A+E Studios Chief on Content Strategy and Showrunners on His Wish List (Q&A)

Issue 12 FEA Sidebar Bob DeBitetto - P 2014
Jeff Katz/Courtesy of A&E Networks

Issue 12 FEA Sidebar Bob DeBitetto - P 2014

Bob DeBitetto talks to THR about what defines an A+E Studios show, whether he'll sell to outside networks and the launch of an in-house studio: "It's about damn time."

This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's been only nine months since former A&E chief Bob DeBitetto, 57, took the reins of A+E Networks' newly launched studio. The content creator already has put into development an Adrien Brody-led Houdini miniseries for History, a dark comedy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Marti Noxon for Lifetime and a remake of French thriller The Returned for A&E.

What defines an A+E Studios show?

The show will be viewed uniquely and distinctly on History or Lifetime. My job is not to have our product scream "A+E Studios." I don't want to be invisible, but the look and feel need to be brand-targeted, not studio-targeted.

A+E's is the latest in-house studio to emerge. Why now?

It's about damn time. There are a few big-picture forces that are having all of us really rethink our content strategy as it relates to higher-cost scripted dramatic content. The old model that has been employed for decades is the license model, where the studio supplies a show, which they fund at a so-called "deficit." The network puts in 70 percent of the cost of the show and 100 percent of the marketing of the show, and that's before you even start to value your own on-air promotional inventory. When you add that up, more than 90 percent of the investment in season one is on the network, and it's crazy that we don't own any of it. So, in success, we don't really share the upside at all. On an economic basis, that's kind of lunacy.

STORY: A+E at 30, How a Tiny Network Became a $26 Billion Success Story

But you also don't lose money in failure, which is common.

If you're making the right kind of show with the right kind of auspices, there's a really robust marketplace. Today, for instance, there can be international syndication even if it doesn't go to season two. So the real risk that the studios are taking is not 30 percent of the cost but zero percent of the cost, and they end up owning everything. The other reason that's important is nonlinear distribution models. While nonlinear viewing [on on-demand or on Netflix] still only represents a pretty small piece of the overall viewership pie on television, it's growing rapidly. If you don't own the rights to the programs that are being sought-after on these platforms, as these models develop you're just not even going to be relevant.

As you and others look to own more of your own content, how nervous should the more independent cable-focused studios such as Fox TV Studios and Warner Horizon be?

I don't think that they should be nervous at all. We've collaborated together before, and we'll continue to do so. I can't tell you that we're going to be out of the licensing business entirely. There might be a show that we really want to do, but it's from an A-plus showrunner who has an exclusive overall deal at one of these companies; we're not going to not do the show necessarily. There will be more co?productions because as we do more and we're looking to spend intelligently, sharing risk among the two studios makes a lot of sense. Also, a lot of these guys have been doing it for a while. It would be crazy for us not to tap into their expertise and partner up.

You'll be developing projects with your sister networks from a very early stage. What happens if a project doesn't get ordered? Will you be selling those to outside networks?

If we are going to be in that first round of stops for the best stuff, we cannot be a closed shop. We absolutely have the ability to sell to third parties. It can work in a number of different ways. Our networks are clearly our first priority. But if a pilot does not get picked up to series by, say, Lifetime, we as a studio will do everything we can to support that pilot going to the marketplace. We can simply run with it, or take a more passive position if there's a third party that actually wants to pursue the project.

You've expressed interest in inking overall deals with showrunners. Who's on the wish list?

Beau Willimon [of House of Cards] is certainly one of them. As a fan, I look at Justified and think Graham Yost. I'd put Carlton Cuse [Bates Motel] in that group, too. He brings a singularity of vision without being autocratic.