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When Alpha Repertory Television Services merged with the Entertainment Channel to launch Arts & Entertainment (A&E) in 1984, it was anything but a high-flying corporate juggernaut.
“We were one floor of a building, all within earshot of each other, and we used a small studio on the other side of town,” recalls Abbe Raven, who was an assistant to the head of production at the time. “It was very entrepreneurial and it felt very much like we were breaking new ground in the business. On a given day, you could be working on new shows and at the same time doing presentations for affiliates or advertisers.”
Twenty-five years later, Raven has risen from assistant to CEO, and the company — a joint venture of the Hearst Corp., Disney-ABC Television Group and NBC Universal now known as A&E Television Networks — is a global media behemoth with 38 channels in 140 countries around the world, reaching 240 million TV households, and providing a wealth of original programming, from edgy reality shows such as History’s “Ice Road Truckers,” A&E’s “Paranormal State” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter” to the scripted hourlong dramas “The Cleaner” and “The Beast.” It also markets a multitude of consumer products, such as books and DVDs.
But Raven hasn’t allowed that to get between her and the people who watch her shows. Every morning on her train ride to the company’s Manhattan offices, she conducts informal market research sessions with her fellow passengers.
“I’m not shy,” says Raven, who was named CEO in April 2005, after being elevated from executive vp and GM to president the previous year. “If someone is reading something entertainment-related in the paper or on their laptop or BlackBerry, I’ll ask them how they heard about it and (ask if they watched) it. I never tell anyone I’m the CEO.”
Usually, the resulting conversations just scrape the surface of likes and dislikes, but sometimes they go deeper, like when a seatmate told her how the A&E series “Intervention” had inspired him to urge a family member to seek treatment for an addiction.
Six years ago, AETN was in need of its own form of intervention. A&E’s flagship show “Biography,” which was running twice daily, had been milking the same formula since 1987. Its sister network History Channel (now known simply as History) relied so heavily on traditional documentary takes on World War II that it was mockingly referred to as “The Hitler Channel.” The upshot was that ratings were falling, while the age of the average A&E viewer had risen to 61.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in the abstract,” says Robert DeBitetto, president and GM of A&E Network and Bio Channel, “but when you’re a commercial-supported network and you make or don’t make your money by selling advertising, it’s a problem. The two key demographics we target are adults 18-39 and adults 25-54. To say that A&E became challenged from an ad revenue point of view is an understatement.”
As DeBitetto describes it, the company didn’t need an evolution, it needed a revolution, with less PBS stodginess and more MTV attitude. And that’s what it got.
“We needed to very politely show some of our older viewers the door, and we couldn’t do it in baby steps and we couldn’t try to have it both ways,” says DeBitetto, who was hired in 2003 to help facilitate the makeover.
With the support of longtime CEO Nick Davatzes, DeBitetto and Raven spent the balance of 2003 plotting a youth makeover and building the team and the programming to pull it off. In January 2004, they took their new strategy to the public with the premiere of “Airline,” an American take on the hit British reality series of the same name, following the daily travails of Southwest Airlines employees at Los Angeles International and Chicago’s Midway airports.
“Overnight, the median age for that day on the schedule dropped by over a decade,” DeBitetto says. “I thought, ‘Wow, the patient has a pulse. We can do this.’ To quote Kevin Costner, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ “
In summer 2004, A&E fired a double-barreled blast into the face of older viewers with two new shows, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “Growing Up Gotti.” The former followed the exploits of Duane “Dog” Chapman, a buffed-out skiptracer with a cascading bleach blond mullet; the latter explored the lives of mobster’s daughter Victoria Gotti and her three spoiled sons. They were two of the biggest hits the network had ever seen, and in short order A&E greenlit a slew of other youth-skewing reality shows, including “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” “Inked,” “King of Cars” and “Criss Angel Mindfreak.” History followed suit with such series as “Mega Disasters,” “UFO Files” and “Conspiracy?”
“Within the course of two seasons, we had dropped our median age 15 years and bumped our ratings by double digits,” says Mel Berning, who joined AETN as head of ad sales in early 2004. “We went from selling a heavy roster of packaged goods and pharmaceuticals and other adult-oriented products, to 18-49 products like movies, fast food restaurants and beverages.”
The large dose of hip reality was part of a three-pronged strategy that also included aggressively pursuing the off-network syndication rights to high-profile shows, which led to the acquisition of “24,”
“CSI: Miami,” “Cold Case Files” and “The Sopranos.” The latter brought a record 4.3 million viewers to A&E when it debuted in January 2007.
The third prong in the makeover strategy was ramping up efforts to create original high-profile scripted series for A&E that could compete with offerings on USA Network and FX.
“There’s a huge branding opportunity with the scripted drama,” Berning says. “It brings in a top tier of advertisers who are willing to pay more to reach that viewer they love — a little more upscale, engaged. And where they go, the rest of the marketplace follows.”
In July 2008, A&E launched “The Cleaner,” a procedural about a recovering drug addict (Benjamin Bratt) who leads a team of “extreme interventionists” dedicated to saving people from their addictions by any means necessary. In January, it followed with “The Beast,” an edgy drama about a rule-bending FBI agent (Patrick Swayze) unaware that his new partner (Travis Fimmel) is conducting an undercover internal affairs investigation.
“The Cleaner” became the top-rated original drama in A&E history, averaging 4.2 million viewers a week over the course of its first season. More importantly, it attracted 2.4 million adults
25-54 and 2.2 million adults 18-49, roughly doubling the numbers scored in those demos by the network’s two previous two dramatic series, “100 Center Street,” starring Alan Arkin, and “A Nero Wolfe Mystery,” starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin, both of which lasted a mere two seasons (2001-02). “The Beast” fared less well. Although critically well received, it was dogged by low ratings (averaging 1.3 million viewers a week) and concerns about the health of Swayze, who is battling pancreatic cancer.
“If you’re a baseball fan, maybe it’s a double,” DeBitetto says of “The Beast,” “and we’re used to triples around here. But it’s a quality show and the advertisers have really embraced it. Overall, our first two shows, we’re very pleased with where they are, but we’re very aggressively moving forward.”
This means “The Cleaner” will return in the summer for a second season, backed by a big promotional push, while “The Beast” will likely not come back. In addition, A&E has a dozen scripted projects in development, including “The Cooler Kings” from Jerry Bruckheimer Prods.; “The Quickening,” created by actress-turned-writer Jennifer Salt (“Nip/Tuck”); and the period police drama “The Lead Sheet,” created by James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”).
The most ambitious programming initiative is coming not from A&E, but its sister network History, which will be launching “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone” in June, a series produced by reality powerhouse Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) following four people as they retrace the route traveled by Henry Morton Stanley in his 1872 trek in search of missing missionary Dr. David Livingstone.
“This is not a fish-out-of-water show, where we take four civilians and plop them in the middle of Alaska to see if they can get out alive,” says Nancy Dubuc, who transitioned from head of development at A&E to executive vp and GM of History in 2007. “These are real survivalists who know what they’re doing and you have something to teach viewers.”
According to Dubuc, “Expedition” is the most expensive show History has ever produced, though she declines to name a specific figure. If the ratings prove to be solid, they plan to turn it into a franchise.
“There are some great stories,” Burnett says. “I’d like to do Marco Polo and Genghis Khan or cross the Alps using elephants, Hannibal-style.”
Dubuc’s instincts have been on the money in the past. As head of development for A&E, she helped turn the network around with such shows as “Dog” and “Gotti.” Since taking the helm of History in 2007, she’s launched all of the channel’s all-time top 10 shows, including “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men” and “MonsterQuest,” while simultaneously increasing viewership in the valued 18-49 demographic by 43%. But she’s humble.
” ‘Ice Road Truckers’ was a highly rated installment of ‘Modern Marvels,’ so I don’t take the genius award for that one,” Dubuc says. “Anyone in my shoes would’ve started pulling ratings and looking at topics that had started popping to the top.”
Throughout its history, AETN has been adept at the art of the spinoff. In 1995, it launched History Channel, which in turn spawned Military History (in March 2005), along with History International and History en Espanol. In 1999, the A&E series “Biography” begat the Biography Channel (now known simply as Bio), which has recently upped its hip quotient with such new shows as “The Chris Isaak Hour” and the William Shatner-hosted talker “Shatner’s Raw Nerve.” In January 2005, it spun-off its successful A&E justice programming (“Cold Case Files,” “The First 48”) into a standalone channel, the Crime and Investigation Network.
The company has been successful at selling its various brands internationally, either by entering into joint ventures with such networks as British Sky Broadcasting in the U.K. and Super Network in Japan, or licensing blocks of programming. It’s also expanding its online presence through the AETN family of Web sites (History.com, Biography.com, etc.), which are being expanded and refined.
It might not inspire the hyperbolic headlines accorded the latest trends in Twitter feeds, but Raven says the impact is significant.
“We influence 300 million people across the globe every quarter,” Raven says. “That’s 71% bigger than Facebook, double the number of videos on YouTube or the top-grossing film last year. We’re very proud of that reach and we think in the next few years we can continue to grow that.”
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