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Dean Possenniskie: A+E will grow through programming not M&A

Dean Possenniskie, A+E Networks EMEA

A+E Networks EMEA and UK chief says company is focused on factual brands through third parties rather than owning indies

A+E Networks European chief Dean Possenniskie says the company has no plans to enter the M&A game nor is it a target for consolidation. Instead, he says, the company is targeting growth through investment in core brands Crime+Investigation (C+I) and History.

Hearst fully owns A+E Networks EMEA, having taken control when Disney – which co-owns the US business A+E Networks with Hearst – was forced to divest itself of channels to buy up the assets of 21st Century Fox. A+E Networks UK, of which Possenniskie is also managing director, is co-owned by Sky and Hearst.  

Speaking to Broadcast in an exclusive interview, Possenniskie says expansion in EMEA and the UK wasn’t on the table, because Hearst “isn’t active in that space” anymore.  

“It’s not something we need, as such. We feel like this balance of working with producers and being a vibrant part of the UK production market is what’s right for us,” he says.  

“And A+E Networks EMEA and UK are in unique positions where we have stability and security. I know our shareholders want us to continue to grow the company. There’s no sense we’re going to wake up one day and be part of a consolidation play or buyout. 

“You never take it for granted in the future, but we’re in a good place and we can really focus on what we want to do with this company.” 

Possenniskie, who has been with the company since 2010, adds it is also not looking to bring production in-house, despite taking a “really good look at it”.

Ultimately, he says, the company felt that “having a range of suppliers who offer interesting, original ways to tell stories is the best way to maintain that diversity of content.” 

A+E Networks has worked with 26 indies of various sizes in the last three years, including 72 Films, Nutopia, Zig Zag Productions, IWC Media, Curve Media and Peninsula Television. 

The factual company’s key to success, therefore, is growing its two principal brands C+I and History, which is branded as Sky History in the UK, and he acknowledges this is “not straightforward or easy in this day and age”.  

Possenniskie says A+E Networks has significantly ramped up investment in original programming, which has close to “tripled in the last four years”. The focus of this investment, he says, will mainly be on per-hour quality rather than a slew of more originals. He cites the recent Sky History drama-docs Royal Bastards and Royal Mob as examples of high-budget projects. 

Factual tariffs are comparable with commercial terrestrial broadcasters such as Channel 4 and Channel 5, according to A+E Networks, which range from £80k - £180k per hour. However, one indie supplier for C+I tells Broadcast six-digit figures are exceptional for commissions and are likely to come if it’s a co-production. Per-hour budgets are typically in the £50k arena, they add. 

Despite the emphasis on quality over quantity, it does seem A+E Networks is also ramping up its original programming stakes across C+I and Sky History. In 2023, A+E is targeting a little over 100 hours in commissioned programming, or 22 titles. This is a third more hours than 2022, which currently stands at 75 hours (15 titles).  

Part of the catalyst for this is the recent launch of £3.99 streamer C+I Play in the UK in September, which Possenniskie says A+E will feed with commissions. The SVoD service launched with 1,000 hours of local originals including Zig Zag’s Rob Rinder’s Interrogation Secrets. C+I also recently ordered Cops Who Kill.

“We’ve grown C+I by probably another 20% or 30% already in terms of like bringing more productions to the table for the launch of the service, but we want to be going out on a regular basis with British originals. That is another step up in our investment,” he notes. 

The investment is not insubstantial, but Possenniskie stresses that the “threshold to get to profitability” is not as demanding as the global SVoDs. A+E Networks does not have hard-and-fast subscriber targets but getting “to 100,000 plus subscribers would be successful for us”, he says. 

And already, the foray into direct-to-consumer is “opening up a different and younger audience” than its linear channel, and providing Possenniskie and his senior leaders and commissioners with insight into “how to retain subscribers and talk to them about what we might learn editorially”. 

“We can talk directly to subscribers and look at what content is stickiest and what we could invest more in,” he says. “There is a profitability element to what we’re doing, but it’s also great for the whole A+E business in terms of passing on insight to our distribution partners Sky, Virgin and Amazon.” 

A+E has no immediate plans to expand C+I Play into its European territories, but ultimately countries such as Germany and Italy, where the linear brand has traction, are on the agenda. However, he says are no plans to extend Sky History or History into a D2C offering because of its strength in pay-TV.  
 

Rights 

The focus on building the C+I and History brands also guides A+E’s rights position, Possenniskie adds, with the company not bent on “owning and distributing IP”, which he says is “just not our future”. While the company takes a long licence – typically eight years – on programming its commissions, it only takes the rights “we want to exploit”, such as rights for linear through its platform partners, SVoD rights and short-form rights.   

A+E is exploring the FAST universe with remaining rights it has for UK programming and has created two channels with Pluto TV – Inside Crime UK and Mystery TV – with a third in the pipeline, but strives to be a flexible commissioner. 

“We’re not going to be building a back catalogue to exploit as a distribution play,” he says. “Producers will take and manage distribution rights outside the UK or post our windows.”  

The challenges come when A+E Networks has a compelling UK show, for example, which they might want to extend to its European territories. In this case, its regional buyers would have to make the decision between spending money on a title or sticking with the “very local” content he says is “at the heart of our commissioning strategy”. 

Co-production is an area where A+E Networks is looking to gain access to more territory rights for factual programming, with Possenniskie pointing to historical docudramas Barbarians Rising and the A+E-ZDF commission of U-Boat War Gamers (exclusively revealed by Broadcast).  

The series will air on Sky History in the UK and History in Eastern Europe, Poland, Nordics, Middle East, South Africa, Italy. A+E has also taken a second window for History in Germany after ZDF. The series is also on US SVoD CuriosityStream. 

“That’s a great example of coming in as a co-production partner and trying to build things across EMEA,” he says. “We have leaders in commissioning across EMEA, and they are working together, talking together, trying to find things that work together.” 

Article Pubished by John Elmes, Broadcast International