A+E Networks Pushes For Change In How TV Ads Are Sold

Reba McEntire, Janet Jackson and A+E Networks president Paul Buccieri
Jason Kempin/Getty Images; Steve Granitz/WireImage; Courtesy of Jeff Katz

Reba McEntire, Janet Jackson and A+E Networks president Paul Buccieri.

The cable TV company is asking advertisers to buy ads based on total audience, rather than the 18-49 demographic, and says it has the data to back it up.

A+E Networks is sending a message to ad buyers during its upfront Wednesday: It still believes in TV. And it still thinks linear television is a wise investment for marketers and brands.

“We believe in original content, we believe in our brands, we believe in TV,” A+E Networks president of ad sales Peter Olsen tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview.

With the major entertainment giants all leaning into streaming, the 2021 upfront is all-but-certain to be unlike any before. Not only will the presentations be virtual, as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, but companies like Disney, NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS are expected to tie together their linear TV ad sales with their streaming offerings.

A+E, a joint venture between Disney and Hearst, does not have a streaming service of its own, though it does license many of its shows to a variety of other streaming services (making sure to include the branding of its channels so as to ensure viewers know where the shows come from).

“We ultimately are beginning to partner with the vast majority of these streamers, but we are trying to do so in a measured way," Olsen says. "I think that is a point of distinction, because the marketplace is certainly enamored by all the new bells and whistles out there, but they are also frustrated with the shifting priorities and how difficult it is to get answers when it comes to measurement and price points and what is going to premiere here and what is going to premiere there.”

The company is hoping that its three main brands: A&E, History and Lifetime, will stand on their own, backed up by a slate of some 2,500 new hours of programming, including projects from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Reba McEntire and THR contributor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Our brands have clear identities with a strong foundation of hit series. Across our entire portfolio and in a variety of genres, we continue to have an incredible roster of A-list, diverse talent in-front of and behind the camera,” said A+E Networks group president Paul Buccieri. “Our ongoing efforts to launch and invest in best-in-class original programming for our linear properties, as well as further expanding our 360-experiences, demonstrates a deep commitment to being available wherever and however viewers want to be entertained, whether through high-performing podcasts, virtual experiences or digital multiplatform content.”

Some of the projects announced Wednesday include a documentary commemorating the 40th anniversary of Janet Jackson’s first album, which will simulcast on A&E and Lifetime; a two-movie deal with McEntire; and expansion of the “That Built” franchise on History; a documentary for History called Fight the Power: The Protests That Changed America, produced by Abdul-Jabbar; and two documentary projects for A&E: Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution (wt) and Secret Origins of Hip Hop.

With cord-cutting continuing to cut into linear TV audiences, the A+E Networks is also embarking on a move to change how it sells its ad inventory, which is one reason why it is holding an upfront so early in the season, so that it can begin to have those conversations now.

The company intends to make total audience the primary ad sales metric, backed up by a secondary metric of the marketer’s choosing, be it a specific demographic or a target audience.

“We have had some legacy players in the business that have been tried and true partners in TV for decades, but they also transact on an archaic currency, adults 18-49,” Olsen says, adding that they will release case studies underscoring the buying power of adults 55-plus, and how some direct-to-consumer brands approach buying TV. “There is a nimbleness and a speed with which they bring things to market.”

And Olsen believes that viewers will continue to tune in to cable TV, as long as the quality of the programming is high, with concepts, characters and producers that stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

“We do believe that auspices still matter, telling a story is hard, we very much believe in working with people that have pedigrees and are willing to do this and break through,” Olsen says. “I think viewers will be impressed with the level of content we bring out.”