When your most popular new show is called Live PD, you wouldn’t think there would be many viewers tuning in on a delayed basis or watching reruns.
But A&E has found that its unscripted series can be arresting, whether viewed live or not.
Seeking to reverse long-term ratings decline, earlier this year, A&E, part of A+E Networks, shifted its programming strategy, eschewing scripted dramas like Bates Motel and Longmire and sticking to unscripted and nonfiction programming.
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The move came at a time when more and more networks — not to mention streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video and even digital companies like Facebook, YouTube and Apple — are ramping up their original programming efforts.
Much of the ensuing stampede of original programming has been scripted dramas, leading to questions as to whether the current era of peak TV has really met a peak.
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“We seem to be bucking the trend,” said Elaine Frontain Bryant, who was named executive vice president and head of programming for A&E earlier this year. “We’re doubling down and just doing nonfiction with A&E, within our part of the AETN network. It’s working for us. And we’ve been climbing in the rankers ever since.”
MCN Original Video: One-on-One in 2 With A&E's Elaine Frontain Bryant
More Time on the Beat
Driving A&E ratings resurgence is the real-life police series Live PD. Live PD now airs live as it happens on A&E for six hour a week.
Related: A&E’s ‘Live PD’ Sets Series Ratings Record
The documentary series was the No. 1 unscripted series in 2017. It returns for season 2 on Oct. 6. A&E recently announced a 100-episode order from producer Big Fish Entertainment.
But A&E is finding that Live PD also draws a surprisingly large audience when it is not live. “Our buzziest shows in live-same-day also are the most successful in the time-shifted way, as well,” Bryant said.
And while scripted shows, with their big-name stars, get the bulk of attention, nonscripted shows attract passionate audiences as well.
“There is a direct correlation because they cut through,” Bryant said. “It’s really about the show. Good shows cut through. It’s not just about scripted.”
“Nonfiction can cut through the way scripted can. And among time-shifted or on-demand shows, 31 of the 50 highest ranked were non-scripted it just shows that that’s what people want to watch too,” she said. “For us, the ones they’re watching live, they’re also taping and watching them later too.”
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Since its launch, Live PD has been a phenomenon. Season one averaged 1.6 million total viewers in live-plus-7 viewing. The series hit a high of 2.4 million total viewers on July 15. Viewership increased 136% from launch and the series more than doubled A&E’s ratings in its time period from a year ago.
Hosted by Dan Abrams, with analysis from Tom Morris Jr., Live PD uses dashboard, fixed-rig and handheld cameras to capture the work of urban and rural police forces from around the country on typical Friday and Saturday nights.
“I think with Live PD, it’s new and fresh and exciting every single week, and that’s the draw. You don’t know what’s going to happen around any bend, any corner, and that is what taped shows cannot provide anywhere. And so even if nothing happens, there is the possibility that anything can at any moment,” Bryant said.
A&E launched Live PD with two hours a week. Then it moved it up to three hours. Now A&E’s schedule ls live with Live PD for six hours. The show has turned A&E’s low-rated Friday and Saturday nights into its most viewed evenings.
“We were doing very painful, low-rated repeats,” she said. “It’s been a real shot in the arm for us.”
Plays Well on Replay
But wait there’s more, as they say in the ads.
A&E launched a cut-down show, Live PD: Police Patrol, consisting of the highlights from the live coverage. And people tuned into that.
Airing in primetime Friday nights, it’s A&Es second-best-performing show in total viewers and adults 25 to 54 when Live PD isn’t airing. It’s performance improved 31% from its premiere to its finale.
And despite a six-day delay, nonlinear viewing of Live PD on A&E’s app and website rose 483% to 132,000 adults 25-54. That was something of a surprise. “We didn’t think they would repeat, and they are repeating,” Bryant said. “And that’s exciting. Anecdotally, I could tell you I was in Texas over Easter weekend on a beautiful Saturday. I was like, ‘Hey family, let’s go hide Easter eggs,’ and they were like, ‘No, we’ve got to watch this show.’ And I said that was last night’s episode. It’s a repeat.”
In addition to Live PD, the network has gotten boosts from other nonfiction series including Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, 60 Days In and The Murder of Laci Peterson.
A&E’s ratings have been up for six straight months through August among total viewers. In August, A&E was the No. 5 ad-supported cable network among adults 25-54, No. 6 with adults 18-49 and No. 9 with total viewers.
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