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Pre-MIPTV interview series: Dean Possenniskie, A+E Networks

Dean Possenniskie

Dean Possenniskie

A+E Networks’ acquisition of control of two of its JVs a year ago has opened the way to further international expansion. A+E Networks EMEA managing director Dean Possenniskie talked to Stuart Thomson about the company’s plans.

A+E Networks has been open to partnering with a range of pay TV providers and other content companies in developing its international business over the years, with A+E Networks UK, its London-based joint venture with Sky – but active in markets as varied as Scandinavia, central and eastern Europe and – most recently – South Africa standing as a prime example. 

Over the last couple of years, however, A+E has had an ambition to take greater control of some of its joint ventures, most notably taking full control of its JV with Fox International Channels in Italy and buying Malaysian pay TV operator Astro’s stake in AETN All Asia Networks, both at the end of 2013.

“We have an ambition to take greater ownership, either through full ownership or majority ownership, where it makes sense,” says Dean Possenniskie, managing director, Europe, the Middle East and Africa at A+E Networks. In the case of Italy, he says, A+E saw a market where it could potentially expand in new directions by taking full control. “Owning and operating [the channels] means we can move more decisively and take advantage of more opportunities in the market in addition to developing pay TV,” he says.

Free-to-air possibility

The creation of A+E Networks Italy was immediately followed by the launch of true crime channel CI. Possenniskie says that A+E is now mulling the launch of another channel on the Sky pay TV platform, but adds that the company is mulling free-to-air as a possibility. “We don’t rule out FTA. We could very much investigate that market,” he says.

He says that A+E has the flexibility to enter the free broadcasting space thanks in large part to its combination of channel distribution and content sales in a single combined entity.

“One of the benefits we have with content distribution and channels under one roof is that we are also very strong in distribution in the free-to-air space and we don’t rule free-to-air out,” he says. With a catalogue of over 1,500 hours of content a year at its disposal, A+E is well-placed to launch such a channel while maintaining a separate content distribution business to mainstream free-to-air broadcasters, he adds.

Possenniskie believes that a number of western European markets are ripe for further free-to-air launches. While Italy offers the possibility to acquire a channel from an existing licence holder, it should also be possible to acquire capacity on Freeview in the UK or to build cable and satellite distribution in Germany, for example. Other markets – notably France and Spain – hold fewer prospects, with FTA markets that are largely closed to new entrants.

In terms of the core pay TV business, Possenniskie says that A+E has maintained a goal of having three to six channels in each of the markets in which it is present. “We want brands that are well-defined with good content and we can do that with three to six channels,” he says. One of his priorities for the near term is to expand the distribution of H2, “a great partner to History”, which has already been well-received in the UK market and has recently launched in Poland, the Nordic territories and the Middle East. “I would like to see it across all of our markets and we will see more H2 launches this year,” he says.

Possenniskie’s other main focus is on gaining distribution for A&E, the entertainment channel that A+E is rolling out to territories outside the US. “A&E has great franchises like Storage Wars, Duck Dynasty, Wahlburgers and Shipping Wars that define the brand. It is already in lots of homes and Europe and Africa and we want to see it launch further across Europe this year,” he says.

Possenniskie says A+E is pleased with the progress made by its female-focused channel Lifetime, which launched in Poland recently and which he has an ambition to take to other international markets. In the majority of markets, he says, History, Lifetime and A&E will be the leading brands, with CI, H2 and FYI bringing up the rear.

Possenniskie says A+E will be cautious about launching its youth-oriented US channel FYI, which has replaced Bio, internationally. “FYI has innovative programming and its journey is now beginning. We are staring to present the channel but is important to gather data and evidence from the US [first]. We are beginning to focus on it but there is nothing definite at this stage.”

A+E is open, he says, to acquiring third-party channels in some territories and rebranding them as part of its existing portfolio, as it did with Sony’s Spin in Latin America, rebranded as Lifetime. With regards to the kind of bigger international moves recently made by rivals including Discovery and Scripps Networks, Possenniskie says A+E has the capacity to invest in big terrestrial broadcaster but there is a question of whether such an investment makes sense. A+E’s recent investment in youth-oriented brand Vice, in which it owns a 10% stake, points to an alternative expansion strategy, he suggests. “Vice is a strong digital business with a young, millennial audience,” he says, adding that he believe A+E can “learn a lot about the monetisation of content in that space” from its involvement.

A+E is also investing in emerging markets – notably in Africa, where it recently opened a new office in Johannesburg and hired former DStv executive Anthea Petersen as regional director.

“African as a pay TV market has so much potential for growth,” he says. A+E has invested in content in South African in particular, including a local version of the Pawn Stars franchise that has provide successful. It launched Lifetime in South Africa last year and Possenniskie says the company has an ambition to have a full portfolio of five or six channels available in African markets soon. A+E will also commission more local content, including its first local show for Lifetime, building on the success of Pawn Stars which, he says, “has every chance of going to a second season”.

Owning the rights

Possenniskie also points out that distribution opportunities in Africa are expanding, with digital-terrestrial rollouts possibly adding free-to-air opportunities to complement what is still primarily a pay TV market. The penetration of mobile and the rollout of mobile networks also affords a further opportunity for video-on-demand distribution.

Aside from territorial expansion, A+E is also continuing to develop digital distribution. Possenniskie is clear that “OTT is not where we are currently”.

He says that A+E is committed to develop digital apps and multiscreen distribution in partnership with pay TV providers. The company is open to experiment about what form this might take, however. Possenniskie says that A+E could develop its own branded apps internationally as part of an authentication-based model, following the example of the US where content providers have made access to their programming on their own branded portals contingent on users subscribing to pay TV services.

“I would like to see our own branded apps pushed to the consumer if they are authenticated,” he says. He admits that the space to do this in Europe could be limited, given that pay TV distributors were much quicker off the mark than US operators in developing their own OTT multiscreen services as complements to their linear pay TV platforms. However, he says, “having branded authenticated apps we can manage direct would add further value – but it is something we would have to discuss.”

In general, says Possenniskie, the key to success is increasingly about rights ownership. A+E has had a strong focus on owning rights to the content it airs, enabling it to distribute over linear and digital platforms in multiple markets and create a consistent proposition. The development of A+E Studios, the group’s in-house production arm, is part and parcel of this. In addition to its traditional focus on factual content, A+E Studios is also taking it into the world of scripted content, with series such as American revolutionary war drama Sons of Liberty and forthcoming comedy-drama UnREAL. Possenniskie says that both Lifetime and History are great vehicles for this content, with History’s Vikings – a drama that predated A+E Studios -– emerging as “far and away the biggest generator of audiences on any factual channel in the UK”.

“I think owning the rights to content is critical. That is the first thing that platforms want to talk to us about,” he says. “It is at the top of our agenda. The great thing is we have always been focused on owning rights, but it is increasingly about when we release those rights and what the value is in doing so.”

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