Mel's Diner: A&E Network Boss McKillop On How to ‘Be Original’

THE DISH: Since David McKillop  was upped from head of programming to executive VP/GM of A&E in June, the exec, who’s also known for a successful run as head of programming for sister network History, has firmed up his staff and rolled out a new brand identity, introducing the tagline “Be Original” and committing to 100% originals in primetime. He’s launched some new programs that have worked (ex: The Wahlburgers) and some that haven’t (ex: Those Who Kill). And of course, he also experienced a darn near radioactive controversy this winter around the reality hit Duck Dynasty, which he developed and exec produces. (On the Duck topic, he defers to his boss, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc’s comments to B&C business editor Jon Lafayette in the March 18 cover story Q&A.

All the while, McKillop continues to prove he is an original himself. The native of Tunisia (his dad was in the foreign service) does not have a desk in his office, and recently, when asked at an off-site meeting to describe his personality in a few words, he penned this quasi haiku: “My curiosity makes me better every day, today.”

He rarely does business dinners, “only because I don’t think you should mix alcohol and business.” He’s also a self-described morning person, so the week before AETN was to hold its annual producers retreat in a tropical location (Mayan Riviera this year), we met on what was only technically the first day of spring for breakfast on a couch next to the fireplace at Soho House New York. “This is my spot,” McKillop says of Soho House, which is down the street from his apartment. “One thing about New York is you live in small apartments. So in the winter, I sit here by the fire and in the summer, I sit by the pool.”

McKillop, again an original, introduced me to the combo of avocado, toast and lime when we met for breakfast previously in L.A. His order was inspired by one of his favorite breakfasts at Soho House, which he ordered there, so I decided to follow his lead to delicious effect, as we talked about his leadership style, the importance of corporate culture and how to learn from failure. Edited highlights of the conversation follow.

What is your leadership style?

I believe that leadership in a creative group is slightly different. Most importantly, I think that people have to feel like they are free to be creative and to speak their minds and to be honest and free to criticize. I let people kind of do what they want to do. I think if you hire someone, you’re hiring the best. And if you’re hiring the best, you let them do their job. And offer guidance. My job is more setting the vision and the tone, then letting them go out. And I’m there to protect them. I have their backs 100%.

I really think a lot of companies underestimate how important a corporate culture is, especially in this world. A&E—A+E [Networks] in general—has a great corporate culture. We encourage risk-taking. We encourage collaboration. One of [A+E Networks CEO] Nancy [Dubuc]’s big things is the idea of really pushing hard that brands aren’t silos; they’re a portfolio. So there’s an enormous amount of communication between the brands. So a lot of times a producer doesn’t really have to pitch one brand. He doesn’t have to pitch any one of them. The show will organically end up where it is supposed to.

And my office, it’s funny. It’s set up to reflect my management style, which is: I don’t have a desk.

You don’t have a desk?

Desks are power trips. You sit behind a desk and that’s just not conducive to a conversation. My office is set up like a living room. It’s got a coffee table, five big armchairs. It’s got a credenza against the wall, a chest of drawers, where I keep my crap. On one wall is a blackboard, a painted wall with blackboard paint, with a TV, so we can draw on the walls. It’s very comfortable.

Where do you set up your computer?

I don’t have one! I have a computer—well, not in the traditional sense. My email I really do on my iPad. IT gave me a laptop, which I keep in a drawer, just because I think they’re nervous that I should have a computer. Also, the big TV set, what I have is a big 50-inch Sanyo in my office; it’s connected to the Mac mini so I can look at clips that people send me.

But I am not a big fan of email. I kind of always think that email is there to cover your ass and office parties. I encourage people—if they have a question, I’d rather have them come in and see me. I think people hide behind email. It becomes a passive-aggressive way of communicating. And I think it actually, in a creative environment, it gets out of control. It becomes toxic. Nancy encourages all of us to leave our phones in our offices when we go to meetings—she is a huge proponent in being more engaged. When you don’t have your phone with you checking emails, you can actually have a decent meeting.

So I have very open office hours, meaning that people can come in any time they want and sit down and ask questions...It’s just the way I feel most comfortable and I think it makes people feel comfortable too.

Last year in an interview with B&C, you said success can be a lousy teacher, you learn more from failure. I really liked Those Who Kill, so I was disappointed that it didn’t work. (Editor’s note: The Chloe Sevigny drama is getting a run on sister net LMN.) What were your conversations internally when you saw the ratings, the process of making the decision to pull the show and how was that philosophy of yours put into action?

It hurts when a show just doesn’t work. And I cannot make an audience love a program. But I could never put a show on the network that I don’t love. So we all took a bet on this one. We’re in the process of figuring out what happened, but it is—it’s funny, when you stumble, you tend to pause. And when you pause, you tend to reflect.

When you succeed, you don’t stumble and you tend to just keep moving and you tend to not reflect. And your adrenaline is going. So that’s why I think failure is helpful because that stumble does make you pause and think and reflect. And when you think and reflect, that’s when you learn, I think. And I tried this—in your next big success, stop and think. Try to do the same psychological reaction you had with a failure, and I’m going to try it, and see what pops up in my head. But failure is a much better teacher.

Let’s talk about the next phase for A&E in the Be Original era. I’d love to start with the origin of Be Original. I know we’ve talked about it before, but not for the record. So, if you will, tell me about how that came to be and why.

When I took over—that’s a terrible term; that sounds like something Putin would do.

I’m sure Putin has a desk.

Yes, I am sure he does have a desk. When the honor was bestowed upon me to be able to run A&E, I kind of did a crash course on my own, catching up on one area that I wasn’t—I didn’t come from marketing. I’m a programmer. I know my way around marketing. I just decided to do a little bit of reading. And I stumbled across a TED talk by this guy named Simon Sinek. And it was a book he had written and this concept he had come up with called The Power of Why. And I love TED talks. It’s my guilty pleasure. And I know some people think of them as being a New Age cult, but you lay in bed and you just watch a 15-minute TED talk. And he goes on to say that the important thing about why consumers buy is not what you do or how you do it, but why you do it.

And he uses examples of an Apple computer and I was really taken by this idea that who we are and why we do it as a brand is really important. So we were in the process of talking about changing our tagline and I walked into one of the meetings about changing the tagline, and it suddenly dawned on me that the tagline—Real Life Drama—was what we do. We had an offsite [meeting] and I sent around the tape, the link, and everyone watched it. Eventually the marketing team came down and they were pitching a couple of ideas of what some of the outside agencies had come up with. One of them came up, and then he goes, well, this one is a little bit on the outer side, but I’d love to know what you think. And 30 seconds into it, I said, that’s it. It was Be Original. And I thought that’s the Power of Why...I just got it instantly. I was just like, Wow! And so, suddenly, it generated a very vibrant discussion.

You know, Be Original, it’s about original thinking, but it’s also—we’re original programming, 100% in prime, so it could work from a consumer messaging standpoint and it could work in trades. And just suddenly I became excited about it. And suddenly changing the tagline went to defining the whole network. It became the DNA. And we started to build on it. And so we presented it to Nancy and [snaps] boom, she got it right away, too. And we rolled it out a couple of months ago. It’s just really exciting. It’s something you can grasp onto, it’s something you can hold. It’s original. I couldn’t be more excited about it. It sets the bar high.

To that point, at our Next TV Summit, Scott Koondel from CBS shared some statistics in a Q&A I had with him. He said on broadcast networks, 67% of programming is original. On cable, 28% is original. Are you familiar with the statistic?

No. I’m not surprised. But A&E in prime is 100%.

But no doubt off-net shows have served as viewership engines and launch pads for years. So why do you think now is the time—aside from the fact you’ve got this great tagline, Be Original? Why is A&E ready to get off of off-net and repeats?

For a couple of reasons. First of all, we had been going down this path to original programming before Be Original because, A) audiences want to see new stuff. They want to feel new stuff.

It’s also strategically important. Why rent programming when you can own it? And the future for a media company is to have ownership. And so our original programming we own 100%. And that would pay off in many ways, whether it’s international or as people migrate into different screens, that we own it.

So you don’t tend to buy any off-net acquisitions or originals from other companies?

They’re all work for hire. We own the copyright of 99.9% of our primetime schedule. We still have some off-nets that run in the daytime that are still running throughout the cycles.

Are you finding the producers are willing to do that? I mean, everyone wants the rights to their shows.

It’s pretty traditional and we’ve held pretty firm on it. Again, we have a good partnership with our producers. The scripted side is a little bit different. That’s why I think the importance of the studio is our ability to become coproducers and share in the back-end and then also, there may be times that we want to take the entire risk and get behind a program and own it outright. And there will be times where we have to do a traditional licensing deal just because of the underlying rights.

But the aim is any original show—any show in primetime, you want to have ownership.

We want to own as much as possible. Owning is a really good way—it’s a good future-proof.

But it’s not absolute?

There are no absolutes. You have to be flexible.

So for the foreseeable future, the point is all originals in primetime. As far as throughout the rest of the 24-hour day, are you looking at acquired programming for that?

No; right now we’re actually—since you bring it up—because one of the areas I want to look at is the total daypart. I think repeatability of a show in other parts of the day in the week has been a foundation for the business model. There is some data coming out that has been slowly beginning to show that repeatability is declining a bit. If that’s the case, what’s happening in daytime? Currently, we do have some rented programs in daytime, but that’s leftover...But I challenge the scheduling department just to look at that and see what could be the new model moving forward for total daypart…You never take anything just because it’s there. Just because we’ve been doing it that way for X number of years doesn’t mean we can’t at least look at it. It may come back and say, it’s got to stay. Or we could come up with a really innovative—

But under your tenure, you haven’t acquired—

Have not acquired at all. I didn’t even—not budgeting it.

Do you see originals in daytime? Is outside of primetime part of your strategy?

Years ago, people had daytime programming groups. They used to produce programs until someone realized that repeated prime in the same time slots were doing better than the original programming produced for the daytime. Again, I think never say never, I do think that you could find a model where you could produce something inexpensively that is working in daytime; why not? Especially from an ad sales perspective.

Bates Motelhas been a success in scripted. Where do you see the future of scripted originals?

We have a lot of opportunity to create incredible television. It doesn’t all have to be dark either, which is where my mind is now beginning to drift to—what’s the next thing in scripted on cable? The bar has been set so high by American Horror Story and Walking Dead and then on broadcast, The Following. What’s the next thing? That’s what’s been on my mind the last 24 hours.

What about comedy?

I think the hints of what may be coming in the future is that comedy is a space. Humor—comedy, but also maybe humor. I think there is a slight difference. Bates has a lot of humor. [Bates Motel star] Vera [Farmiga], when she has her meltdowns, you have to go on YouTube and some superfan has put together all of her meltdowns into one clip. It’s hysterical. So Bates, I think, is a good model where it’s not really a horror, it’s a slightly campy, slightly funny but very engrossing portrait of a family. A mother and her two sons and the struggle. And even though we all know where it ends, we want to save all of them. And so I think that’s the appeal.

Are you looking at half-hours?

We talked about that yesterday. I brought it up in a meeting. It was like, why haven’t we talked about this before? Half-hours, you know, there are a lot of hurdles on half-hours. They tend to be more expensive.

Let’s talk about the super successful unscripted part of your business. You recently announced the show—I’m just going to call it the hick-hop show—Big Smo. That’s the title. You’re looking at that as a companion to Duck Dynasty. Tell me about that.

Stepping back a little bit on Duck—I’ll go way back. Duck had been on the air for a number of years, on one of the outdoor networks. The producers came in and showed the tape. And we looked at the tape, and we said, these are some fun characters. At the time, the head of development at A&E was Elaine Frontain Bryant, she just loved these guys and was very enthusiastic. So we sat down and said, ‘What can we do with this?’ And the first thing that popped into my head during one of these things was, ‘Wow this is kind of like The Waltons.’ I’m old. I grew up with The Waltons. And the Waltons were poor and lived on a mountain and the Robertsons are rich but they live in a swamp. Besides that, it was a family drama. It was just very—three generations. They are a family that loves each other. This was in some way the modern day version of The Waltons. In fact, if you watch the show, you’ll notice at the end we have the kind of the recap at the dining room table and Grace is said. It’s very similar to the end of The Waltons, where they say, ‘Good night, John-Boy’ to each other. So this idea kind of bubbled up and we created a very wholesome family television show. And the process broke one of the big rules of reality, which was bad behavior made good television.

And now we’re really seeing that good behavior makes awesome television. So you kind of want to own this family viewership. And so we were very successful in launching Wahlburgers out of that. And again, it’s a wonderful—it’s a story of a mother and her sons, and the values and the love. It’s about love. It’s about a family that has, even under enormous stress and needs and all, they love each other, which is great.

So we thought, ‘What is our next family viewing?’ And we came across Big Smo, who is a big, burly mamma’s boy and married with kids. Rural, but ever since he was a kid, loved hip-hop. So he kind of followed his dream against all odds.

Again, there’s a big pattern there. And that’s what makes him so lovable is that he followed his heart, followed his passion. And he’s now been able to get a contract with Warner [music]. And he’s a rising star in what he calls hick-hop. So we’re betting that America will fall in love with him as a family man and as he follows his dream at the same time. He’s on tour.

Where are the best, most original, most creative ideas for TV coming from?

The idea is not the hard part. The idea is the easy part. And one of the biggest mistakes that I think programmers make is that they take every pitch at face value. I tell people, you have got to look for the diamond in the rough. If you take in the original pitch for Duck Dynasty at face value, you would never have the show that we ended up with. So the real work and the real genius come in that collaborative partnership where you suddenly have an idea and you see a diamond in the rough. And you get together and you come up with that and it begins to form. And not sitting in a conference room. Some of the best ideas have been in right here in Soho House or sitting at the local pub and laughing and joking about something and it just starts to form. And then you go back to work and put it into place.

I mean, I always liked the—Michelangelo, he took no responsibility for the statues that he carved. He said that they were there in the rock and he found them and released them. That idea that he saw—he claims he saw—literally that diamond in the rough. A very creative man, right? So ideas are one thing. Turning them into a show is another thing. I think that’s what A+E does so well. It goes back to that idea of partnership.

Any other hot topics on your mind today?

The only thing that is a hot topic for me is that reality television is really kind of flat. I think it feels derivative, it feels—I think what we’ve done as an industry is we’ve taken the real out of reality. And it’s really what’s dampening a lot of these shows. Maybe ten years ago when reality began to take off, scripted was in that space, but people just felt it was predictable on broadcast. Somewhere, they turned on cable and they saw these reality shows and were struck by them, how authentic they were, how exciting and new and different. I’ve challenged my team to reinvent reality.

I look at a lot of shows now. Everybody who is in a reality show has been watching reality shows so they’re trying to act like they’re supposed to act in a reality show. They’re not being themselves, which is pulling the rug out from the whole concept of it. So the other thing is the shows are very formulaic. They have gotten lazy.... So the real challenge for me is, how do we reinvent reality? A&E is the perfect brand for that. Be Original.

And there are lots of tricks we could look at. I’m sensing that, for instance, fixed-rig cameras—meaning the absence of a crew—have a psychological effect on people. They’re feeling that it’s more real. Breaking the fourth wall, where the crew is actually asking the questions—that we could go back to the short-form documentary in times past. I was joking with someone the other day and I said, everything we told producers not to do ten years ago, we’re telling them to do now. So I think we’re all looking to reinvent it, and that I think is a big challenge. It’s the cornerstone of our business.