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Interview: Dean Possenniskie, A+E Networks

Dean Possenniskie

Dean Possenniskie

Pay TV channel provider A+E Networks has recently been branching out into the free-to-air world, notably with the launch of Blaze in the UK. EMEA managing director Dean Possenniskie talked to Stuart Thomson about the company’s changing profile.

While the demise of pay TV has been greatly exaggerated, the business is reaching maturity in many developed markets and channel providers are searching for new avenues to growth – either by launching a direct-to-consumer digital offering, or a free-to-air linear channel.

A+E Networks has delved into the free-to-air market in EMEA in a significant way with the launch of male-focused Blaze in the UK. The group also entered the Turkish market with a free-to-air version of Lifetime in April in partnership with local player MCD Media.

According to Dean Possenniskie, managing director, A+E Networks EMEA, taking the plunge into free-to-air in a strong pay TV market like the UK made sense because there was an opportunity to use A+E’s content without damaging its pay TV business or threaten distribution partnerships.

“We were fortunate that with the A+E pipeline of content we could go different ways. We have strong distribution partnerships and we continue to grow our channels,” says Possenniskie. “We value our partnerships highly. Blaze is complementary in terms of windowing, scheduling and the brand, and can be used to cross-promote to content on pay TV like Pawn Stars on History.”

In addition to launching Blaze as a linear channel, A+E has used the launch to debut its first TV Everywhere service in EMEA, providing access to Blaze content on a catch-up basis on multiple screens.

Possenniskie is clear that A+E is not diluting its commitment to pay TV and points out that the company also has a strong business supplying content to free-to-air broadcasters. “We have to think very carefully about what is the best avenue for us,” he says. “Internally, we don’t qualify our brands as being defined by platform. It’s really about where we feel the opportunity is.”

Similarly, whether to go it alone, as in the UK with Blaze, or with a partner, as in Turkey, will depend on whether A+E has a strong existing presence in a particular market.

The key in either case, says Possenniskie, is to analyse the market and plan the launch carefully. “In the UK we spent time on looking at the market and the content offering and the brand. It has to take some time. It is important to get it right,” he says.

For the launch of Blaze, A+E tapped the TVPlayer platform, for which it has now led a £5 million investment round (e5.7 million). “We always look for new opportunities to develop new digital technologies and services and TVPlayer was looking for a strategic partner,” says Possenniskie.

Aside from free-to-air, the other main non-core opportunity that channel providers have addressed is digital platforms that can be made available either to pay TV customers only or as a direct-to-consumer service, either free-to-view or as a subscription offering.

A+E has taken the plunge into digital in the US with the launch of Lifetime Movie Network and History Vault. Possenniskie says that History Vault is seen as a key opportunity in EMEA. He is agnostic about whether such a service should be rolled out as a standalone offering or part of a joint effort with pay TV partners, adding that it could be rolled out in different markets either as a direct-to-consumer offering or via pay TV partners.

“Aside from supporting our platform partners with non-linear content, we are looking at building a standalone SVOD product that can add something to the platform,” says Possenniskie. “We keep an open mind on what model would work best in which market.”

For both free-to-air linear channels and non-linear digital direct-to-consumer services, having a compelling pipeline of content remains key. For A+E this has also gone hand-in-hand with diversifying its content line-up to embrace more scripted as well as unscripted content. The development of A+E Studios in the US has been key to this. Content developed by the in-house production unit has been aired on Lifetime and History. For Possenniskie, while drama and movies have been core to Lifetime, the real opportunity is to add scripted content to History, with Vikings and, more recently, its remake of the groundbreaking 1977 mini-series Roots, standing out as examples of content that can enhance the profile of the channel. Roots is currently set to premiere in Italy on History.

And for all the recent focus on the free-to-air market with the launch of Blaze, A+E continues to populate pay TV platforms with its portfolio of services including History, H2, A&E, CI and Lifetime. Possenniskie says that there continues to be strong opportunities for pay TV launches in EMEA, notably in Africa, where the programmer now has an established presence in Johannesburg.

“Our optimal presence is to have four to six brands in each market in pay TV. If you have only two brands, such as History and CI, there may be potential to launch Lifetime or FYI or whatever. In terms of whether to go for pay TV versus free-to-air, it is hard to have a cookie-cutter approach, but some markets will support a full portfolio of services.” 

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