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A version of this story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Four years after Rob Sharenow left the A&E network as senior vp nonfiction programming for a top job at cable sibling Lifetime, he has been lured back. And this time, he’s in charge.
But the network, which he’s now overseeing in addition to Lifetime, is not the same one he left. After a decade of unprecedented growth, A&E has seen its ratings tumble 28 percent in both total viewers and the core 25-to-54 demographic this past year. As the newly installed general manager, Sharenow, who had a hand in developing Duck Dynasty during his previous stint, will be tasked with refreshing a cupboard that’s heavy on aging franchises, including Duck, The First 48 and Storage Wars, as well as overseeing about 250 employees and $912 million and $889 million in 2014 net revenue at A&E and Lifetime, respectively, according to SNL Kagan.
Sharenow, 48, a Boston-area native who learned his earliest lessons in leadership working at his parents’ New Hampshire sleepaway camp, has spent recent years making over Lifetime. Though the network is not yet destination No. 1 for top projects, he’s dropped its median age to its lowest in 18 years while elevating (17 Emmy nominations last year for projects like Bonnie & Clyde and Flowers in the Attic) and broadening (Dance Moms, Bring It!) the lineup. Later this spring, Sharenow, who once dreamed of being a cartoonist and now relies on his wife and two Westchester County-reared daughters as a sounding board, will add Marti Noxon‘s scripted entry UnREAL and Nicole Kidman‘s Grace Kelly biopic Grace of Monaco to the network, which is now No. 5 among women 18-to-49, up from No. 12 when he arrived.
In a wide-ranging interview, Sharenow discussed his other life as a young adult novelist, the top-secret Will Ferrell Lifetime movie and the new fight between buyers and sellers.
You added A&E to your purview in late February. What changes do you foresee at the network?
A lot of brands make the mistake of declaring what the change is going to be too early, setting broad parameters that end up boxing you in. I won’t name names, but there are a couple that made really strong declarations — before they had any programming or even hired anybody — about what their brand was going to be and then it ended up faltering. So, I want to be careful.
“My wife and daughters are all artists, and I always like to have a relatively current work of art from them in my office,” Sharenow says. “The watercolor is of our beloved dog, Lucy, by my wife.”
A&E has shed a lot of viewers in the past year. How did that happen, and can you get them back?
It’s both complicated and simple. A&E had a 10-year run of growth and then toward the end of that 10-year growth, a rocket booster was put on with Duck Dynasty. So you had this unprecedented growth and this unprecedented show, and it’s hard to measure [up] after you’ve had that. Also, a lot of the shows that we’re still relying on are pretty old, and that’s never a great thing. We have to regenerate and refresh a little more, which can be tough when the shows are still doing well. It’s the opposite of what I walked into at Lifetime, which was not successful when I got there. Not one of the shows on the air now were on the schedule three and a half years ago.
What are you not being pitched that you’d like to be?
There’s generally a lull in nonfiction and, in general, pitches are not in the most inspired place. There’s this hunger and need for more content that has overstuffed the pipeline with very mediocre content.
What’s driving that?
There are so many buyers, so it’s the need to compete and the need for product. There’s horrible impatience right now, and impatience can be a very virtuous thing, but it also can kill development. Look at a show like [unscripted dance series] Bring It! on Lifetime. There was a demo tape done that we all fell in love with and then the original talent, Miss D, fell out. We repiloted with a different set of people and it wasn’t as good, and we were deciding not to go forward with the series when Miss D and her group came back. It took a year and half, which is an unbelievable amount of time to wait for a show these days, but it’s now the No. 1 show on Fridays for women. So, it’s about staying disciplined and having patience.
How much life is left in the Duck Dynasty franchise?
It’s still the leader in that kind of family docu-series and a lot of the others have tried. Could it be like First 48 and go 12 years? I don’t know, and I can’t speak for the family, but I don’t think they’d see it going [five more years].
Even spinoffs have spinoffs these days, but A&E has avoided that strategy with Duck. Why?
Candidly, A&E did try and go there [with copycats]. I think a lot of the shows that didn’t work over the past few years have been chasing Duck Dynasty unsuccessfully. There was a bunch of stuff that was put in development and [ordered to] series that just didn’t work that were trying to capture that magic.
But never any spinoffs with the Robertson family?
No. We’ve been pretty disciplined about this kind of thing, and I think the family is the same. You want it to have a point, and when your comparative is a massive show, you’ve really got to be doing something different, and that’s a high standard. A&E has done a good job over the years resisting that temptation.
Now that you’re back, what have you found to be the biggest misconceptions about A&E?
I think A&E needs to reassert itself as more of a quality leader. We had a “mass with class” rallying cry, which is even more important now in a multiplatform universe. You really want your brand to mean something, so we need to focus the brand more. There are a lot of shows now that are made for critics or awards, which is different from what I’m talking about. And then there are a lot of executives who just assume that you can never underestimate the taste of the American public and the best thing to do is just give them a pile of manure. I want mass and class. I’m a music guy, so I always think about Motown or The Beatles; those were the biggest things in the world and also they were the best.
Sharenow’s mother’s first cousin owned the club CBGB. “In my youth, I spent many amazing nights there losing my hearing,” he jokes; The fanatical Boston Red Sox fan keeps a ball signed by two of his childhood heroes, Dwight Evans and Luis Tiant.
How are you differentiating the Lifetime scripted brand from that of A&E?
Lifetime will always be female-focused, and A&E is more male skewing. Plus, A&E is a more intense drama brand, so I don’t see us doing a comedy there. But in both instances, I’m really just trying to set the quality bar higher. It’s very rare when you have a case like USA network with its “Blue Sky” years — that was an amazing run but I’m not sure you can do that anymore where you so tightly define what type of show you’re doing.
Rich Ross has had some success at Discovery by opening a male-network up to females …
I’ve looked at their schedule closely and I think that they’ve done some really smart and innovative things with it. Not to malign their programming, but it’s not as if, over the past 12 months, I’ve seen that oh-my-gosh, must-see show. It’s really just that they’ve managed their portfolio well.
What’s it like being a man running a network explicitly for women? Who’s your sounding board?
I actually think the best way to approach running a brand is not to be too married to the brand itself in any way. Having a wife and two daughters reacting to the programming definitely gives me insights, but interesting things happen when you come in with no assumptions and you evolve the brand around what the most exciting ideas are rather than what you think it should be because it’s the thing that you like. Nancy Dubuc had her biggest, loudest success at History [with Ice Road Truckers] and, frankly, I don’t think she watched very much History before she got to the channel. I loved old black-and-white history documentaries, but I would not have been the right person to run History then because I would have taken them back. I’d have been like, “Let’s make a documentary about James Madison.” My point is that you can’t make the brand for you.
What was the biggest challenge when you arrived at Lifetime, and have you overcome it?
The Lifetime that I stepped into felt like it was made for a particular woman, an older woman. The tagline “for women” was very forbidding to anyone else. It doesn’t even mean girls can come. We’ve been surprised at how quickly we’ve been able to transform that audience and bring in a different generation of viewers with shows like Dance Moms and Bring It! There’s been a quality battle, too. Everyone sort of liked Lifetime shows of the past but didn’t think they were particularly great. Last year, we had 17 Emmy nominations, and they were in big-ticket categories, not prosthetic makeup — though we did get one for that, too. So, it was about letting actors, writers and directors know that they can do their best work at Lifetime. Marc Cherry, who does Devious Maids for us, was a big turning point for us in a way. He was one of our first brand-name showrunners.
You picked up Devious Maids after ABC developed it and then passed three years ago. Will you be scouring broadcast’s passed-over heap again this May?
I’m not someone who sees anything as tainted if it’s great, and I think the networks sometimes make some sketchy decisions, and that can benefit us. I think about the book Moneyball a lot because I think people approach television the way that a lot of owners approach baseball where they assume certain things to their detriment and they overvalue certain high-priced elements that may not be as effective as other things that aren’t as obvious. So, I’m definitely open to anything that I think is exciting, and that was certainly true of Devious Maids, which has become a cornerstone of our new programming.
Lifetime has found success at the network with your music biopics. Which artists would you still love to tackle?
There are a lot of places, like VH1 and others, trying to eat that lunch, so I’m loath to talk about what we’re developing. But I love the space and I’m drawn to subjects that transcend the music world in the way that [past subjects] Whitney Houston and June Carter did. We’re exploring a few in that area. One of the extraordinary things that’s happened with movies like Aliyah is that we’ve seen median ages in the 30s, which I don’t think anyone thought was possible A, on Lifetime, B, for a movie. So, we’re not going to do the One Direction story, but we’re looking at things that that play more to that core younger demo.
You acquired Grace of Monaco, which initially premiered at Cannes to generally unfavorable reviews. How did it go from Cannes to Lifetime?
It fits into Lifetime’s strategy to be a premium content destination. When Harvey [Weinstein] screened the film for us, we realized that Princess Grace’s story is a tragic, real-life fairy tale with timeless appeal, especially for our audience, and Nicole Kidman is fantastic.
A reminder of Sharenow’s musical days. Two of his former bandmates are in They Might Be Giants, and Sharenow co-wrote the song “Infinity,” which appeared on their Grammy-winning children’s record.
Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig filmed a top-secret Lifetime movie, A Deadly Adoption, and then when THR reported on it, Ferrell said they were scrapping it because of the leak. He can’t just pull it, can he?
Mr. Ferrell is a prankster. I will tell you that the whole idea of it seemed incredibly remote when it was first broached but incredibly exciting, and as it came together, it was kind of amazing. I will say that the idea of Will doing a movie for us was something we were all over from the minute we heard the idea. It was like, “OK, this is our moment where we sort of wink at the past, while embracing who we are right now.” It was our pop culture moment, and we’re in on the joke now. But the way that the movie evolved is hard to talk about because there are still sensitivities and secrecy.
One of the ongoing battles between buyers and sellers is over ownership of formats. Now, you have Paul Buccieri, who comes from the producer side at ITV, involved in dealmaking on the network side. What’s been the impact?
One of the things that’s interesting is that on the producer side there is such a huge emphasis on cash flow and getting more hours on their books now. I almost feel like while the rights fight is still going on this makes it a little easier because they actually want the business.
Presumably that has to do with the rash of acquisitions, though that trend appears to have slowed down somewhat. Why is that?
Yeah, there’s probably a combination of factors. One, there aren’t that many left [to buy]. Two, I definitely think some of the deals have worked out better than others and they’re probably wiser, and there are certain companies that are approaching things in a different way or more cautiously.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to land a show?
I had so many bizarre moments early in my career, like with Dog the Bounty Hunter and Robbie Knievel. But the one that stands out was when we were developing Storage Wars for A&E. We did the pilot and it was great, but one of the best characters is Barry Weiss and he decided he didn’t want to do the show. Thom Beers is like, “Well, you should get on a plane right now and come out and go drinking with us and convince him to do the show.” I had to get on a plane to L.A. that day, and those guys know how to experience the L.A. nightlife. We ended up getting him back, so it worked.
Looking back, what’s the project that got away?
In my early years at A&E, the project that I totally did not see was Project Runway. It was being pitched originally packaged with Project Greenlight. The ratings didn’t work on Greenlight, and they were trying to reboot both shows. I was like, “Well everyone loves movies and movies are [appealing to men and women], but who’s going to watch the fashion version? That’ll never work!” Man, was I wrong. I guess I got the last laugh [because it’s at Lifetime now] and it’s doing very well for us.
You have a second life as an author with a third novel, about an immigrant girl who ends up living in the Statue of Liberty, coming out in May. Where do you find the time for all of that?
I get up at five in the morning and I will generally write from 5 a.m. to 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. when the kids get up. It’s very regimented life: I get up, I write, I have breakfast with the kids, I walk the dog and then I get on the train and look at what I’ve written the day before. Look, I don’t play golf, I don’t go to the gym very much … this is my hobby. And I always have multiple books going, too.
That’s a lot of time to invest. What’s the motivation?
I started as a writer, an unsuccessful screenwriter, and then I was a television writer and got into producing that way. I get a lot of energy from writing, creativity, and it’s so antithetical to the process of television, which is so collaborative. My role as an executive is so macro, it’s, “OK, let’s do the Lizzie Borden series,” and that’s the decision and I don’t get too involved outside of casting or whatever. With writing, it’s so insular and micro and solitary, and there’s something really nice about not having to rely upon anyone else. It’s really freeing.
Interestingly, you’ve targeted a young adult audience. Why is that?
My first book was written for an adult market, and I didn’t get any exciting offers from adult publishers. But Harper Teen found it and really loved it because it had teen protagonists. Coincidentally, my second book had a teen protagonist as well. What I found is that for me it’s been much more gratifying writing literary fiction for YA and middle grade because it gets published and read, whereas literary fiction for adults barely exits anymore. There’s actually a market for it with all of these educators and librarians and, like, indie bookstore owners.
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