In Depth

A&E Uses Drama Pilot to Gauge Viewer Interest Before Ordering Series

Experimenting with a different kind of programming rollout, A&E Network later this month plans to air the pilot of a series about a former undercover New York City detective who searches for runaway kids.

It is unusual for A&E to air pilots, said Rob Sharenow, senior VP for nonfiction programming, but the network bought “Runaway Squad” with the idea that it might air the pilot. Now that the pilot’s in, he said the network really likes the show, but a decision has not yet been made on ordering more episodes.

Runaway Squad

A&E, the 11th-ranked advertising-supported cable network in prime time during the third quarter, ranked fifth among adults 25-54. And it has a full pipeline of new and returning non-scripted shows.

Mr. Sharenow said the pilot is airing in part because of its compatibility with other A&E programming.

“We’re going to be showing it after ‘Intervention,’ which is one of our most successful, highest-rated series. And it definitely has sort of a similar emotional tone. It is a very high-stakes family drama,” he said.

The show was created by and features Joe Mazzilli, a 16-year police veteran who now runs a private detective and security agency that became known as the go-to shop to find missing kids.

Mr. Mazzilli developed an interest in runaways while running a pimp squad for the New York Police Department. Now he handles about one case a month on a pro-bono basis, returning kids to their families.

He also does a little showbiz. He had a series on Court TV called “Under Fire” with Joe Pistone, the FBI agent whose life undercover with the Mafia was the basis for the film “Donnie Brasco.”

Mr. Mazzilli was pitching another show to Court TV when it occurred to him that his work with runaways might make a good series. But the network passed as it was turning into TruTV, he said.

He brought the idea to A&E, which put him together with Granada Television, which made the pilot.

Having the series on the air will help his work, he said.

“We can spotlight the children, maybe get a little more attention on them, because these kids are forgotten,” said Mr. Mazzilli, who has other TV and movie deals in the works.

In the pilot, airing Dec. 22, Mr. Mazzilli and his staff search for and find a young woman who fell in with a gang.

“The show focuses on one story, where he’s going after a young woman who has run away from her family, and you really see the story from all sides,” Mr. Sharenow said. “You see it from him dealing with the emotional toll it takes on the family—who have no idea where the girl is—but you’re also with Joe and his team as they track down leads.

“Joe’s a fantastic character also. He’s really passionate and driven to find these kids. This is clearly an area he care very deeply about,” he said.

After the show airs, ratings won’t be a big factor in whether more episodes of the show get made, Mr. Sharenow said.

“We evaluate shows on a lot of different criteria based on what our needs are for the coming year and how it fits,” he said. “But this is definitely a contender.”

He adds that A&E wouldn’t air the show if it didn’t think it would attract solid ratings.

“We don’t ever want to have something on our air that we’re not proud of creatively or we don’t think will perform. So there is an expectation that an audience will come to this.”

The audience will have to arrive without much in the way of a promotional campaign. Mr. Mazzilli’s wife is sending e-mails to friends urging them to see the show.

Mr. Sharenow said there’s no set time frame on making a pickup decision.

“We’re in a very good position right now that we’re doing well,” he said. “There are times when networks are rushing to judgment and need to fast-track stuff. Luckily we are having such success that we can really take the time to carefully weigh and measure each choice we make.”

A&E’s returning nonfiction shows include “Intervention” and “Paranormal State,” which start new seasons this month. Also returning are “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “First 48,” “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” and “Crime 360.”

New series due to air include “Manhunters,” which tracks the fugitive task force of the U.S. Marshal’s service, and “The Exterminators,” which focuses on an extermination company in Louisiana. The lead in that show, Billy Bretherton, is the Steve Irwin of exterminators, Mr. Sharenow said. Billy cares about animals very deeply; whenever possible, he catches and releases the pests he’s after.

A&E also has gotten back into scripted drama. Upcoming is the FBI drama “The Beast” starring Patrick Swayze, which follows on the Benjamin Bratt show “The Cleaner.” The latter was renewed for a second season.

Mr. Mazzilli’s show has much in common with Mr. Bratt’s, which focuses on a squad that intervenes to help people struggling with addictions.

“It’s absolutely got a kinship with that show and with what we’re doing in the drama space,” Mr. Sharenow said. “We definitely think of Joe as a big character, it’s very gritty and real, and at its core it’s about human drama and there is real powerful raw emotion in the show at the level of a scripted drama.”