Extending beyond television. Interview with A+E Networks’ Izabella Wiley
BY Yako Molhov
A+E Networks has enjoyed a strong start to 2024 with several big launches in the CEE region, including a localized version of the HISTORY Channel in Bulgaria. Izabella Wiley, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Central and Eastern Europe at A+E Networks EMEA, talks with Yako Molhov about the plans for the rest of 2024 and onwards, on TV, streaming and beyond.
Izabella Wiley, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Central and Eastern Europe, A+E Networks EMEA
Izabella, A+E Networks has started 2024 strong, announcing the launch of your Bulgarian feed of HISTORY Channel, premiering new and returning CEE original series, demonstrating strong growth for the History Channel in Hungary in the commercial demo. What have been the other highlights for your company so far?
Indeed, we've had an exciting start to 2024. The launch of our advertising feed in Bulgaria is a significant milestone. Since April, viewers in Bulgaria have been able to enjoy our productions such as The Unbelievable with Dan Aykroyd, Ancient Aliens, and Pawn Stars with Bulgarian voiceover on the HISTORY Channel. This initiative enhances the viewing experience and introduces commercial breaks, with local broker The Sales House handling ad sales.

Additionally, we premiered several local productions this spring. In Poland, Polish Killer Women returned to Crime+Investigation, while the HISTORY Channel aired a new season of The Hunt for Baltic Gold. Romania saw the production of Treasure Hunters Romania. On the international front, The Unbelievable with Dan Aykroyd premiered successfully, fitting seamlessly with our global themes.

Moreover, A+E Networks extends beyond television. March saw the launch of the second edition of the Herstory project, celebrating remarkable Polish women. This campaign includes a student competition (under the patronage of operator TOYA), campaigns on our television channels and social media, and a charity auction of artworks dedicated to our heroines. This November, Crime+Investigation will support the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

In our last interview, you talked about your growth and expansion plans for the 17 territories you operate in CEE. Will you continue to focus on your existing markets in 2024 as well, or have you planned expanding your geographical footprint? Are you planning to launch other channels in the region?
Our focus on the four ad-sales territories remains steadfast. Strengthening the HISTORY Channel in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and the newly launched Bulgaria is a priority.

As for expanding geographically, we are staying within our current footprint for now. We are analyzing potential new markets for ad-sales or new channel launches, but it's premature to make any announcements. Our investments need to be sound and show a return.

We are also expanding our SVOD brands. Last year, we started partnership with Amazon and Canal+ in Poland to offer HISTORY Play and Crime+Investigation Play. Expect more developments in this space.

The TV and streaming industries have been facing tough times in the past few years. What is the situation for A+E Networks in CEE, are you faced with the prospect of cost-cutting measures, will you limit your content spend for 2024 or on the contrary?
We are certainly navigating post-pandemic challenges posed by the rise of streaming services and increased content investments from larger TV channels. Additionally, high inflation and uncertainty due to the war contribute to an overall challenging environment. However, through effective cost management and maintaining a steady market share, we have managed to sustain our content investment levels. In fact, in Romania, we have even increased our programming budget.

The Hunt for the Baltic Gold

What is the main pillar of your business strategy, operating in 17 different territories, each of a different scale and with its own specifics? Have you noticed any major changes and new trends in the past year - for example FAST was discarded as a profitable venture for the region but it has started quickly gaining pace in countries like Poland for example? Is the subscription model changing and are you exploring new ways of revenue?
Our strategy is continuously evolving based on fast-changing consumer behaviors, competitive environment, tech advancements, and business opportunities. Our traditional revenue sources remain important. The launch of Bulgarian ad sales attests to the fact that the traditional TV model still delivers growth. We're also exploring new revenue models such as branded content and the monetization of podcasts.

While FAST is gaining traction in Western Europe, it continues to be less viable in our region where television has traditionally been affordable. You are correct in pointing out that some Polish players have announced FAST initiatives. My assessment is that the monetization of FAST is still challenging for independent TV channel operators like us. Those who have an ad brokerage function in their corporate structure may potentially crack that revenue challenge soon. Nonetheless, we are monitoring any potential opportunities in this space.

CEE is traditionally the "bastion" of linear and cable TV (especially in countries like Romania, Serbia, Hungary; etc.). You also operate SVOD services, what does your research show, is streaming gaining momentum in some of the territories in the region?
Our 17 markets in Central and Eastern Europe are diverse, each at a different stage of development. Over the last decade, we've seen significant growth in non-linear TV viewing, accelerated by the pandemic. This growth continues, albeit at a slower pace.

We've adapted to these trends by offering HISTORY Play and Crime+Investigation Play, which feature both local and international productions. HISTORY Play was first introduced in the CEE region via RTL+ in Hungary, and last year we expanded to Amazon Prime and Canal+. We are actively discussing further expansions with various operators in the region.

A+E's key brands in CEE are HISTORY Channel, HISTORY2 (H2), and Crime+Investigation, and you also offer digital SVOD brands, namely HISTORY Play and C+I Play. What are your most successful local originals, and how many new projects have you planned for 2024 and beyond?
We've had great success with local originals like The Hunt for Baltic Gold, now in its sixth season, and Polish Killer Women, which delves into the motivations behind women's crimes. We're also working on a new show in Poland with Łukasz Kazek, exploring Poland’s Recovered Lands. This spring, we premiered the new Romanian format Treasure Hunters: Romania, which proved very popular with local viewers. For later in the year, we are planning a new season of Romanian Enigmas.

For autumn 2024, we plan to premiere the much-anticipated second season of Sentenced To Life on C+I Poland, a five-episode series exploring life sentences and the notorious crimes behind them.

Treasure Hunters: Romania

You commission content for your key territories which are Poland, Romania, and Hungary. You focus on history in those territories and in Poland also on true crime. One of your newest titles is Treasure Hunters: Romania which again focuses on history but in a more engaging way. Have you considered producing local content in other genres, widening the content mix?
Our priority is providing content that resonates with our viewers. You mentioned Treasure Hunters: Romania as an example of engaging history-telling. We always strive to make our local commissions interesting, fun, relevant, and gripping for viewers moderately interested in history. People don’t come to the HISTORY Channel for boring lectures and lists of dates; they come for stories about fascinating people and their relationships. They want to understand how they can relate to past events and connect the dots between then and now.

We are not fixated on the genre but rather on compelling stories. We then decide which format best conveys those stories in the most exciting way.

I should note that we factual storytellers at heart.

The aforementioned series is produced by Paprika Studios Romania. Have you planned further productions with the company which operates in 8 territories in the region? What about other production partners, do you have negotiations in place with new ones and will viewers in other, smaller territories see local originals in the future?
Our collaboration with Paprika Studio has been excellent. While we don't currently plan to expand production into other territories, we are open to acquiring local stories that fit our brand’s DNA.

A+E is among the major exhibitors at NATPE Budapest. Is the company planning to offer some of its original CEE formats for distribution? For example, Treasure Hunters: Romania is a shared Paprika-History format, what are the parameters of this deal?
We have managed to create some great formats in CEE. They are so good that they continue to attract large audiences to our channels, and for the time being we are not going to share them. We will make decisions about third-party sales together with the producers after the production is completed for our airwaves.

In our previous interview, you mentioned that you would like to collaborate with CEE terrestrial broadcasters, but this is a challenge in the region. Have you made any progress on that front this year, are broadcasters now more open to content partnerships?
In September, we are premiering Dictators’ Hideouts, an international co-production with Inborn Media. We have ongoing discussions about joint promotions and content sharing, but it's too early to disclose any specifics.
Share this article: