A&E’s VP of design on the sexiest—and least sexy—parts of working at a TV network

Bob Calvano is vice president of design and user experience at A&E Networks in New York City, where he oversees the digital expressions of A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, H2, FYI, and LMN—programming that reaches 330 million people worldwide. A member of AIGA’s national board from 2013–2015, Calvano speaks frequently on topics like career development, management challenges, and creativity (at AIGA events and beyond), but we wanted to know more about what it’s like to work at the network behind hit shows like Duck Dynasty and Vikings, as well as more family-friendly fare and award-winning historical specials.

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Early on in your career, you left your 9-to-5 to open your own sign company. What did that teach you?
There’s nothing like owning your own business. It’s a crash course in everything and it set the foundation for much of my career. My partner and I worked with a glass blower to make neon signs, teamed up with a fabricator to make light boxes, carved wood signs, and painted murals on the sides of trucks, buildings, speed boats, race cars, motorcycles, jet skis—anything anyone would let us paint, basically.

That job taught me how to deal with a business partner, how to understand finances, how to be a salesman, even what it was like to go a few weeks without being paid. What kept me going was the opportunity to clock in every morning with a pencil or a paintbrush in my hand.

aiga-a-e-duck-dynasty-watch-app-300What kinds of projects are you working on as A&E’s VP of design and user experience?
The move to A&E represented a really big change for me, moving from Merck Pharmaceuticals, where I worked across multiple mediums, to a new position where I focus solely on the digital side of business. We create websites, of course, but we also create apps and build products for Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.

We work very closely with our marketing department to promote all of our shows on the web, but there’s a lot of content owned by the History Network that has nothing to do with television, and that gives us the opportunity to extend the brand in different ways.

When the Apple Watch came out, we translated one of our existing apps, History Here, onto the new platform. It’s a geolocating app, so as you walk around a city you’re notified of all the historical landmarks in the area—if you’re half a mile from Grand Central Station, the app will let you know, and even take you on a guided tour.

Can you share some of the perks of your job that might make us jealous?
Working in the entertainment industry, there are tons of things that a typical designer on a typical day isn’t going to see. Celebrities are in and out of the building all the time. When you’re working on licensing music for a TV program and that artist happens to be in town, there might be a live performance in our main lobby, which has stadium seating built into it. The Wahlburgers food truck once showed up and served burgers and tater tots to 1,000 people. We’ve had famous photographers come in and give presentations. We’ve even had folks from Pantone come in and talk about color to the whole company—not just the designers; that doesn’t happen everywhere.

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What are some of the unique challenges you face that people might not be aware of?
Like a lot of workplaces, we measure the heck out of everything, so as fun and creative and sexy as it may be to work for a television network, it’s still corporate America—the bottom line is we’re here to make money.

I start every day looking at numbers to see how our products are performing. We just created a new app called Lifetime Movie Club, and we get daily reports on new subscribers, cancelled subscribers, and how much time people are spending on the app. That’s the un-sexy part, but it’s all good stuff that informs the decisions we make every day.

Just like everyone who works in-house, sometimes we need to rush to meet a deadline, and that can mean sacrificing a few things we don’t want to. If we don’t always have time to fine-tune everything—if it’s off a pixel here or a pixel there—that can create stress, but it’s not unique to A&E.

One thing I can honestly say is that we’re valued. I’ve worked at companies where the creative expression is frowned up on, but our entire business is based on creativity, and this is a place where people listen to creative ideas and give them a chance to thrive.

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About the Author:

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, CO, with a focus on the outdoors, nonprofits and "do-gooder" companies. He is also a frequent contributor to HOW Magazine and AIGA design blogs.