Title: Senior VP, international, A&E Television Networks
Date of birth: Oct. 3, 1974
Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Big break: Getting into Harvard, which put him “around very smart people from so early on, folks with a real clear idea about what they wanted to do.”
Who knew? Mr. Cohan has a passion for books about the Mafia. “‘The Godfather’ is one of my favorite books,” he said. “I didn’t even see the movie for a long time because I didn’t want to ruin the book.”
Sometimes when he walks into an office, Sean Cohan admits, it takes a while for the person he’s meeting with to digest the fact that the A&E Television Networks executive is just 32 years old.
But getting carded at hotel bars hasn’t stopped Mr. Cohan, named earlier this year as senior VP, international, from leading a group that’s launched seven channels in the last six months.
“Establishing a commonality and rapport may take a couple of seconds longer, but once you establish a credibility and your knowledge of the international pay TV market, and once you do find a common vein or a common interest, it’s not that hard,” said Mr. Cohan. “Once you do that, you’re able to get past the gap, which is, ‘What’s this guy doing here?’ or ‘Am I going to be able to do business with this guy?'”
Since joining A&E three years ago, Mr. Cohan has been promoted three times, from director of business development, to vice president for international business development and digital media, to his current position.
“When I first met him, he struck me as very bright and a can-do person,” said Steve Ronson, executive VP of enterprises for AETN, who hired Mr. Cohan and remains his boss.
Mr. Ronson was looking for a change agent for his group, which is focused on helping the company advance rapidly into new areas, and Mr. Cohan has filled that bill. He pushed the company into digital internationally and pushed the HD version of the History Channel onto satellite in the U.K.
“The business has never been stronger,” Mr. Ronson said, and Mr. Cohan is “one of the young, very creative, very driven leaders who have helped us make that happen.”
Mr. Cohan started his career out of Harvard University with consulting company A.T. Kearney. He moved to NBC to work in ad sales strategy, then went to business school at Stanford. He did investment banking at Morgan Stanley and strategy at Primedia before joining AETN.
Although he had just a little experience in doing business abroad, Mr. Cohan says he’s now enjoying the international side of the television business.
For one thing, there’s the fact that no two deals are the same. “There’s just so many agreements and transactions that are required that it really is an intellectual challenge to getting your arms around it, particularly when you’re going into a new market that we’ve sold programming into but we don’t have channels in,” he said.
AETN’s international strategy is to find a local partner with an established infrastructure, local relationships and local distribution clout to go with AETN’s programming and marketing know-how. “This way we get up the curve pretty quickly and take some of the risk out of expanding our brand into these new markets,” Mr. Cohan explained.
Unlike the domestic cable TV business, which is in many ways mature, the international market is full of opportunities for creativity and growth. There are markets where pay TV is still in its infancy, where ad markets aren’t developed and digital distribution is just starting to take hold.
“It’s not only a high-growth scenario,” Mr. Cohan said. “International pay TV is not only very complex, it’s an art. It really forces you to stay on your toes, and there isn’t a clear answer.
“There’s also this charge you get out of going to a country and seeing the History Channel there or seeing the Biography Channel there for the first time, especially right after we launch,” he said.
The hardest part of Mr. Cohan’s job is managing time zones when a cell phone, BlackBerry and computer allow him to do business 24 hours a day.
“There’s so much growth and so much opportunity out there in the international TV market, generally and for our brand, that you couple that with the technology and the time zones and the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop, or being able to stop,” he said.
Ultimately, Mr. Cohan’s goal is to be CEO of a company. He thinks his current position, running a division that faces diverse challenges and is growing, is preparing him for that role.
Mr. Ronson agrees. “Sean is pretty wise beyond his years. He’s a young executive, and all the things that come along with being a young executive are true with Sean, but he’s able to bounce back from adversity very quickly,” he said. “I know he has an aspiration to get to the CEO suite someday. I think he has a very good chance of achieving that at a significant company.”
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