In just eight months on the job running A+E Networks, Nancy Dubuc has been very busy. Well known as the programmer who drew men to History channel, women to Lifetime and ducks to A&E Network with a string of hit shows including Dog the Bounty Hunter, Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, Dance Moms, Hatfields and McCoys, The Bible and Vikings, Dubuc last June became only the third CEO, following founder Nick Davatzes and Abbe Raven, in the 30-year history of A+E, a joint venture of Walt Disney Co. and Hearst.
Dubuc quickly formed her management team, naming longtime lieutenants GMs at A&E, History and Lifetime. She put former A&E president Bob DeBitetto in charge of A+E’s new TV studio that will help the company own its content. She put a new focus on the company’s smaller nets, adding Jana Bennett from the BBC to rebrand Bio as lifestyle net FYI. Dubuc also bought out A+E’s partners in several international ventures.
But she probably got the most attention for briefly suspending Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, a star of one of the company’s biggest hits, after his anti-gay remarks in a magazine interview set off a culture war and made Dubuc a target of hate mail.
In an interview with B&C business editor Jon Lafayette, Dubuc discusses her whirlwind first months in charge. The interview took place before Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, announced her plans to leave the company, provking speculation that Dubuc would be among those considered for her post.
Asked last week how Sweeney’s exit would affect A+E, Dubuc said via email: “Anne has been an incredible role model, mentor and friend to me. She is a trailblazer who shattered every glass ceiling in our business. Not to mention, the pioneer of some of the biggest brands on the media landscape. I will be sad to see her leave our board. I will miss her advice and counsel. But I would hire her tomorrow to direct any one of our shows. A great director is a visionary. And Anne is one of the greatest visionaries our industry has ever seen.”
An edited transcript of the interview follows.
With all that’s happening at the company, how involved are you with the programming?
I think as a company we all recognize that my strength is in programming and marketing. And so given the collaborative culture that we’re in, it’s actually embraced that I’m available when needed. And it’s to the company’s best interest to keep me engaged and involved in the development of our brands. I’m obviously doing it at a more 30,000-foot view. There continues to be a lot of pressure around the creation of content and the talent pool that’s out there, so I think I’m more focused on making sure that my team has the players that they need and resources that they need in order to do what they do best. Long before the formal transition took place, between April and June, the heads of programming have largely been making the greenlight calls for the last couple of years. It doesn’t mean that I don’t talk to them and debate with them and discuss the merits of one direction or another. But they’ve been longtime partners of mine at this company for many, many years, anywhere between eight and 14 years depending on the person. And you need that level of trust in these jobs.
What’s been the toughest decision you’ve had to make so far?
I think managing change in general is tough on a day-to-day basis. Launching the studio and making big investments in an area that we’re not traditionally known for is clearly also a risk. Making a commitment to FYI [the A+E lifestyle network set to launch in July] and to be much more aggressive in a new channel is also a risk. I think on a macro basis, whenever you have a team in transition in general that can be tough. But it’s less about the individuals who are either moving on or who are joining and more about making sure the team stays strong and stays culturally intact.
Obviously the Duck decision was difficult but that comes back to my first and foremost priority [being] to represent this company and to represent the well-being and safety and the integrity of our brands and our employees most importantly.
Why are you buying control of your international joint ventures?
I would say we’re methodically examining our opportunities. Where we’ve had an opportunity to take control of our venture, we have. We recently did a business deal in Italy. At the end of last year, we did Southeast Asia. And we’re continuing to look, where it makes sense both from an ability to build out our bouquet and the opportunity for economic development.
You don’t want to be one or two channels all over the world. We want to be a portfolio and a bouquet the way we are domestically all over the world. And I think that Lifetime is a big initiative to make sure of that, complementing our other two big brands that are global. Lifetime has the opportunity, the most upside there to do that. It’s recently launched in the U.K and Southeast Asia.
How big a part of your business is international, and how big do you think it can be?
The continued growth and preservation of our domestic brands remains first and foremost our priority. And from that comes great opportunity for everybody else. We’re seeing double-digit growth in international. I foresee continuing to see that for years to come. It’s a very big part of our business.
Starting the studio is a big part of your strategy to own content. How much of your content do you want to own?
I think we have to be careful but not too [careful to] put business needs before creative needs. So we’re always going to be open for the right creative project to think innovatively about how to structure a deal. But there’s no secret that with platforms changing and with windowing changing and with viewership habits evolving, if we’re going to be the primary investor in the content, then we have to be in control of how it’s monetized. That’s critical. And that’s unquestionably one of the most important things that we’ll be doing.
The studio just had its first series greenlit, Unreal, for Lifetime. The Returned is a coproduction with Fremantle, which is in development at A&E. Sons of Liberty has been greenlit as a miniseries for History, which is also being done through the studio. And of course Houdini is a coproduction, and that will be later this summer. That’s only the things that are imminent. There’s much more in development.
Once you have all this content, what’s your approach to digital rights going to be? Are you going to be similar to Disney, or are you going to be able to stake out your own approach?
I don’t think any one portfolio will be able to go it alone. I wholeheartedly support and endorse that you have to be everywhere the consumer is. How you do that while protecting the need for us to get paid for our content is a delicate balance. There’s nothing specific that I can talk about with you now but I do think that what Dish and Disney did was a very, very important first step for addressing the consumer’s needs first.
You’re doing more scripted programming. Does scripted hold more value than non-scripted in this new digital environment?
There’s definitely a thesis that scripted programming is doing better in terms of its rate of revenue return internationally and in a VOD environment. I don’t think we’ve seen enough passage of time to understand all of the nuances of that. Definitely internationally it can command a longer tail, but the unscripted business is unquestionably critical to us as well because we have more hits delivering over a million in the demo than any portfolio out there. For us the most important thing is making sure we’re balanced.
You talked about focusing on the smaller networks and rebranding them. You’ve got FYI coming. How big can those networks be?
H2 is a great example of how big those networks can be. H2 is now much bigger than CNN, much bigger than Science—it has seen dramatic growth in the 20%, 30%, 50% range in ratings over the last two years. We don’t speak specific to revenue, but a couple of years ago H2 was a double-digit business [i.e., bringing in tens of millions], and I would say within 12 months it will be a three-digit business. We’ve seen great ad sales response to the upscale male viewer that H2 is delivering. When we can prove as a company that we have the executional ability to do something like this, it requires us to take a look at everything that we’re doing and ask ourselves a very important and critical question: Are we doing the best with the assets that we have? And I think in the case of Bio we have been struggling from a ratings standpoint. The Bio brand, which the channel was born out of, was the biography series. I think that limited it. It doesn’t mean that it’s not an important brand for us and that it won’t emerge in other places, but did it have the ability to be a long-term, successfully sustaining channel? I was reluctant to make that kind of commitment.
Does Lifetime Movie Network need to be rebranded next or is that a brand that can grow?
I think that’s a question we’re asking, to be honest with you. It is currently in a good place. I do worry about the long-term viability of an ad-supported movie network with the way that SVOD is growing and the way that other platforms are growing.
I think we have to take a very strong look. I do believe that movies are a critical and inherent part of the Lifetime brand. The question is can LMN encompass more than that, and what does LMN stand for? And that’s work that is ongoing here. But our priority is on FYI and getting that launched by July 7. I think keeping your senior management team focused on what we think the most attainable and noteworthy business opportunities are is the key part of my job. So right now I’m focused on FYI and H2, in addition to of course the big brands. And we’ll be looking at LMN ongoing throughout the end of the year.
You’ve been in and out of deals with the SVOD people. What’s your approach to Netflix, Amazon and those folk?
My approach is one size does not fit all. Where it makes sense to work with them, I’m open to it but there are definite challenges. I come back to the percentage of a budget that we’re contributing to and the studios have not evolved the rights to be commensurate with the cost. And I think if those rights are not going to evolve in lockstep with costs, then we have to take steps to be more in control of our destiny because there’s no question that platforms and viewer habits are changing and technology is driving that. We all know that.
How much are your parent companies bringing to the party?
Well they bring a lot to the party in terms of supporting us and embracing our investments in programming. Joint ventures can be complicated but I think with the success we’ve had at A+E Networks, we know they’re there for me when I need them or when any other senior management member needs them. But they’re very supportive that we’ve run a strong independent business for a long time and they recognize the value of that and they recognize that our independence has translated to dramatic success for them.
Having two big parents like that, sometimes A+E Networks gets overlooked as a company. Do you think A+E needs a higher profile to be the global entertainment company you want to be?
We’re always going to be looked at different because we’re private and in an industry where information is king, we are the odd man out in that people don’t know a lot of detail about our business strategies and our financial health. And that creates speculation, but in this case it doesn’t necessarily mean that where there’s smoke there’s fire. I think being a private company actually allows us and has been a key element of why we’ve been as successful as we’ve been. We can chart a strategic course and we can stick to it and not have to deviate on a quarter-to-quarter basis based on calls from Wall Street. And we can focus on our growth long-term. A creative business is a long-term business.
Running an entertainment company, do you need to have more of a show business persona? Do you want to be that kind of a public figure?
Look, it’s not a desire or a goal, but I do understand that it’s a responsibility that comes with the job. It’s something that I’m learning to get comfortable with, but I don’t love.
I would think a little bit of showmanship couldn’t hurt.
It doesn’t hurt. I didn’t get a degree in drama, but I’ve been known pull a tantrum or two.
What grade would you give yourself so far on the job?
That’s hard. I’d ask my team to grade me, rather than I grade myself, or maybe the partners. I think from a healthy transition standpoint, we’ve got an A+. Abbe [Raven] and I are still in touch or talking or meeting and advising constantly. The relationship we have and the trust that we have and the partnership that we have is incredibly unique and I don’t think that I realized how unique it was until I sat in the chair. On that basis alone, it is very hard for a company this size to go through CEO transitions and I can’t remember a company going through a better one than what we’ve done. From that level alone, I would give us very high marks. In terms of moving fast, and charting a course, I think we have also moved fast. We have a lot of new members of our management team and we’re venturing right out of the gate to do new businesses, FYI and the studio, and the further development of H2 and the acquisitions of our international ventures. These are all inside of eight months of being on the job. I didn’t take a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach and I believe that when you get in this chair you have to move smartly but move quickly and I rely heavily on my team to guide those smart decisions.
So is there nothing that you need to do that you haven’t been able to get to?
No, because I think it’s about timing. I think there’s a lot of things on my list, which I won’t necessarily share because they’re competitive issues, but my list is long and I think you have to pick and choose when you do one.
GETTING DUCKS IN A ROW
Dubuc addresses the controversy over TV’s huge reality hit
The Duck Dynasty situation got very personal. If you Google yourself, “Nancy Dubuc: The Real Enemy” comes up. Can you talk about the pressure that caused?
It was difficult. I stand by my decision. I think that that kind of language and that kind of hate is not going to be tolerated here. But we’ve made a resolution and both sides have had a chance to speak their mind, and now we’re moving on.
Has it affected the show and affected the network?
I don’t think it has, quite honestly, in either direction. We obviously became the center of an ongoing cultural rift that was well beyond the show. We sort of stepped into a very open wound in our country. And this was much more than Duck Dynasty. This became a Washington issue.
Duck Dynasty is an important brand for you, and an important part of your business.
And it still is.
And it will continue to be?