Garth Brooks and President Bush Help A+E Networks Spotlight ‘Healthy’ Portfolio at Upfront

A year after Nancy Dubuc’s abrupt exit, it’s smooth sailing under new chief Paul Buccieri

Garth Brooks said at the upfront that A&E will air a four-part Biography special about him later this year. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

One year ago, A+E Networks’ carefully calibrated upfront plans were disrupted by the surprise exit of former CEO Nancy Dubuc, announced just three days ahead of its event. But it was smooth sailing for the company at Wednesday night’s upfront presentation, which allowed buyers to focus on who was actually in attendance—including Garth Brooks, President George W. Bush, Sylvester Stallone and Robin Roberts—rather than who was MIA.

A+E Networks celebrated its 35th anniversary with an upfront event at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center that celebrated the power of its brand and its portfolio.

Among the highlights: Bush discussed new History initiatives like traveling speaker series History Talks (launching this fall and focusing on newsworthy subjects and major historical events); podcast series History Speaks (debuting next year); and HistoryCon, a three-day convention for history fans set for next April in Pasadena, Calif.

Brooks said A&E will air a four-part Biography special about him, tentatively titled Garth: The Road I’m On, in the fourth quarter. Stallone said he will direct and executive produce a drama series, The Tenderloin, in development at History and based on a true story about a dirty cop battling Italian, Jewish and Irish gangs in 1900s New York.

And Roberts, who is executive producing a Lifetime movie and companion documentary about kidnapping victim Kamiyah Mobley, said Lifetime will air more than 150 movies in fiscal year 2019.

The big celeb turnout for the first upfront led by Paul Buccieri, who was named president of A+E Networks Group last July following Dubuc’s exit, validates A+E’s decision to return to holding annual upfront events after briefly sitting out in 2016.

“We realize it’s still an important thing to get in front of people on a stage, in front of the big screen, with the creators front and center,” Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales, A+E Networks, told Adweek. He added, pointing to the talent the company assembled for buyers, “We’re not the biggest player, but we punch above our weight.”

During the event, Buccieri and Olsen highlighted the company’s brand strength and its commitment to original content. “The portfolio of brands is in probably the healthiest place it’s been in in a while. We’re beating the marketplace from a ratings standpoint and a revenue standpoint, so we feel good about that,” Olsen said.

There wasn’t a heavy sales pitch from Olsen, though earlier in the day, A+E Networks said it was opening up audience targeting to smaller clients with a new offering, P1, that lets them optimize their ad spend on a single network for one month instead of the typical broader, longer portfolio buy.

Last May, A+E Networks became the first company to offer performance-based guarantees for some of its upfront inventory around metrics that prove TV’s ability to drive behavior.

Olsen said that offering, which will take on a more significant role in this year’s upfront talks, proves “TV drives more lift than anything. The ecosystem is still pretty healthy, despite all of the headwinds.”

As part of the company’s upfront pitch, Olsen is emphasizing A+E Networks’ stability at a time of monumental change in the industry, including ripple effects from the Disney-Fox and AT&T-Time Warner mergers.

“If you look at the landscape after all the mergers, there isn’t a dominant player, but there are three or four portfolios that are all similar in size that I think will be battling it out amongst themselves,” Olsen said. “That’s a big opportunity for us, that we’re just focused on solving the client issues and not worrying about whose agenda is going to win inside our own walls.”

In addition to the news from Bush, Roberts, Stallone and Brooks, here were A+E Networks’ other big upfront programming announcements:

  • History is working with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on a six-hour documentary about George Washington, tentatively called Washington, and is also making a six-part docudrama on The Food That Built America, looking at food entrepreneurs like Milton Hershey and Henry Heinz. The network has greenlit The UnXplained, hosted by William Shatner, exploring the world’s most fascinating mysteries.
  • Lifetime’s upcoming slate includes the biopic The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel, executive produced by Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott. It will air the documentary special From Darkness to Light, produced gold medal winning Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and Leah Remini, highlighting the stories of sexual assault survivors, as well as a miniseries about Salt-N-Pepa.
  • A&E has picked up Top Dog, a spinoff of its hit Live P.D. series that will feature competitions between K-9 police dogs.

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