A&E Boss Discusses "Ugly," Unrehearsed Look at the KKK in New Series

Sharenow Main - H 2015
Dustin Aksland

Sharenow Main - H 2015

Generation KKK, A&E's upcoming documentary series about rising U.S. participation in hate groups, is not a response to the 2016 election — though its January arrival might imply otherwise.

A&E has been plotting and filming the series for well over a year. The scope of its relevance to the current climate in America only became clear in recent months. With rather unprecedented access to the Ku Klux Klan, the eight-hour project follows several prominent members of the violent hate group and the adjacent friends and family members who don't want any part of it.

The results are incredibly graphic. Within the first 15 minutes of the premiere, one Klansman is shown talking with his four-year-old son about murdering black people, and usage of the N-word becomes too frequent to count. A&E boss Rob Sharenow says it exposes the depth of the KKK's ugliness, which most Americans only ever see diluted by polished sound bites. "This show is not rehearsed or prepackaged," says the exec vp and general manager of A&E and Lifetime. "It's quite shocking, but I think that's important."

After news broke of the series' impending arrival, Sharenow spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how the producers got access to Klan members — typically blurred and unnamed when caught on camera — and why he doesn't want viewers to confuse it for any kind of political statement.

Did you expect the series would be this timely?

A&E, as a brand, likes to speak to the zeitgeist. This has been in development for a year and a half, but we didn't anticipate the political climate changing quite as radically as it has. But I think it's important that the show not be overly politicized. As a broadcaster, I really think the message of anti-hate is important, timeless and moral. I fear that people will some way think that it's a political statement — though [the election] is part of the backdrop of the show. We were filming during the campaign, but that's not what drove our interest. I have concerns that people will put a wall up, thinking it's a political statement — which it isn't.

Given the jarring language and attitudes on camera here, are you promoting this differently than you would another show?

We are partnered with the ADL and other anti-hate groups, so there will be public service announcements within the airing of the show. So the context will be there. In terms of how we're promoting the show, I think the power of this show resides in that it's showing things how they are...in a way that we haven't seen before. We tend to see only polished and rehearsed voices from the Klan in the media. David Duke appears in his neatly pressed suit, and there are well-organized marches and speeches. We want viewers to see and hear the ugliness at the heart of hate groups. Our show reveals what is really said and done between people who are members, who believe. It's not whitewashed.

Following the Scientology project and Live PD, is it a trend that we're seeing more serious-minded series like this on A&E?

A&E has a long tradition of revealing moments of truth in culture. One of our signature shows, Intervention, has been on more than 10 years now. It got at the issue of addiction with a level of truth and insight in a way that I don't think anybody had seen before. It's not all about ugliness. Born This Way is about living with Down Syndrome, and the truth there is really beautiful and surprising. That's always been a really critical part of what we do.

How did Generation KKK come to you?

This Is Just a Test, a production company we like very much, pitched it to us. They had gained access to prominent Klan families, and really just came to us with the whole idea of exploration.

Did you have to take any extra precautions with everyone involved, considering this is group known for retribution?

Production took extreme caution to secure the safety of all of these involved, like any intense documentary would. These filmmakers knew that they weren't going in making a reality show, they were making a hard-hitting series about a provocative subject with a very going group of people.

And the Klan was willing to just get on camera and say these things?

There was full transparency. I think that there was a sense that these people wanted their stories told. They are voices that have not been largely heard in this context, and they were welcoming to have their opinions be told. This is not a gotcha show. There were no secrets. This is really a pure documentary series, and that's what the approach was. The producers really did engender the trust of everyone involved by being transparent. I don't think they could have made the show otherwise.