A&E gets personal at the upfronts, and rises above the noise

By having executives share their own stories about TV's influence on their lives, the value of this medium is loud and clear.

Quiz: How do you know it's upfront season? Simple: Despite the rise in fragmentation and the record number of new programs expected across every imaginable platform, no executive can open his or her mouth without uttering the word "growth." And the implied message from every suit is the importance of monetizing the non-linear environment.

But this year, one network—A&E—dared to do something different. And it was probably the most effective non-upfront presentation I have ever seen.

Nickelodeon kicked-off the cable portion of the upfront on March 2 touting its dominance among the non-adult demo groups and announcing that it will air as many as 700 fresh episodes of new and returning series this year.

"On the simplest level, we are in the business of creating a lasting intellectual property to connect with the audience wherever they are," said Nickelodeon Group President Cyma Zarghami. "And now we're working on ways we can expand beyond our ecosystem and beyond our screens."

Scripps Networks, the home of HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel and Great American Country, touted the value of lifestyle programming by citing a new study commissioned by the network and conducted by Nielsen. Predictably, the results showed that participants were "highly engaged" with ads on the Scripps lifestyle networks 94 percent more often than they were with ads airing against general entertainment, reality, news and sports programming.

"What we built is a premier environment for upscale and passionate consumers to engage with our advertising brands," said Jon Steinlauf, President, National Ad Sales and Marketing, Scripps Networks Interactive. "How people feel when they are watching the advertiser's ads on the Scripps Networks is the key to our success."

In other words: For an advertiser, TV is about more than just buying an audience.

And then there was Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav this week discussing the changing culture of the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, ID, Science Channel, Velocity and OWN.

"It's about changing the culture of our company," he said. "As we continue to pivot from a company that is about channels to a company that is about IP, we have to figure out how to create IP that can be on every single mobile device."

Discovery even put linear television on the backburner in its presentation, highlighting its excessive number of streams per month digitally, its status as the No. 1 provider of video and news on Facebook, and its three Snapchat channels, which will be joined by a fourth in the upcoming weeks focused on the 2018 Olympics.

"We went from share here in the US from 4 percent just 10 years ago to now almost 13 percent, and our focus is on monetizing our content across the world," he said. "We are well positioned in this era of growing non-linear consumption."

But what really stands out in my mind was the simple reminder by A&E of why some people choose to spend their lives working in this medium.

Instead of the excessive gloating, A&E Networks (A&E, History, Lifetime) opted to feature their executives—including CEO Nancy Dubuc—on stage telling personal stories about their relationships with TV and how it has impacted their lives. Sizzle reels from various programs (including the return of the "Biography" franchise) separated each monologue.

Dubuc told a story about watching TV with her grandmother, while another staff member, Marcela Tabares, who leads A&E's audience insights team, spoke about immigrating to the Bronx in the late 1970s from Colombia. "TV became my compass to navigate into the new culture, gaining a social identity to live by," she said.

A&E also took the personal approach with the buyers themselves, choosing to meet with current and prospective clients individually instead of clumping them together.

The simplicity of their presentation and the hands-on approach to selling—not to mention the near total lack of hype—helped remind even cynical media executives and critics why TV still matters. And that helped set the network apart in what will surely be a long upfront season. Thank you, A&E.

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