A&E Boss Bob DeBitetto Talks 'Bates Motel,' 'Desperation' From Rivals and 'Breaking Bad' Jealousy (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A&E president Bob DeBitetto would be lying if he told you he wasn't bothered by the outsize media attention little-watched critics' darlings such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad receive, particularly because his shows -- critically ignored efforts from Duck Dynasty to Storage Wars -- deliver at least two times the viewership. But that all could change when his Psycho prequel Bates Motel, a scripted drama from Lost's Carlton Cuse starring Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, launches in 2013. Other provocative scripted efforts will follow as the New York-based executive, 56, continues to push the reality-heavy A&E -- under the leadership of newly promoted Nancy Dubuc -- in new directions. When he took over the network in 2003, after a stint at Turner, it was the No. 22 cable net among the 18-to-49 set; today, it is No. 6. The married DeBitetto, whose DVR houses everything from Damages to Gossip Girl to Jersey Shore, sat down with THR during a trip to Los Angeles in August to discuss the waning value of repeats, the perils of the unscripted business and his big bet on Bates Motel.
The Hollywood Reporter: What does Nancy Dubuc's promotion mean for you and A&E?
Bob DeBitetto: She has done a phenomenal job, and I think this will help us better coordinate all of the disparate divisions here and be a little bit more strategic. For me, day to day, it's pretty much status quo.
THR: You want to be 100 percent original, which is bold and pricey. Why do it?
DeBitetto: First of all, you're talking to the guy who bought The Sopranos. [A&E reportedly paid $2.5 million an episode in 2005.] But that wasn't stupid, actually. It was very calculated, and it was a big part of the reinvention of A&E.
THR: In retrospect, would you do it again?
DeBitetto: Absolutely. A&E was in revenue and ratings decline. It had a median age of about 62, and it just wasn't part of the conversation. The Sopranos was a big wake-up call to all of the relevant communities that we were going to commit serious dollars to begin a reinvention. What The Sopranos did was allow us to drive our pricing higher than it had been in recent years. Entire categories of advertisers that had long since gone away from A&E were desperate to buy ads during that show. I'm happy to report it's completely paid for at this point.
THR: Many of your competitors are still paying top dollar for repeats. Why?
DeBitetto: I really don't understand it, to be honest. And in some cases, they're spending it on shows before season one is even completed. [Examples include TNT acquiring both NCIS: Los Angeles and Hawaii Five-0 during their freshman runs.] I think it's desperation. There's concern across the top cable networks that when you're reliant in part on the performance of syndicated programs for growth, and the ones you have start to erode or in some cases fall off a cliff, you have to look around and act quickly. And since there are so few new shows that are even arguably worthy, it comes down to supply and demand. That's why we're seeing A-plus pricing for B shows.
THR: What has been the biggest challenge?
DeBitetto: Scripted. I'm really excited about where we are right now, but it's taken longer than I thought. It's very costly, and as a result we've been modest in our investment. Rather than try to do eight or 10 shows a year, we do maybe four. [A&E has ordered pilots for Michael Bay's cop drama Occult and an adaptation of the Danish crime series Those Who Kill.] And we've learned that there really isn't a lot of crossover between people who love to watch reality and people who love to watch scripted. It's an incredibly stressful time because of the volume that we're having to ramp up to supplant the disappearance of the syndicated shows and to replace some of our aging franchises.
THR: You canceled Gene Simmons Family Jewels in August. Why?
DeBitetto: We all, at some point, live and die by ratings, and the costs continued to go up. From their point of view, so much has changed, and both of their kids were out of the home now. I think they felt this is probably the graceful time to exit.
THR: What should define an A&E scripted show going forward?
DeBitetto: Bates Motel is a perfect example. It's edgy, provocative and different. We're looking largely for shows that we think will generate interest because they're not just another solid, blue-sky procedural. At this point, we're only looking at programming that has a strong serialized element.
THR: Why go straight to series with Bates?
DeBitetto: Bates Motel originally came to us as a miniseries. We loved the idea and the arena, but we felt that there was a bigger play. Then we were able to get with Carlton Cuse; he didn't write a pilot script -- he wrote multiple scripts. We were able to get a real sense of where he was going with it, so we decided we don't need to do a pilot. It's always risky to go straight to series; I can't tell you that's our model going forward.
THR: Netflix has lost the rights to stream 800 hours of A&E Networks content. Do you think more of these disputes will occur as deals expire and Netflix comes under increased pressure to shell out more for content?
DeBitetto: In a word, yes. The emergence of authentication and nonlinear distribution platforms has disrupted the traditional content-syndication model. I think we can expect some turbulence ahead as new deals grapple with issues such as the volume of hours made available, refresh rates, windowing and, in particular, exclusivity. The good news in all this is that premium, branded content remains the desired commodity; it's what all the distributors -- linear and nonlinear -- want.
THR: Cable shows like Breaking Bad get far fewer eyeballs than many of yours do but so much more attention. How does that make you feel?
DeBitetto: Not great. (Laughs.) Look, a provocative scripted show is always going to be that lightning rod with journalists and the creative community. I get that, and personally I love good drama. But at the end of the day, my job is to build a network group, make it highly successful and grow it every year. Having said that, I'm a little jealous of the attention that a show like Breaking Bad gets. I do take tremendous comfort in the knowledge that the audience for Longmire might be two times as big, and the audience for Storage Wars might be 3½ times that, but who's counting?
THR: Many cable networks that have had success in scripted are trying to get into unscripted but stumbling. Why?
DeBitetto: A lot of our competitors are trying to get into unscripted by doing one or two shows -- good luck. I'd like to tell you every one of our shows works, but that's not true. We have more than 100 projects in development at any one time on the nonfiction side. The cost structure of these makes it easier to have that robust development pipeline, and it's critical. So I'm enjoying it right now, but they're going to figure it out.
THR: What’s a project that you didn’t greenlight but in retrospect wish you had?
DeBitetto: Sometimes it’s not our choice. The business is getting more competitive. If Craig Piligian, for example, has a hot tape, we’re not going to be the only ones who want it. Sometimes, these bidding wars break out for a good show. But if we really want something we’re usually able to figure out a way to get it.
THR: By agreeing to pay more?
DeBitetto: It’s money; it’s when and where it’s going to air; it’s what kind of marketing we plan to do for it. And it’s often a matter of, is it a pilot? A few episodes? A series order? We usually can figure out a way to get it, unless someone else is willing to pay stupid money -- and in this business someone is always willing to pay stupid money.
THR: What show do you wish was yours?
DeBitetto: The Walking Dead [on AMC]. I love it because it's really a well-written serialized story about survival in the guise of this zombie horror thing, and it blew up and was provocative. I look at that and go, "Dammit." On the nonfiction front, [Bravo's] Real Housewives, and I'll tell you why: There's an element of glamour, affluence and drama, and it isn't just a show, it's a franchise. It's a brand, and year in and year out, it has remained powerful and, in its glossy package, highly salable.
THR: What is the note you most frequently give?
DeBitetto: This is boring. It sounds maybe obvious, but my biggest issue always seems to come down to pacing.
THR: How do you unwind?
DeBitetto: I studied painting with a phenomenal teacher for 15 years while living in L.A. I still dabble when I can. Very contemporary stuff -- if you saw it, you'd be afraid.
IN THE OFFICE
Simon Says: A photo of DeBitetto with A&E Television Networks CEO Abbe Raven, Paul Simon and others at January's Sundance Film Festival to premiere Simon's Graceland album doc Under African Skies, released by A&E IndieFilms. The film division also is behind such documentaries as The September Issue, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and The Tillman Story.
Tongue Expresser: One of many items from Kiss' Gene Simmons, star of A&E's now-concluded Gene Simmons Family Jewels. "I enjoy a unique and special friendship with Gene," says DeBitetto, "which is bizarre given that we're probably as different as two individuals on the planet can be."
Six-String Theory: Another Simmons gift, signed by the members of Kiss. DeBitetto used to play guitar, confessing, "I played in a lot of really bad bands in high school."
Hanging Art: An original work by an L.A. graffiti artist A&E commissioned to promote the Labor Day miniseries Coma, from Tony and Ridley Scott, hangs in his New York office.
Keeping His Lid: "One of the most difficult things I had to do when I moved from L.A. to New York in 2003 was give up my Lakers season tickets, but I'm not giving up the hat," says the N.Y. transplant -- who moved west to attend UCLA Law School and remained there for many years -- of his Magic Johnson-signed cap.