Dog the Bounty Hunter. Growing Up Gotti. Hey, what happened to Biography? It's still there on the A&E schedule, but you do have to look a little harder. In one of cable's most dramatic reversals, the once-flagging Arts & Entertainment Network has bounced back in the ratings with a slate of nonscripted programs that speak to a new generation of viewers.
Of course, success can come at a price. At a network long known for signature series like Biography, some advertisers suggest A&E could be forfeiting its upscale reputation. That's just fine with A&E's top executive, Abbe Raven.
"If I'm criticized for not running five nights of ballet or opera a week, I'll take it," says Raven, who last month was promoted to president/CEO of A&E Television Networks, following the resignation of Nickolas Davatzes. "People today aren't watching that on TV," Raven says.
What they are watching is the nonscripted fare A&E has added to its schedule over the past year, which also includes Airline, The First 48 and Family Plots. For 2004, A&E's ratings rose 34 percent among adults 18-49, and 76 percent among adults 18-34.
Along with its push into nonscripted, A&E last year snagged 24 Emmy nominations—more than any other ad-supported cable net. What's more, the net has acquired a handful of critically acclaimed off-network programs, including 24, CSI: Miami and, most notably, The Sopranos.
But at the heart of A&E's turnaround is its nonscripted strategy. "When we set out to transform A&E, we went after nonscripted programs because we knew it would resonate with younger audiences," Raven says. "We knew we could execute it quickly and, from a production standpoint, we knew we could roll out with it continually."
To that end, A&E recently launched the docu-soap Intervention, which takes a hard look at the effects of various substance and behavioral addictions. Since its March 6 premiere, Intervention has averaged 1.3 million viewers.
For Robert DiBitetto, A&E's executive vp of programming, the series is "the perfect example" of A&E's programming strategy. "We're showcasing real problems of real people, and the way those problems have consumed them and their families," he says.
Drug addicts, ex-cons turned bounty hunters, Mafia heiresses—it all sounds like something from a Law & Order episode. As it happens, A&E's turnaround began after it lost cable rights to that long-running procedural drama in 2003. Prior its move to TNT, the series had provided much of A&E's ratings strength.
With a strategy that has reversed A&E's ratings slide, Raven and DiBitetto seem well aware that they may have taken the network downscale. "If you were to do, say, behind the scenes at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], it just wouldn't work," DiBitetto says. "It may be one of the greatest museums in the world, but I guarantee you, it's a 65-year-old audience—and regrettably so. If we could do those programs and attract an 18-49 audience, we would. But the unfortunate reality is that it's not the kind of thing viewers are looking for."
While A&E has changed direction, NBC Universal's Bravo also has switched from arts programming to more commercial fare. Even the Discovery Channel has moved away from documentary programming and toward a more entertainment-oriented format. These shifts have rattled some advertisers. "I think it's created a void in the marketplace," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vp/director at Starcom Entertainment. "For the financial categories, high-end cars and other luxury brands that want to advertise on TV, where do they go now?"
But as viewership continues to fragment, DiBitetto says, the new tack was essential. "It's hard to turn a fully distributed network around, and you can't do it by keeping one foot in either world," he says. "You can't do this 50 percent. Once you decide on a new direction, it has to become a new religion to you. We couldn't have done this if we had inched our way into it."
DiBitetto acknowledges that there is always the danger of becoming too downscale. "If I do anything, I'm in the portfolio management business," he says. "What we're looking for is a great diversity of voices. Some programs might skew more common denominator, while others are more upscale."
The key is in finding the right balance. "TV has become a bloodbath," DiBitetto adds. "It's unbelievable how the viewing patterns of young adults have changed. And you have to offer programming that ensures those demographics. But you can't take your eye off the brand."
If any show can help burnish A&E's brand, it may be The Sopranos, for which the net paid a hefty $2.5 million per episode. "It's a perfect match for us," Raven says. "It has been the jewel in the crown for HBO, and yet it hasn't been seen by almost 67 percent of the country." Because of that, Raven says, she looks at the series virtually as original programming. "This is not like other off-network programming," she says. "It's a new vehicle for us and for viewers and for advertisers."
But the program's often-graphic portrayals of sex and violence could make some advertisers skittish. "We will look at issues of nudity and violence, and we will look at it in terms of what works in the current TV environment," Raven says. "But we're looking at trying to keep as much content and integrity and scripting as possible. We want to stay true to the show's essence. We wouldn't have bought it if we felt we couldn't stay true to it."
The series becomes available to A&E beginning in 2007. Raven says the net "has the luxury of time" to edit the series. She says it's too early to predict where the series may end up on the schedule, but adds she is looking to program it in "a vertical nature, putting multiple episodes together for a Sopranos night."
Both Raven and DiBitetto note that the network is poised to move to a more vertical model overall. Traditionally, cable nets have acquired off-network dramas and comedies, stripping them five nights a week. But as A&E has acquired and produced more programming, DiBitetto says, it has done so with an eye toward pairing shows to create vertical programming blocks that "promote more audience retention and higher ratings."
The network already has begun to implement that strategy by scheduling much of its new nonscripted fare on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. Starting April 5, season two of Dog the Bounty Hunter pairs up with the new Team Knievel, about the exploits of Evel Knievel's daredevil son Robbie.
A&E is still working out some scheduling kinks. The critically acclaimed British spy series MI-5 airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. An edge-of-your-seat thriller set in the U.K. intelligence agency of the same name, the show is perhaps best compared to 24—without the real-time element. For its third season, which ended last month, the show averaged only 725,000 viewers.
Raven is committed to the show's Saturday night berth. "We looked at the competition and felt Saturday was really a place that was underserved in terms of drama," she says. "One of the things I like about MI-5 on the weekend is that it's not necessarily competing with a lot of broadcast dramas."
A co-production with the BBC, MI-5 has been renewed for a fourth season, scheduled for next year. It is A&E's only venture into scripted series, but DiBitetto hopes to change that. "The issue for us has always been about timing," he says. "My feeling is that a year ago, we didn't have the promotional platform strength that gave us the comfort to do that."
With 24, CSI: Miami and The Sopranos joining the A&E lineup over the next two years, DiBitetto says it's time for scripted. "We're looking at '07 as the first opportunity to include in our portfolio a great and interesting original series," he says.
Until then, both Raven and DiBitetto are confident the network's ratings will continue to rise on the strength of the nonscripted strategy. "The audience growth we've experienced is an indication that we're doing something right," Raven says. "We're here to serve our audience, and they're responding. That is every programmer's dream."
A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor covering television programming for Mediaweek.