How Do A&E and Bio Networks Develop New Programs?

This week’s topic: How do networks develop and green light new programs?

Our case study is the A&E and Bio pair of channels.

The program development process is a huge and complex topic. Each year, hundreds of channels worldwide commission thousands of factual entertainment programs at a cost of several $U.S. billions.

Commissioning practices differ widely from channel to channel, and even from project to project within a channel.

This is therefore our first post on Development practices, and definitely not the last. Your feedback will shape our future coverage the subject.

Who Develops Programs at A&E and Bio?

  • 15+/- executives form the combined Development department for A&E and Bio. A separate Development team is responsible for History and its sister channels.
  • The A&E/Bio team meets every other week for 2-3 hours to consider new ideas for Specials and Series.
  • Members of the A&E/Bio team enjoy relationships with producers and agents. Each team member juggles around five projects that are either in the advanced stages of development or are in production, as well as another 10-20 projects that are in the conceptual stage.
  • A&E and Bio draw on a sizeable pool of producers. For example, Bio’s Biography series alone relies on a dozen or so production companies to create 50+/- hours each year. Several new producers earn Biography commissions in a typical year, replacing a handful of established producers who rotate off the list.
  • The A&E/Bio executives advocate for their producers during the Development process, and then they become their production supervisors when projects are green lit. They liaise between the producers and AETN’s Programming, Business Affairs, Accounting and other departments.

Budgets

Project budgets must fall within broadly accepted cost benchmarks. In previous blogs, we examined the ‘Sweet Spot’ for production costs for A&E (March 3) and Bio (March 17) and are available for purchase from DocumentaryTelevision.com.

How are Ideas Originated?

  • Around 25% of the ideas that are considered for development are generated internally.
  • The History series Ice Road Truckers is an example of an AETN hit that evolved from the inside. IRT originated as an episode of History’s Modern Marvels series. During repeat broadcasts over several years, the episode continued to deliver a pop in the ratings. History’s Development team commissioned Original Media to expand the episode into a series. (Original Media are producers of many notable series, including Discovery’s long-running hit Deadliest Catch.)
  • The other 75% of new ideas considered by A&E/Bio are generated externally, principally by producers.
  • Producers initially pitch their concepts to their A&E/Bio contact at conferences like Real Screen, via email and phone calls, and during regular meetings about ongoing productions.
  • AETN/Bio Development executives pride themselves on the wide net that they cast for new ideas. However, the pitches that are most likely to get their full attention are those from producers who are enjoying current ratings successes.
  • Established producers also offer Business Affairs and Accounting personnel who are well-known to their peers at the network. This ‘back office comfort factor’ really matters when it comes to accepting new prorgamming partners!
  • Although it does happen, it is very unlikely that novice producers or ‘average Joe’s with a great idea’ will succeed with their projects. The inexperienced person who has a strong concept is advised to align with an established producer.
  • Agents are involved in fewer than half of the projects pitched to A&E/Bio. There is no single talent agency with special access to the AETN team.

Getting ready for the Development Meeting

  • An A&E/Bio Development executive who likes a concept encourages the producer to invest in a presentation for the twice-monthly Development meeting.
  • The producer develops the story, secures the talent, drafts an initial budget and creates a brief demo or ‘sizzle’ real.
  • The A&E/Bio Development exec helps the producer to pull together the package, anticipating how to convince the meeting that this is a viable project that will deliver a desirable audience.
  • An inexperienced producer who brings a great project to A&E or Bio is usually paired with an established production company or a proven show runner.

The Presentation

  • A&E/Bio execs promote their own and their producers’ ideas at Development meetings.
  • It takes around three months for an idea to advance from concept to presentation. The A&E/Bio development pipeline is packed with the several ideas that each of the 15 +/- execs is either championing or wants to float with the team.
  • The execs have only a few minutes to present the concept, characters and format, including screening the demo reel, answering questions and agreeing on Next Steps. Some projects are dealt with in 2-3 minutes, and others can launch a heated 20+/- minute discussion.
  • A great title really helps. Celebrity Ghost Stories had the Bio team hooked on the title, and Bio quickly committed to a pilot.
  • The A&E/Bio Development team doesn’t look for unanimity in the meeting, but rather for a general consensus before approving a project.
  • Unique projects can bypass the regular Development team process. For example, the hit series Steven Seagal Lawman was pitched to an A&E senior executive, and then accelerated into production.

When is a ‘Green Light’ Really Green?

  • The Development team green lights episodes within existing strands, but not series.
  • New series that are approved by the Development team are presented to AETN senior management, including Ad Sales. With senior executive approval, the project is considered ‘green lit’ and the Development team has permission to incur expenses to create the Series.
  • Once a series concept and budget is approved, the first step is to commission a pilot or demo tape.
  • Completed pilots are sometimes later scheduled as Specials if they don’t work as Series. Other pilots are written off.
  • A project rarely bypasses the pilot phase and goes straight from concept to Series. It may happen, for example, if there is a competitive offer from another channel, or if a proven star like William Shatner is attached.
  • Budgets are more likely to be closely vetted if they are for pilots for new series or if they are submitted by new producers.
  • Contracts are executed by AETN’s Legal & Business Affairs department.

In future posts, we will track network practices for the later phases in the production process: Pre-production, Field Production, Post-production, and the increasingly vexed subject of Digital Deliverables.

Next week: (You’ve been asking for it!) The ‘Sweet Spot’ at National Geographic Channel U.S.

Coming soon: HBO, Scripps Networks, Smithsonian, WeTV, Spike, Canadian channels, BBC, Arte, Music Rights, Who Watches Documentaries and Factual Programs?, Digital Deliverables and much, much more.

Note on Sources
The data is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from recent conference presentations and published sources. Actual development processes, budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project and from network to network.

Thanks!

Gratitude to LinkTV for syndicating us on the excellent Doc360 site.

Continuing thanks to our friend Melissa Houghton, executive director, WIFV, Washington DC, for recommending us to the vibrant WIFV community.

And to Tom White and Tamara Krinsky for sending a note about us to International Documentary Association members.

Many thanks for your feedback! You are network executives, producers, distributors and creatives, and also administrators, attorneys, agents, educators, students and fans of the doc sector. Thanks for forwarding DocumentaryTelevision.com to your friends and colleagues.

5 comments

  1. John Carrithers says:

    Thanks Peter. A great post. It would also be interesting to learn about PBS/CPB acquisition and development process too. Do the majors every purchase one-offs or are they only looking for series? If they do, is the sweet spot per hour similar to a series?

    Looking forward to the next post!

  2. This is a really great post, but the one thing I was left with wanting to know is who are the production companies I can call to begin this process. I have a Pilot Episode, Pitch Document and all supporting information to talk with someone about our TV Series. I am looking forward to hearing from a production company and teaming up!

  3. Vicki Wagner says:

    Some of these shows have gotten so far from the original concept of the channel that the channels brand has completely changed. (Like Bravo,History, etc.) It seems like reality these days is all about voyeurism. Jersey Shore was a hit for MTV when MTV was failing. (I’ve seen 10 minutes of the show.) It worked to pull in an audience. But what about old school programming like talk shows? IS there room for new competitors? George Lopez was just cancelled, was it the time slot, Conan, or no audience? I’d love to pitch my idea for a talk show.

  4. M granhold says:

    So often police stories only show them as good guys. There are so many cases of cops that abuse their authority. PLEASE for the victims sake create a show that shows police brutality. We as citizens are being beaten killed incarcerated and taunted by the “code of silence”. Foto see just home many cases of police brutality accros the nation visit http://www.injusticeeverywhere.com. as well as copblock.org and http://www.civiliansdown.com. . I am a woman of small staure. I was beaten by cops while in there custody. I am a law abidding citizen that made a mistake and landed in the hands of 3 very cruel officers on a power trip. It is time to expose the malice that takes place behind the blue wall. Please say you will expose this lawless behavior to the public. I can only imagine the number of viewers that you would receive out of curiosity and pray that exposure will stop the lack of accountability and lack of transparency of the DOJ. I am in Houston. I am more than willing to share the many cases I have followed since my incidence which has left me so scared that I am afraid to leave my home in fear of retalation. I am not alone

    See the aaron hobart story.
    See the angie garbriano story
    See the Chad Holly story
    See the story of the man in Corpus Christi texas. ……beaten so badly by cops that he is on life support

    There are thousands more.
    WE ARE UP AGAINST A FIRE BREATHING DRAGON (THE DOJ) AND THERE ARE VERY FEW DRAGON SLAYERS.
    I BEG OF YOU. PLEASE HELP US. THE VICTIMS OF good COPS GONE BAD

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