hester is suing A&E, alleging the network fraudulently stashed valuable material in some of the lockers under auction. And while it’s certainly not the first time a reality show has been accused of artificially goosing the drama, the $2.2 million Hester claims is owed to him is nothing to sneeze at. (A&E says Hester is being vindictive because his contract negotiations didn’t go the way he wanted—also not an industry first.) Then there’s Romeo Killer, Lifetime’s docudrama on axe murderer Chris Porco. The convicted patricide last month won an injunction forbidding Lifetime from airing the film although that stay was quickly reversed.

These problems are a common side effect of fact-based TV, but despite the attendant headaches, reality remains a sound investment—as long as you keep refreshing it with new ideas. Of course, one advantage of scripted drama is that it’s harder to rip off. A&E is developing a number of original projects to ride shotgun with its Western/procedural mashup Longmire, including Michael Bay’s supernatural pilot Occult, which stars Josh Lucas and Lynn Collins, and Brian Grazer’s green-lit Those Who Kill, a crime thriller starring Chloë Sevigny.

As the seventh season of its Army Wives franchise winds down, Lifetime is also expanding its offerings. The women’s net has ordered The Witches of East End, starring Julia Ormond, and Devious Maids, a soapy drama from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry that was originally conceived as an ABC pilot.

Lifetime is also rolling the dice with a new reality series, Adweek has learned, green-lighting Catering Wars. It’s another unexpected development from a brand that isn’t satisfied with resting on its programming laurels. “I don’t want to say unscripted is necessarily the right direction for Lifetime, but you’ve got to try different things sometimes, and that’s the space for female drama,” said Francois Lee, MediaVest svp, group client director. “Look at Bravo. They announced 17 shows this week, and they were all unscripted.”

Meanwhile, History has a half-dozen irons in the fire that don’t have analogues on any other network although that’s bound to change as soon as they air. (One reality producer told Adweek that “everyone’s looking for the next Brain Games”—an upcoming NatGeo series that has already generated enough buzz to set the wheels of the rip-off machine in motion.)

Meanwhile, Berning is trying to figure out how to offer deeper integrations across the ever-expanding array of screens. "You can't put a 30-second spot on a mobile device," he said. "But you can figure it out."

True. But then it's just a matter of time before everyone else catches up.