Hunting close-ended formats that tap into the zeitgeist 

Head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant
Territory reach US
Content breakdwn 1% acquisitions; 99% originals
2018 originals Many Sides Of Jane; Lost For Life; The Accused; Employable Me

One year after calling time on scripted programming to focus on non-fiction, A&E programming boss Elaine Frontain Bryant says the “positive decision” has created room for experimentation – including adaptations of UK formats The Accused and Employable Me.

“It’s a cluttered landscape in both drama and non-fiction, but you are talking about $3m [£2.1m) per hour versus $400,000 [£285,000] per hour,” Frontain Bryant tells Broadcast.

“We are putting our resources into what we think we do best in terms of non-fiction programming, and big shows such as Live PD.”

The long-serving A&E exec says she “doesn’t usually want” formats that have worked for other channels – “if someone’s done it, we’re not chasing it” – but she made exceptions for Brinkworth Films’ The Accused, which aired on Channel 5 in the UK, and Optomen’s BBC2 series Employable Me.

Brinkworth will produce an 8 x 60-minute series that follows an accused defendant who maintains their innocence as they go through the US justice system, while Optomen’s Employable Me will follow disabled job-seekers as they look for work.

“Both are close-ended formats, which is not the trend in the US right now,” says Frontain Bryant. “Trying to find something that is close-ended is always a head-scratcher, and these shows were exciting to see.”

Frontain Bryant, who sends a development exec to the UK once a year to meet with indies, says she has “never seen anything in the US” like The Accused.

“We gave Brinkworth Films casting and feasibility money for development to see if they could get it in with the legal system in the US – and they did.”

Meanwhile, Employable Me tapped into a “zeitgeist” around people with disabilities who are “newly appreciated” in certain societies.

The show is a natural companion to A&E’s Emmy-winning docuseries Born This Way, produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, which follows seven Americans with Down’s Syndrome.

“That show began changing the conversation in the US and we are hoping Employable Me will get people talking a bit more,” she notes.

Frontain Bryant is keen to widen the network’s remit from the “brave, social-driven shows” that have become its trademark in recent years, such as Live PD, Undercover High and 60 Days In – many of which have live or undercover elements.

“The beauty of A&E is that we are a general entertainment channel… The bars for us are quality and cultural relevance”
Elaine Frontain Bryant, A&E

This Time Next Year indie Twofour has optioned Live PD for the UK, while Pulse Films is understood to be developing 60 Days In for Channel 4.

“I don’t think undercover is mandatory for taking the pulse of culture,” she says. “It has been fantastic focusing on prisons and high school, and we do have a few more things in development, but it does not always have to be undercover for us to discuss what’s going on.

“The beauty of A&E is that we are a general entertainment channel,” she says of the network that aired Duck Dynasty for 11 series until its finale in March 2017.

“There was a time when Paranormal was one of our biggest shows as well, and we used to do a lot of docu-soap and celebrity. Now, we are open. The bars for us are quality and cultural relevance.”

Frontain Bryant recently greenlit Renegade 83’s Many Sides Of Jane (6 x 60 minutes), which will follow a 28-year-old woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder, better known as multiple personality disorder, documenting her quest to understand her illness.

Also lined up is IPC’s Lost For Life (8 x 60 minutes), which will examine criminal cases in which juvenile offenders who have been given mandatory life sentences without parole get a chance to plead their cases.

Meanwhile, A&E has signed on for a third series of Emmy-winning Leah Remini: Scientology And The Aftermath.

Programming priorities

While 99% of the channel’s programming is original, Frontain Bryant says it will acquire more films later this year – a new strategy that has been adopted because “repeats are trending downward”.

He priorities are to rejuvenate older “North Star brands”, such as GRB’s Intervention. Series 18 of the show, focusing on a neighbourhood struck by the US opioid crisis, was serialised – a first for the show.

“I get excited when we find a new way of reinvigorating franchises that have worked for a long time, and can invite a new audience in,” she says.

Meanwhile, series 17 of ITV Entertainment-produced The First 48, which examines the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation, will for the first time feature OJ Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. She will host the show and revisit the first two days of headline-making US cases.