MIPTV: A+E International Boss Sean Cohan on the Company's Global Expansion and Drama Push (Q&A)

Sean Cohan, President of International, Digital A+E Networks
A+E Networks

The president of international and digital media at A+E Networks says he's "doubling down" on quality programming to meet the challenges coming from digital fragmenation as well as Netflix and co.

International television market MIPTV has been unusually slow this year, but A+E managed to liven things up with the world premiere of Knightfall, the latest high-end drama from the group best known for its factual programming on its networks the History Channel and Lifetime. The series, which Jeremy Renner executive produced, looks at the Knights Templar, the legendary, but real, medieval order of Christian warrior monks.

Following on the heels of Roots, Six and Unreal, it marks A+E's further expansion into big-budget drama series. But the company is not just focused on fiction, or on the U.S. The past few months have seen major international expansion, including the launch of new niche channel Blaze in the U.K. and Italy, increased investment in TV operations in Japan and Korea and a boost in local production around the world. Ahead of MIPTV, Sean Cohan, president of international and digital media for A+E Networks, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough about the company's global strategy.

A+E has been very active internationally recently. To what degree is this a response to challenges to your traditional cable business in the U.S. and to what degree is it in response to opportunities outside the U.S.?

I'd downplay how much our international strategy is a reaction to U.S. challenges. I'm a realist, so yes, the U.S. business is changing, but it's still a healthy environment for video storytellers like us. It's healthy but it's also a mature environment. While outside the U.S. and in digital I feel there is more opportunity. The majority of the business remains the U.S. cable business, that's our core. But if you look at growth, a significant proportion of our growth going forward going forward is expected from from the international and the digital sphere. But it's a little anachronistic to separate out digital in a way because digital is very much part of our core business. The division between digital and “traditional” is really an artificial distinction.

Why do you see growth opportunities outside the U.S.?

Well a lot of it is moving into markets that just aren't as mature as the U.S. and taking advantage of that and going into digital opportunities on the international side. There are a bunch of markets out there where there's still growth to be had in the traditional sector. That's the first thing. So yes, we are still launching channels internationally, though maybe not as many as we used to. But we're still seeing growth in the traditional business. We still wake up every morning and there are more subscribers there than there were yesterday in a bunch of markets. Every morning we're seeing more viewers, and more dollars, in those markets than we did the day before.

But I'd like to take a step back, because as an industry we tend to talk about international as a block. But really it's 200 different markets, each going at very different pace and demanding different strategies. Look at Canada. Canada is probably an even more mature market than the U.S., probably more volatile in terms of changes in the distribution landscape. Then look at the U.K., which you'd think is a fairly mature market, but there are a bunch of free-to-air channels there that still drive tremendous viewership and have tremendous power in the market. Things are different again in Latin America, in India, in Central and Eastern Europe and in Africa.

This is just a long-winded way of saying there are lots of different markets at lots of different stages of development, but there's still a lot of growth in both in traditional and digital platforms.

But isn't digital fragmentation —and Netflix and Amazon are now operating in virtually every country in the world — going to cut into the traditional business internationally, as it has in the U.S.?

Yeah, but its still a very healthy dynamic. International has definitely got harder and it's going to keep getting harder. But when you talk about digital fragmentation the real answer at the end of the day for companies like ours, whether in the U.S. or abroad, is to just remember what we do best, which is we tell stories with video. And we own that IP 99 times out of 100. We do different kinds of storytelling on different platforms, but we always do what you would call premium programming. And we believe that if you own your content and you double down on quality, even when things are tough then you're going to be in a good place when fragmentation strikes.

Different models will arise, people will consume content differently. But people are not watching less video than than they were. As a matter of fact, they're consuming a lot more. So there's a great demand out there. It's become more competitive and you have to find a way to break through the clutter. But at the end of the day, if you can really focus on the creative and make great content, you are going to be OK and your partners will be OK.

When it comes to original content, how much focus are you putting on local production outside the U.S.?

In order to be truly relevant and successful in our local markets we've always known we need to have a local feel to the stories we tell, whether its a two-hour special on the Hillsborough soccer tragedy in the U.K. or taking a format like Pawn Stars and making it local. We always felt like we had to do it. The History channel is maybe the best example of that, but you also have Lifetime. You can't take a channel focused on women and only bring in content from the U.S. You have to be sensitive to local culture and local viewers. More and more we are seeing a call for local content, and we are shifting more and more towards that. But we are always going to be able to leverage our great core pipeline of global shows.

Here at MIPTV last year you presented your first big drama series, Roots. You're back this year with Knightfall, another huge event series. How important are these high-end drama series becoming for A+E and how much money will you be spending on drama?

Well, I like my job, so I'm not going to say I'll be spending tons of money. But yes, these shows cost more. But if you look at Roots or Knightfall, we are talking about big, epic storytelling. We think there are great reasons to be making these shows. They are historical at their core, they speak to our history-loving male audience and they work as tentpoles for our networks. They bring people to our channels. So we are going to do more of them.

How has streaming impacted your business? The bulk of your content is non-scripted, which doesn't tend to be as popular on SVOD platforms.

Well you'd be surprised. A lot of our shows do very well on demand and on streaming platforms. Shows like The Jinx and How to Make a Murderer have revived interest in the true crime genre, a genre we've been doing for 30 years. Unscripted formats can be tough on SVOD because they don't repeat as well and there isn't the same binging phenomena with unscripted as with scripted.

But I think as an industry, as a TV community, we are guilty of talking a ton about scripted and have been, disproportionately, for the last 12 or 18 months. There are more than 500 scripted shows in production today. But I don't know how 90 percent of those shows are going to be afloat. There will be a small sliver of premium series that will breakthrough, and there will be the cheap and cheerfuls at the bottom that people will find and they'll make make a business out of it. But then you have the middle that I have no idea how hundreds of shows are going to financially make sense.