A&E Revives Original Dramas

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

A&E is looking to get back into the original scripted drama business and has hired a search firm to find a West Coast executive to head its development efforts.

The return to original dramas marks the third step in a three-part programming strategy designed by A&E’s relatively new programming regime. The network already has incorporated docudramas such as “Growing Up Gotti” into its schedule and acquired pricey off-network dramas “CSI: Miami” and “The Sopranos,” which are expected to join the regular lineup in fall 2006 (“CSI: Miami” already has a limited run on A&E). Executives credit the shifts so far with dramatically lowering the median age of the A&E viewer.

Those new demographics have begun to pay off with a new group of advertisers taking part in A&E’s upfront, network executives said.

Bob DeBitetto, executive VP and general manager of A&E, confirmed that the network hired Borden Media Consulting last month to find a development executive. He said he hopes to have that executive in place by year end, but added that the search will take “as long as it takes to find the right person.”

“Scripted programming is something A&E has done in the past,” Mr. DeBitetto said. “With the great investments in off-net programming that we’ve made, it is one of the obvious next steps.”

Although A&E paid a record $2.5 million per episode for “The Sopranos” he expects to be able to invest in drama development. “It makes no sense to go into a highly competitive and difficult segment of the business and not have the resources to do it,” he said. But he added, “We’re going to be targeted about it,” possibly with a night for original shows.

The idea is to first re-establish A&E as a destination for drama series with the off-net acquisitions, then use that beachhead to promote the new originals. An original drama wouldn’t be on the air until summer 2007 at the earliest.

“We certainly want to introduce, launch and nurture both ‘CSI’ and ‘Sopranos’ for a period of time,” Mr. DeBitetto said.

The timing will also depend on how well development goes. “It will be a tough challenge. But I know there is a lot of interest in the prospect of an original A&E scripted program in the client community,” he said.

When Mr. DeBitetto joined A&E in 2003 as head of programming, the venerable network was on a downswing. It had a median age of 61, its only ratings success was “Cold Case Files” and no new shows were in development. New management, led by general manager Abbe Raven and Mr. DeBitetto, devised a plan to attract younger viewers to the network.

Last month, the network became a “40-something” network, Mr. DeBitetto said. A&E’s median age for July was 49, down from 61 two years ago, the biggest drop among the top 20 cable networks, according Nielsen Media Research. The network is poised to average 47 in August, a record low for the network. At the same time, the network has had year-over-year growth in prime-time delivery of 18- to 49-year-old viewers for 23 months in a row.

“It was so important to us to begin to reduce the median age of our viewer and to improve the ratings and delivery among the more desirable and saleable demographics so we could better monetize our business,” Mr. DeBitetto said.

Step one of the strategy was to create nonfiction reality programming. Nonfiction was selected because those programs resonate with younger viewers and because they are less of a financial gamble, he said. Compared with a high-quality drama, which can cost $1.5 million to $2 million per hour to produce, reality shows can cost as little as $200,000 for a half-hour or $400,000 to $500,000 for an hour.

Shows such as “Gotti” and A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter” created some buzz for the sleepy network and attracted younger viewers as planned.

“We were willing to accept a certain reduction in households. But that didn’t really happen,” Mr. DeBitetto said.

Part two of the strategy was “to go the marketplace aggressively in 2003 and 2004 and look for two or three of what we hoped would be the best franchises that we could possibly get our hands on to build a foundation,” Mr. DeBitetto said. “‘CSI: Miami’ and ‘Sopranos’ were the shows we targeted and the shows we got.” The network also got the Fox drama “24.”

Since fall 2004 A&E has been able to run “CSI: Miami” only outside of prime time, but it is already the network’s second-highest-rated show some weeks. “CSI” and “Sopranos” will be fully available to the network in fall 2006.

The network ran a marathon of “24” over the Labor Day weekend. It racked up an average of 940,000 viewers over the course of the marathon and an average 1.3 million in prime time. “24” will get a prime-time slot in January, when a new season of the show starts on Fox.

Phase three is original programming. The network will likely move toward a vertical schedule, with different programs and themes each night of the week: originals here, serialized dramas there. “CSI” might be an exception and get stripped because the “CSI” franchise has proved so strong.

A&E’s move into reality has prompted some critics to say the network has discarded its gold-standard image for high-class cable programming. It’s a concern Mr. DeBitetto acknowledged.

“Because we are aware of the somewhat pejorative nature of the category, one of the things we have tried to do is make sure that our point of view on reality is very character-centric and story telling centric,” he said.

A&E has stayed away from overly contrived situations, elimination shows and what he called “lowest common denominator” shows, such as “Fear Factor.”

“I don’t want to take anything away from it, but that’s going too far for A&E,” he said.

While some ad buyers who bought the old A&E are also carping, the new, younger-skewing shows are attracting new clients in new categories.

“Roughly one-third of the clients who participated in our upfront were new clients. That’s extraordinary for a 20-year-old network,” Mr. DeBitetto said. “Youth-oriented clients are dipping their toe in the waters. That was very gratifying to me, that the creative and programming strategy is starting to result in sales.”

A&E’s ad revenues dropped from 2000 to 2003, according to estimates from Kagan Research. Kagan projects that the network’s ad revenue will rise 5 percent to $284.8 million this year and increase by about 9 percent each of the next two years.

Mr. DeBitetto said the network still wants its brand to stand for qualities such as integrity, honesty and excellence. Those qualities will be bolstered by the off-network acquisitions it made.

“‘The Sopranos’ and ’24’ are the two most upscale shows in television,” he said. “It’s a partial answer to those who ask, ‘Does this so-called middlebrow programming fit well with the brand?'”

Naturally, original shows will be developed to appeal to the viewers who come to A&E for the acquired hits.

“There needs to be a compatibility between those audiences and the original shows we’re going to be developing,” he said. Like the unscripted shows, A&E scripted shows will focus on compelling characters. “We are trying to create emotional and personal relationships between our viewers and our characters. And people do get emotional with ‘Criss Angel Mindfreak,’ ‘Dog’ and ‘Intervention.'”

Over the course of its history, original shows on A&E have included “100 Centre Street,” “Nero Wolfe” and “Hollywood Detectives.” The network also co-produces “MI-5” with the BBC.

USA Network earlier this year rebranded, using the tag line “Characters welcome.” But Mr. DeBitetto said USA can’t own characters any more than TNT can own drama.

“But I do applaud those networks,” he said. “I think what FX has done is remarkable in scripted drama. TNT has been successful. USA has their own voice. And we’ll look for our own approach.”

But even when A&E has an original drama on the air, the network will continue to produce its own kind of reality series.

“We’re not looking to move a
way from it or get beyond it. It’s successful,” he said. “We have a true hit on the network [with ‘Gotti’], at least one, and it’s successful and it’s always going to be a part of our strategy.”