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by Aaron Dobbs
November 7, 2013 4:40 PM
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Why Dramas Like 'Bates Motel' Are So Important for A&E, Even When the Network's Topping the Reality Rankings With 'Duck Dynasty'

'Intervention' A&E

How hard was it to cancel such an important show like "Intervention"?

The hardest decision you make as a programmer is: When do you cancel a show? I think it's 10 times harder then greenlighting a show. Sometimes you can't just let things die on the vine. Sometimes you just have to get ahead of it and make the tough decision because you know where you're going and you know how to get there, and this particular show just probably isn't going to carry much baggage. So while these shows were fantastic, beautifully made, and part of the network's growth, we're just looking for new shows that take A&E to that next place.

Your scripted series, including those you've had in development such as "Those Who Kill," "The Returned" and even "Occult" [a pilot from "X-Files" vet James Wong, produced by Michael Bay, which A&E declined to pick-up] seem to follow the trend of "Longmire" and "Bates Motel" in that they focus on darker and more psychological themes and phenomena, in some cases supernatural. Are these high-concept ideas your primary focus or just a result of the pitches coming your way?

That's what we're looking for. In fact, a lot of these projects didn't just come to us. While we still take shows from the traditional pipeline, a lot of what we're doing is developing ideas internally and then reaching out to the community for writers.

"Bates Motel" initially came in as a two-hour movie. We thought, why don't we turn it into a series and put it in the present, but then we just gave it to Carlton and Kerry. They went off, came back a couple months later and just knocked it out of the park with a whole new concept. So most of what we're going to do moving forward is work very closely with writers to craft shows for the A&E air.

"We go out to some great writers and ask, 'What's your passion project?'"

Rather than taking pitches?

Of course we'll always take a pitch, but a lot of times a pitch is not exactly right for the network, so we work with the studios and the writers to tune it up. Or we go out to some great writers and ask, "What's your passion project?" And if that fits what we're looking for, then we'll work with them to create a script and a series.

Regarding "Bonnie & Clyde," why did A&E become added to what was originally just a Lifetime and History Channel simulcast?

[A+E Networks has] three big networks out of all the channels we have, and the thought was why not just try adding the A&E piece. If we can get older men [from History] and older women [from Lifetime], and then maybe younger adults across the board on a single project, that would be pretty spectacular.

Is that how you distinguish A&E from History and Lifetime? A&E targets the slightly younger demographic across both men and women?

Slightly younger. Right now, [the A&E median age} is at about 47. I'd like to be at a median age around 40. Interesting enough, "Bates Motel" is around 40. "Duck Dynasty" is 39. I want to keep our 25-54 demo, but I really would like to make some headway in the 18-49, especially in the rankings. It would help with ad sales; it would help delineate A&E from History and Lifetime. The other piece is, our audience is between 50-to-60%. So we're in that 50-50, 60-40 spot, and that's our swim lane, so to speak.

Do you believe that the younger audiences you just mentioned are as interested in your form of programming, which generally seems to attract the older audience?

I think younger audiences seem to be more attracted to uniqueness, something new and different, and I think humor is a catch-all for that audience as well. There's a difference between humor and comedy.

A lot of younger viewers have put together clips of every single meltdown that Vera has had, and you see it compiled into one thing. It's very funny, even thought "Bates" is not a comedy, the elements in it that younger audiences have created are humorous. And that's the kind of area we'd like to be in. The other [supercut] I love to is from "Breaking Bad," the compilation of Jesse using the word "Bitch."

'Bonnie & Clyde'

Do you feel any connection to the original "Arts & Entertainment Network" identity of the channel, or has A&E simply become a brand icon now?

A&E is what A&E is: It's an icon for the brand. I don't think many people even refer to it; I would guess that 90% of our audience wouldn't even know what the A&E used to stand for.

The majority of your background dating back to when you were at Discovery has focused on various forms of unscripted reality programming. Do you think that working in that realm has benefited you as you now look for new and different forms of scripted programming?

I've always been a storyteller, so that's been my passion from day one. The thing that's helped me the most in the scripted world has been the ability in reality to tell so many different stories, to take so many swings because there's just less risk, and it really has helped me hone my storytelling skills.

The difference I see between the two is that scripted storytelling is about seeing the forest and not worrying about the trees because you can pretty much write anything you want; reality is really about understanding the trees because it's serendipitous a lot of the time. You have to go in there and create the show in the edit room. You can't create a scripted show that way. Once you approve the script, that's it. Edits are pretty fast moving things. You really have to be much more conscious in scripted of the pre-production, the writing and the big storytelling; in reality, you really have to be much more cognizant of the characters, incidental incidences and editing.

I love scripted, and really appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to work with people like Carlton on "Bates" and Greer [Shephard] on "Longmire," two phenomenal executive producers and showrunners, and I've learned an incredible amount from them.

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