NATPE 2017: A+E's Dubuc Won't Shy Away From Controversial But Compelling Content

A+E Networks is still investigating the matter of producers paying Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members to appear on air in its planned documentary series Escaping the KKK, said Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A+E Networks, at NATPE in Miami on Tuesday. Paying people to participate in interviews violates ethics guidelines that surround the production of documentaries, and as a result, A&E killed the project.

Still, expect to see more controversial projects that grab attention coming out of the network. 

Escaping the KKK was in the works a year and a half ago. It was a combination of us seeing around the corner a theme that was emerging and ending up in a moment in our nation’s history that none of us were expecting,” Dubuc told moderator Cynthia Littleton of Variety. “[W]e are dealing with producers who may or may not have followed documentary protocol. We’re going to take a close look and make sure we’re more surgical in following our unscripted guidelines but we’ll do that after our investigation is complete.”

Dubuc also said one of its new docu-series that did make it on the air, Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath, is doing well for A&E – premiering to the network’s best ratings in years – but not for Dubuc’s personal Facebook feed.

“My Facebook feed is all about how much they hate Leah,” Dubuc said, who surmised during the session that Scientology is buying negative posts in an attempt to discredit the show, which features Remini discussing how and why she left the church.

“Leah’s trying to help families. She’s looking for transparency at the end of the day,” said Dubuc. “It’s her story and her point of view.  It’s very courageous thing to do and we’re very proud of her.”

Both shows represent the direction in which A&E is pointing itself.

“What’s most important is brand,” said Dubuc. “In the future, audiences will have a harder time finding content and surfacing what’s interesting to them. I think we need to own the categories of curation that we’re known for: women, history, millennials and so forth.”

Finding that content is getting harder and harder, Dubuc said. “There’s an arms race on the high-end premium stuff. It’s very competitive, it’s very expensive and [subscription video on demand providers] have different business models. That puts pressure on us.

“We want to stand out when content is brand-specific to us. We’re coming into an era where that network brand is really going to be important. Networks aren’t really networks anymore, they are really programming services. For example, History needs to be its own brand in the digital, education, editorial, television, international spaces with those businesses all attached to that brand.”

Along those lines, History is preparing to debut its next big scripted effort, Six, a fictionalized version based on true stories of the legendary Navy SEAL Team Six, which ended up killing Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a raid in Pakistan in 2011. The series debuts Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET.

Said Dubuc: “History Channel has a long legacy and passion for military programming. Six takes this unscripted military brand that we’re known for and applies it to scripted drama.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.