‘Biography’ Fighting for Life on A&E

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After losing half of its audience, A&E’s “Biography” is on life support.

Once a basic cable stalwart and a tentpole signature series, “Biography” has suffered a steep decline in viewership and a diminished network presence. A&E reduced the number of prime-time “Biography” airings by 45 percent this year and curbed production of new episodes. Airings at 8 p.m., its onetime perch, have been reduced by 80 percent.

The 18-year-old series is credited with inspiring shows ranging from VH1’s “Behind the Music” to E’s “True Hollywood Story” to MTV’s “BIOrhythm” and was once A&E’s top-rated program. Premiere episodes were viewed by a reliable 1.5 million viewers per show in the 1990s, sometimes reaching as many as 2 million or 3 million, depending on the subject profiled. The show was so successful it launched an A&E spinoff network in 1998-the Biography Channel.

But over the past few years, average viewership has declined about 50 percent to 676,000 (293,000 are 18 to 49) this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. About 25 percent of the audience has been lost since 2004.

By comparison, A&E’s “Cold Case Files” averages 1.5 million viewers. “Dog the Bounty Hunter” averages 1.6 million.

The current “Biography” numbers, A&E’s executive VP of Programming and General Manager Robert DeBitetto agreed, would be unacceptable for a new series.

“There are good reasons for keeping it,” Mr. DeBitetto said. “We have a real commitment to the ‘Biography’ brand; there’s a migration of viewers to Biography Channel; it has an advantage that a new show doesn’t have. Also, there are longtime blue chip [advertising] clients of A&E that love the series. It drives business disproportionate to the ratings. There’s a financial consequence to canceling it.”

Another reason for continuing the show, Mr. DeBitetto added, is foreign sales.

“We export the show all over the world,” Mr. DeBitetto said. “So we still produce a healthy commitment of episodes-last year, this year, possibly next year-because we want to be sure the brand remains strong. You can’t just recycle.”

“Biography” was loosely based on a 1960s series of the same name hosted by Mike Wallace. Over the years, the show has been farmed out to several production houses, at one point being produced by 15 separate companies grinding out a total of 125 episodes annually.

Longtime “Biography” producer Kevin Burns said the show, like many of the people profiled on imitators “True Hollywood Story” or “Behind the Music,” was ultimately done in by its own success.

“It has fallen victim to being copied, to being spun off,” Mr. Burns said. “[Executives] built too much of A&E on ‘Biography’-from the magazine, to the Biography Channel to being on six nights a week. It also exhausted most of the easy subjects. We’ve done Satan and Jesus and everybody in between. We actually just did one on Paris Hilton.”

Mr. DeBitetto attributed the show’s ratings decline to its age. He said audiences are less interested in biographical formats. Last year A&E ordered new “Biography” episodes to be faster-paced, with a more modern sensibility.

“The ebbing ratings and delivery is probably very much a reflection of the way television has changed in the past five years,” he said. “We’ve seen a rejection by younger demographics of traditional documentary formats.”

Youth-Skewing Rebrand

But the decline may also be due to changes at the network, which have brought in a different audience. A&E’s two-year rebranding effort toward more youthful nonscripted programming has made “Biography” an increasingly awkward fit for the channel. Shows like “Airline,” “Dog” and “Growing Up Gotti” have given A&E a youthful vigor and boosted ratings but perhaps at the expense of its former tentpole series.

At its upfront presentation last spring, A&E, which is co-owned by Hearst, ABC and NBC, took flack from advertisers who accused the network of downscaling its image with its new reality shows. And some critics have decried the vanishing fine arts programming.

The grumbling is mitigated by A&E’s recent ratings success. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, the channel was up 15 percent the most recent quarter, adding to its 34 percent boost in 2004 over 2003.

“A&E has dropped their median viewing age and didn’t lose viewers doing it, which is hard to pull off,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media.

The Biography Channel, which airs reruns of the series among other programming, has also grown the past two years. The channel’s viewership is up, averaging 77,000 prime-time viewers compared with 28,000 last year, an increase of 175 percent.

As A&E has changed its audience it has used Biography Channel as a showcase for its older-skewing programming. In addition to “Biography,” the channel airs cozy detective shows such as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Columbo” and “Sherlock Holmes Mysteries.”

“A&E, to their credit, has tried to not take the low road and to keep the show’s integrity. It could have become much more like ‘True Hollywood Story,'” Mr. Burns said. “Still, it kind of breaks my heart a little bit too. You want to think there’s still a place for a show that’s groundbreaking as ‘Biography.’ Now it doesn’t really have a home.”