Since joining A&E Networks in 2003, Executive VP and General Manager Bob DeBitetto has overseen significant improvement for the group’s flagship A&E cable channel. In 2004 the network was honored with 24 Primetime Emmy nominations, the most ever for a basic cable network. Even more important, the network is solidly back in the top 10 in ratings among cable channels. A big part of that return to prominence has come with creating programming that appeals to women. Mr. DeBitetto spoke with TVWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about A&E’s overall success and, in particular, why women are watching the network.
TelevisionWeek: One of the A&E shows that does well with women viewers is “Intervention.” What makes “Intervention” such an appealing reality show for women?
Bob DeBitetto: First of all, we love this show. It’s one of the real passion projects of this network. What makes it work? I think it’s its honesty more than anything else. I think it’s this unfiltered honesty about what’s happening, combined with a certain amount of surprise … that the viewer is privy to or brought into a world that should seem very private. I know because we review and look at so much feedback from viewers and fans of the show. More than anything else, I think it’s this unfiltered honesty. One more thing: The show offers the path to redemption, the path to wellness. It isn’t just a raw, exploitive expose of just how low people can go. There is this silver lining, if you will, and I think that people connect to that. It provides sort of a story arc, which is always powerful.
TVWeek: Is that an idea that appeals more to the female demographic-not necessarily a happy ending, but some kind of answer to the questions?
Mr. DeBitetto: I think it’s for others to opine about that. I look at the statistics and I see what you see. … “Intervention” does skew roughly 60 percent female, so there has to be something to it. I’m not really sure why, but I will tell you this: Maybe it’s the emotionality, maybe it’s the hopefulness. Your guess is as good as mine.
TVWeek: Somebody suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that most of the “Intervention” episodes involve family dynamics. Could that be the key?
Mr. DeBitetto: Absolutely. When I think about the episodes I’ve seen, often the key emotional relationship is a mother-daughter or a father-daughter. Perhaps the overall family-in-crisis element might have something to do with making it a little more interesting to women.
TVWeek: Other shows on A&E also appeal strongly to women, including “Dog The Bounty Hunter.” What’s that about?
Mr. DeBitetto: “Dog The Bounty Hunter,” at its core, is the story of a partnership between a man and a woman. Dog is Dog; he’s become iconic. His wife, Beth Chapman, is a very key secondary character. She is his partner in every way-business partner, soul mate, you name it. And that relationship is played out without filters and without guile for all to see, and-maybe to your point before-there is a very strong family element. It’s not just about a bounty hunter who goes out and catches bad guys. There is that, an action element to the show, but there is also this very emotional family element, and I believe that’s got to have something to do with why the show has such a strong appeal to women. It’s about 55 percent female, and it’s watched by a huge number of viewers, so we know the show is connecting to men and women in a big way.
TVWeek: The crime shows on A&E also do well with female viewers-“Cold Case Files,” “The First 48,” “CSI: Miami” and “Crossing Jordan.”
Mr. DeBitetto: They all do very well, and they skew female. … Crime dramas, or great one-hour dramas that are in that genre, whether it’s a “Law & Order” show or a “CSI” or “Without a Trace,” any of those shows, I think generally speaking they do skew somewhat female. It’s just one of the truisms of our business. I think we’re experiencing that on A&E with “CSI: Miami”; not a surprise. We’re experiencing it with “Crossing Jordan,” also not a surprise. Maybe it’s a little bit more surprising-or not-that our nonfiction justice programs, like “Cold Case Files” and “The First 48,” are just huge hits with our female audiences. That’s not to say men don’t watch them, but they are among our highest-skewing shows in terms of female demographics.
TVWeek: When you’re programming, do you think about appealing to a particular demographic or aim for a universal audience? What goes into your decision making?
Mr. DeBitetto: I suspect that we approach it a little differently than what is done normally. I know from being in the business that so often in development meetings or pitch meetings or even meetings where we’re deciding what programs to pick up or how many episodes, there’s always a discussion about whether it’s a male show or a female show. We really don’t have those discussions very often at A&E. The fact of the matter is that everyone knows that my opinion is that unless a show, a concept, a conceit, a format … unless it is repellent to either sex, it’s in our wheelhouse. If I look at a show and I think, for whatever reason, “My goodness, no women will ever watch that,” or “I don’t think men will watch that,” then I’ll have an issue. Beyond that, we have a great portfolio of programming. We know that A&E is a dual channel. We’re very mindful of the fact that we’re one of the more dual networks in television, and we like it that way.
We’re not looking to be a male platform. We’re not looking to be a female platform. We’re very mindful of things that are repellent at the fringes and then we’re open to any great show idea, and we know some will have a little bit of a primary appeal to men, some to women. That’s cool.
TVWeek: What made you decide to move the “Biography” series from A&E to The Biography Channel, especially when it also appeals strongly to women?
Mr. DeBitetto: The Biography Channel does have a decidedly female skew, and we’re comfortable with that. That is reflective of its legacy or its sort of DNA, which is the “Biography” franchise, which has always had its primary appeal to women. The decision to put “Biography” there was just one part of a multiyear evolution of our brands since I got here. My intention was that A&E [would] become a top 10 network again, that we no longer be a niche network, an arts programmer. … That worked wonderfully for the network in the past. To be a competitive entertainment destination today, we needed to really refresh the brand and evolve our programming and do a lot more entertainment-oriented, hard-hitting programming, and programming that will have broader appeal. And that’s what we’ve done. That why we’ve brought in “CSI: Miami” and “The Sopranos” and, on the original programming front, efforts like “Dog The Bounty Hunter” and “Intervention” and “Gene Simmons Family Jewels.”
The “Biography” franchise just didn’t have as vital a role in transforming A&E any longer, but we knew it would have a key role in continuing to make The Biography Channel a unique destination with a unique value proposition. So we felt as A&E started to succeed-and we really have gotten where we want to go; we’re solidly a top 10 network again only looking to go even higher-we thought this was a great time to drive the differentiation between the two brands. It was also a little bit confusing when we have The Biography Channel, but the “Biography” series is on A&E. That isn’t ideal. Now it’ll be much better, because The Biography Channel will be the exclusive owner of the “Biography” franchise and should play very well into what we were talking about, which is also putting programming into better environments. The Biography Channel is a more female-skewing environment, the franchise is female-skewing; it’s a better fit on that channel.
TVWeek: What kind of programming will we see on The Biography Channel, aside from t
he “Biography” series?
Mr. DeBitetto: That’s a great question, and it’s something that we’re busy at work on as you and I speak. I think there is not only room for, but also a need, for The Biography Channel to develop some original series, signature series programming that is not “Biography.” There are some shows on the channel already that are original programming, and it’s worked well. What we’re looking to do in the next year or two is to find a couple of original franchises that reinforce the Biography brand, and that of course is people stories. There’s the line “Everybody has a story,” and that really is very powerful. I think there is an opportunity to find fascinating stories that we can tell in an interesting environment that may be a little bit more first person, if you will, than third person. “Biography” is a third-person series. I think there’s also an opportunity to do something a little bit more present. That’s something we’re working on.
TVWeek: Is A&E also getting into documentary film?
Mr. DeBitetto: A&E Indie Films is a division that we started here about a year and a half ago, and the intention behind it is to provide a showcase for some of the great independent voices that are out there on a theatrical platform. Some of the things we’re working on under the A&E Indie banner are intended to premiere as movies. They’re theatrical films, like “Murderball” and “Jesus Camp.” That’s currently in theaters and doing very well. Can and should they eventually have a window on A&E television? Absolutely. Our hope is that we’re making choices that are interesting enough or have a story to tell, possibly a controversial element, that warrants a theatrical release.
TVWeek: If the original intent of Arts & Entertainment was arts programming-concerts, music and theater-have you gone too far away from what the network was supposed to be about?
Mr. DeBitetto: That’s a fair comment. It’s a debate that we’ve had and continue to have, but the short answer is absolutely not. The truth and the facts are that since we decided that A&E should no longer be an arts programmer the network’s performance has accelerated, and it’s been one of the great success stories in the last few years, if I do say so myself. If you look at the ratings, look at the delivery of the demographics-remember, A&E is a commercial network. We have to sell advertising, and if you look at the median age, look at the delivery of adults 18 to 49, the delivery of adults 25 to 54, we have had shocking growth in the last few years.
I won’t put a value judgment on it, but the fact is that traditional arts programming-which, by the way, I love-ceased to have efficacy with an American television viewing audience. There’s a reason why MTV doesn’t air concerts. There’s a reason why Trio is no longer viable. No matter whether shows are on those brands or our brands, the audience responding to those kinds of programs has shrunk dramatically from what it was 10 years ago. In order to be competitive, we needed to chart a different course. That is the honest truth.
Listen, I struggle with this every day. How could the Who not draw ratings? How can this be?
TVWeek: Perhaps concerts and such are better suited to HBO, where there’s a smaller but more focused audience.
Mr. DeBitetto: There are definitely platforms for that. I think the emergence of new media platforms has provided a lot of alternatives to consume this great stuff that works on a different model that isn’t as challenging as a commercial-supported model. I think that’s all good.