Sabinson out at A&E as ratings decline

Aug 5, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Allen Sabinson’s exit from the top programming post at A&E Networks last week was abrupt but hardly unexpected, at least not by those Nielsen aficionados who have watched the once thriving arts network’s ratings fall during his tenure.
Mr. Sabinson, a respected figure in the production world whose resume includes tours at ABC, Miramax, Showtime and TNT, had been senior VP, programming, at A&E since early 2001. That period coincided not only with the worst TV advertising recession in memory, which forced tight spending restrictions on his program development, but with a drop in the network’s numbers overall, particularly in its target 25 to 54 demographic. The numbers tell the story:
Year to date in prime time, the network is down 15 percent in households and 13 percent in its target demographic. Year to date in total day, the network is down 13 percent in households and 10 percent in its target demographic. In just this past July the network was off 8 percent in prime-time households and 4 percent in its target demo; it was nowhere to be found in the top 10 in its target demo.
While A&E’s ratings were faltering the network’s basic-cable competitors were finding success with program formats that A&E originated, notably “Biography” and “Investigative Reports,” both of which have been essentially cloned by other networks in search of reality and documentary fare.
“You know, everybody in the world is doing a `Biography’ rip-off,” said Bill Kurtis, who for more than a decade has been the voice and face most closely associated with the A&E brand, “not that they don’t have the right to do that. And they do it very well.”
Mr. Kurtis, who recently signed a new three-year contract with A&E, is the host and executive producer of “Investigative Reports” and “Cold Case Files” and the host of “American Justice,” all of which are telecast by the network.
He took note of the hot forensic subgenre, which has resulted in ratings success for Discovery, Court TV and CBS, among others, and pointed to his own “Cold Case Files,” the A&E forensic crime series that was spun off from his “Investigative Reports.”
“We did it first,” he said of the forensic-show trend. But series with heat have always spawned imitators on competing networks, and that’s how the TV game is played, Mr. Kurtis said.
While Mr. Sabinson never found favor with the Nielsen families, he did with both the critics and the Emmy voters. But what arguably was his most praised series programming initiative was also an expensive ratings flop. “100 Centre Street,” the courtroom drama that starred Alan Arkin and brought Sidney Lumet, the quintessential New York theatrical-feature director (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict”), back to television, started strongly, fueled by positive critical notices, then fell in its second season, losing 33 percent of its households and 27 percent of its 25-to-54-year-olds. The show, which was said by insiders to have cost $1 million per episode, was canceled earlier this year after its 18-episode second-season run.
Drawing older viewers
“Nero Wolfe,” starring Timothy Hutton, has, however, bucked the A&E ratings trend in its second season. In year two, the series has improved 7 percent in households and 11 percent in the target demo. Similarly, the network’s upscale movies and miniseries, which have been Emmy magnets, are up in the ratings this year over last, averaging a 2.4 in 2002 compared with a 2.2 in 2001. However, “Wolfe,” with a median age of 61.1, and many of the movies skew old, and that’s another perceived problem for the network in this young-demo-centric TV universe.
That reputed per-episode “Centre Street” cost has to be measured against a total 2002 A&E programming budget reportedly just under $200 million, significantly less than the budgets of its major rivals. The smaller budget may be one reason competitor TNT was able to pay bigger dollars for the latest cycle of “Law & Order” reruns; the series has been a staple for years on A&E.
The ratings view of “The View,” A&E’s recent repurposing venture, also has been askew, with the ABC talk show averaging only a 0.4 household rating on the cable network.
In the wake of Mr. Sabinson’s departure from the network a search committee has been formed to find a successor and discussions about new programming content and directions are under way. In the meantime, Dan Davids, executive VP and general manager of A&E, will serve as interim head of programming.
“We certainly appreciate Allen’s many contributions,” Mr. Davids said in a statement. “We will miss Allen and wish him well in his future endeavors.” By the end of last week, Mr. Sabinson had moved out of his A&E offices in midtown Manhattan.
“I’m an admirer of Allen, and we’re good friends,” said Mr. Kurtis, who emphasized that he was speaking privately and not for the network. “I think he faced essentially what the network faces. Three things that were very difficult to overcome. One was a declining ad sales economy. Two, fragmenting audience as a result of all the other options. Three, competition.”
The network has a “strong brand,” one insider said. “Now it has to get the age down a little bit. They need to have their `Dead Zone’ or they need to have their `Shield.’ … They need to have their marquee show that crystallizes the brand.”
As the network rethinks its programming, “I would like to [see it] expand the brand of informational documentaries,” Mr. Kurtis said. “Within that niche, I would promote more and really work it. I don’t think the network should be only that, but it should use it as a core, as a building block.”
As the network looks to “broaden the image, broaden the brand, to attract younger audiences … the big challenge is, What do you do to get those?” Mr. Kurtis said, adding, “You don’t become E!, you don’t become Lifetime. You have to have your own brand. I think it is folly to throw away the older upscale audience.”