A&E’s Against-the-Grain Retreat From Scripted TV Triggers a Ratings Revival

Unscripted shows like Live PD draw viewers and advertisers

Reality show Born This Way has garnered critical acclaim for the A&E Network. A+E
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During the past few years, several cable and streaming networks have jumped on the scripted series bandwagon in an attempt to reverse ratings declines, make themselves essential in a world of skinny bundles—and collect higher CPMs from advertisers. So it was shocking last April when A&E announced it was going against the grain and retreating from scripted series, focusing solely on unscripted content.

Even more surprising: the move has paid off for A&E. The network has seen six consecutive months of growth in its core demo of adults 25-54—A&E’s longest growth streak since 2011—and is enjoying year-over-year gains in total viewers and the 25-54 and 18-49 demos at a time when A+E Networks’ other marquee brands like Lifetime and History have been losing viewers.

“Now more than ever, the clarity of brand, and brand purpose, has become increasingly important,” said Rob Sharenow, who decided to go all-in on unscripted soon after he began running the network in 2015. “It was a decision to lean into what has always been A&E’s core strength: groundbreaking nonfiction. When I came back to A&E and looked at what was actually working at aggregating audience, and also spoke for what the core of the brand really was, it was in that space.”

The network had found success since 1995 with a steady stream of scripted offerings like Horatio Hornblower, Pride & Prejudice, Longmire and Bates Motel, but its ratings had been hobbled by recent misfires like Damien, The Returned and Those Who Kill.

“We were coming out of a dark period of a lot of stuff not working,” said Sharenow, who in July was named president of programming for A+E Networks. “Nothing’s harder on a network than a lot of failures, and stemming that tide was the first and most important critical step.”

Sharenow has done that with critically acclaimed shows like Born This Way, 60 Days In and Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. By offering “high-end, well-executed” reality fare, the network is able to attract advertisers who avoid the genre’s trashier offerings. “Our advertisers know that when they’re in a crime and justice show on A&E, they’re in safe hands,” said Sharenow.

The network’s ratings turnaround was “accelerated” by the arrival of Live PD, which airs Friday and Saturday nights and offers a live look at police forces on patrol across the country, with in-studio analysis. “In the abstract, that was an extremely expensive show that didn’t make sense financially at the outset. But it was such a relevant, exciting proposition that it was worth the risk,” said Sharenow. After a “slow build” following its debut a year ago, Live PD has more than doubled its initial audience and now is routinely cable’s No. 1 program, outside of news and sports, in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos on Friday and Saturday nights. “And it repeats at almost our highest repeat level of anything on the schedule,” noted Sharenow.

The next challenge, buyers say, will be convincing Live PD’s audience to stick around. “They found a show that people are interested in, but what networks sometimes fail to do is build on that success,” said Sam Armando, national TV director, Spark Foundry. “Now that they have that hook to get people to the network, how do they build upon that with programs that resonate just as well, and keep people interested moving forward?”

Armando thinks that Sharenow’s A&E turnaround bodes well as he now looks to do the same with the rest of A+E Networks’ portfolio. “As much as you want to be a broad-type network that gets as much of a mass audience as you can, cable networks benefit from some sort of branding that people can tie on to,” said Armando, noting that the company is also honing its branding at History and Lifetime. “Taking chances on those networks, you might come up with a few rotten eggs here and there—but you also might come up with a Live PD.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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