A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc on Challenges for Networks Targeting Women

WIE Power 100 -  Nancy Dubuc - Getty - P 2016
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The executive at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge convention in England also discusses Netflix, Hulu, skinny bundles and recalls thinking she would get fired over 'The Kennedys.'

A+E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc at a British TV industry conference on Wednesday discussed the competition and challenges facing female-skewing networks in the U.S.

Appearing at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge convention in a keynote session, the exec was asked whether digital and other disruption is hurting the company's networks targeting women, replying that it was more about competition and the sheer amount of programming on offer. "There is a lot of content out there for the female demographic," she said, highlighting that double the number of networks in the U.S. program to women than men. 

"It's easy for the board to say, 'Well, add makeover shows,'" Dubuc said. "The No. 1 show for women in the United States is The Walking Dead. That's not a makeover show. It is, kind of." Her afterthought drew laughs from the audience. 

A+E Networks, owned by Disney-ABC Television Group and Hearst Communications, is known for such cable networks as A&E, History, Lifetime and Viceland.

Discussing the company's three core networks in more details, Dubuc said: "History to some degree benefits from a clearly defined brand, a very clearly defined topic and a clearly defined category with a decent amount of white space around it. A&E, as a boundary-pushing network, and designed to be a boundary-pushing network, as long as it is continuing to find that next hot property or talked-about show, will [be fine]."

But, she also highlighted, "that's a hard cycle to always be in, the hit-machine cycle. But that's the business they are in."

Meanwhile, Lifetime, which was acquired in 2009, has had "some highs and lows," Dubuc acknowledged. "But it really is talking to a very wide audience."

Asked whether she was happy with where the A+E business was creatively, Dubuc said "absolutely." She emphasized that the company has continued to rethink and reinvent its networks and shows. "Dare to go there" has always been the unspoken motto at A+E, said the exec. "Celebrating failure is key," she added. "Half of what we do fails, at least."

Asked about such much-discussed content as Leah Remini's show Scientology and the Aftermath and the documentary series about the KKK that was canceled, Dubuc said, "It's my job ... to push people out of their comfort zones. But we got to have a reason to do it. We don't do it gratuitously."

Does the exec feel she has future-proofed the company? "The day you feel you have future-proofed the business, you haven't future-proofed the business," Dubuc replied.

She also recalled The Kennedys, a multimillion-dollar miniseries at History, her first scripted mini at the network and, at the time, its most expensive program ever that didn't make it to air. “While the [eight-part] film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand," the network said.

"I thought I was going to lose my job over The Kennedys," Dubuc recounted. "I got really dogged and stubborn, and I got a phone call from a very powerful person at one of the partners that gave me very sage advice that I have [shared] with my executives: 'It's just a show.'"

Asked about Live PD, she lauded it as a big ratings hit that has also provided innovation and a change in thinking on the part of police departments in the U.S. When asked if live content is a big draw, she argued that live for live's sake isn't worth doing, with the exception of sports. Instead it must be about going "live where it contributes to the tension," she said.

Dubuc was also asked about skinny pay TV bundles. "The [pay TV] ecosystem is being disrupted, no question," she said. "We had a fair amount of success being in the skinny bundle." Companies looking to make a smaller bundle for $15 a month popular enough tend to benefit from having A+E channels, she argued. "We are cheap enough, because we don't have sports and we don't have broadcast retrans, but we are delivering across the three brands a very diverse audience at a real value," Dubuc explained.

Asked about the decision to take A+E content off Netflix, Dubuc said the streaming giant has "an incredible business" and "all of us are a bit envious of what they have and what they are able to spend," but she said it was all about behavior. "The way people were consuming our content on Netflix was not on par with with the way we were being valued by Netflix," said the exec. "Right there, it was an easier decision to say that money isn't worth the risk that we are taking of creating a behavior to not watch commercial television."

Asked about Amazon, Dubuc said A+E has a more piecemeal relationship, while her company has a strong relationship with Hulu because it offers advertising, which 75 percent of its audience is still watching. "For me, it's about the audience behavior," she said. 

Questioned about A+E's stake in Vice and the decision to launch Viceland and whether it has been a success, Dubuc responded, "Unquestionably." But she said it was a chicken-and-egg situation. "It's talking to an audience that doesn't watch any television, but I would argue we are not giving that audience much television to watch," she explained. "The challenge is now getting the distribution of that brand up."

The networks's audience is one of the "most upscale young" audiences, Dubuc highlighted. She also said that to her, buying a stake in Vice seemed to provide more benefits than buying a big production company. 

Dubuc also outlined opportunities for British producers and discussed the challenges of changes in linear viewing, declines in ad revenue and the rise of the social media giants. "The ambition is great," she said when asked about the ambition of A+E's scripted business. The exec said Vikings has done well in many countries, but the company hasn't participated in its success everywhere as much as it could have.

Dubuc said for scripted shows on A+E networks to not come through the company's relatively new studio would require more creative business models, as buying a show and making money off it only by advertising revenue usually won't work.