A Dose Of Reality

It’s an overcast friday morning in late March and Bob DeBitetto is tucking into a plate of eggs at his local diner while all around him, the lower end of his target demo happily contributes to the ambient noise of parenting and breakfast consumption. In his capacity as executive vp, programming and general manager of A&E Networks, DeBitetto has courted the clientele of this Tribeca eatery for better than three years, showing the door to the blue-haired biddies of the Murder, She Wrote set in order to make room for a younger and—sorry, Gramps—more relevant audience.

Not that DeBitetto would characterize A&E’s ongoing brand evolution with anywhere near the kind of dyspeptic candor that’s evidenced above; it’s just that, as so many of the youngish Manhattanites in the diner seem to be accompanied by children, the room soon begins to reverberate with what sounds like the wails of the damned. DeBitetto hardly seems to notice, alternately dispatching his eggs and laying out what he characterizes as the next big step in A&E’s ongoing evolution.

“The Sopranos speaks so eloquently to what A&E is all about,” DeBitetto says. “That show will be the most eloquent expression of what our brand stands for.” The noise dies down a bit, as one of the room’s more vocal toddlers is trundled out the door. DeBitetto takes a quick glance around the diner and registers the return to relative quietude. “That wasn’t so bad,” he says. “But I’m used to noise.”

Noise is something that A&E has generated and, in some respects, has had to weather since the network turned its back on the upper reaches of the 25-54 demo and plunged into the shallows of unscripted programming, replacing its Agatha Christies and Angela Lansburys with a succession of mooks, bounty hunters and roller-derby queens. And while the shift elicited a fair amount of handwringing among purists, you can’t argue with how A&E has delivered. In the summer of 2003, the network’s median age was 61, and as DeBitetto says, the graying showed no signs of abating.

“Our average age was going up by one year every year, and there’s obviously an endgame there if you don’t do something—and I mean that literally,” DeBitetto says. “I’m not going to pull any punches—we were dying.”

By September 2005, the median age had plummeted to 46, a network record. A&E Television Networks president and CEO Abbe Raven says the network had 31 percent growth in its 18-49 demo delivery from 2003 through the end of last year and has seen growth of between 30 percent and 40 percent in the 25-54 category. And while the success of unscripted fare like Dog the Bounty Hunter has given the network a nice sugar rush, Raven says there’s more to her long-term strategy than simply cutting the writer out of the budget.

“We’re not programming in a vacuum here,” Raven says. “We’re very happy with how our real-life programming has performed for us, but there’s more to the overall network strategy than that.”

While Raven had promised a return to scripted dramas as a counterweight to A&E’s reality fare, it wasn’t until recently that the network appeared ready to pull the trigger on that sort of development. In March, the network named former WB programming exec Tana Nugent Jamieson to head up its scripted programming initiative.

DeBitetto and Raven began their move back into scripted by flexing the A&E checkbook. First, they picked up off-net rights to hits like Fox’s 24 and CBS’ CSI: Miami, capping the spending spree with the acquisition of The Sopranos, which they picked up from HBO for the record sum of $2.5 million an episode, or around $200 million overall.

Both CSI: Miami, which launches on A&E this fall, and The Sopranos, premiering in January 2007, will serve as launching pads for the net’s move back into drama, Raven says. “We’d been a leader with original dramas many years ago, but we haven’t done it in some time,” she says. “Now we’re ready to go back to that genre and make it a critical part of our network.”

While Raven won’t offer any details about projects A&E is mulling over, she suggests that the new fare will echo some themes common to CSI: Miami and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Crime pays, as it were.

A&E also will continue creating original movies, Raven adds. Earlier this year, the network’s feature-length Flight 93 delivered the largest audience in network history, serving up 5.9 million total viewers for its Feb. 2 premiere and 2.7 million adults 18-49. With encore presentations, some 15 million viewers tuned in.

A&E has one film on tap for 2006: Touch the Top of the World, based on the true story of a blind man who climbed Mount Everest. It premieres in June.

The net also faces some unfamiliar territory, looking to round off its menu with at least one half-hour comedy series. Raven says two pilots are in development: Guy Walks Into a Bar and I Never Said That (both working titles). The two projects lean toward “a real-life approach to comedy,” Raven adds.

“Funny is hard,” Raven points out when asked about the likelihood of one of the pilots making it to series by 2007. “It’s important to have a sense of humor in this business, but comedy is not a simple proposition.” But as A&E begins growing its dramatic slate, all genres will remain up for consideration. “It’s always about building blocks,” Raven says. “You don’t just settle on a course and say, ‘Well, that’s it.’ You have to continue to keep building and growing while remaining faithful to the brand.”

Some wonder what exactly the A&E brand represents now that the network has jettisoned its older audience. An executive at a rival channel characterizes A&E as “cable’s very own trailer park”—a reference to the net’s overabundance of reality fare. But Raven insists the network “still stands for intelligence and sophistication…We just took those same qualities and refreshed them for a younger audience.”

By doing so, A&E execs were well aware that the net would shed some total viewers in exchange for a transfusion of young blood. In February, the network dropped 7 percent in total viewers during prime time but grew its 18-49 audience by 11 percent year over year. According to Nielsen Media Research, in total day, A&E was off 4 percent in total viewers for all of 2005 but grew its 18-49 target by 12 percent over 2004. In prime, total viewers dropped 6 percent year over year, but again, 18-49 was up 12 percent.

Ad dollars have followed the younger crowd. In 2002, when A&E was playing 52 pick-up with its executive deck and its core 25-54 demo dropped 15 percent on the year, the network’s ad revenue plummeted to around $290 million, down from $363 million just two years before, according to Kagan Media Research estimates. Raven and DeBitetto’s strategy didn’t click with buyers immediately—in 2003 and 2004, gross ad revenues were still off from the go-go 2000 numbers, when the marketplace was relatively flush. But by last year, A&E racked up some $335 million in ad revenue, Kagan says, projecting revenues of about $364 million in 2006.

And while the quest for eternal youth has alienated a number of premium sponsors, A&E has made up for that with volume, says Mel Berning, executive vp, ad sales for AETN. “We have picked up a whole chunk of new advertisers in a number of new categories,” Berning says. “If we lost a luxury auto or two, we more than made up for it with mid-priced models.”

In last year’s upfront, A&E offered some of its ad partners CPM decreases, according to a number of media buyers. Speaking about NBC’s likely downward adjustment of its own rate card, DeBitetto says, “We know the feeling.” (NBC Universal owns 25 percent of AETN; Hearst Corp. and the Walt Disney Co. split the difference, owning 37.5 percent apiece.)

Berning says there was no radical defection after A&E began fishing in younger waters, adding that “the categories that tend to skew older are still in the main doing business with us. We’re probably doing a little less business as a percentage of our total business in pharmaceutical and packaged goods, but we can make up for that on the other end.” Berning reports that the resurgent fast-food category has yielded “about a half-dozen new sponsors” for A&E over the last year, adding that any retailers who had defected a few years ago “are right back with us.”

For Berning, the ace up his sleeve going into this year’s upfront is The Sopranos. First, the show averages out at about 52 minutes per episode, well over the network average of 44 minutes. While A&E will have a daunting editing job on its hands in order to cater to concerned advertisers, DeBitetto anticipates that each episode will have no more than about a minute of content shaved off. (For more on A&E’s editing strategy, see story on page 44.) That translates to an inventory increase of about 20 percent, DeBitetto says, adding that when that’s factored in, A&E paid for The Sopranos “just about exactly what our competitors [USA Network] paid for CSI: New York.”

Berning expects a rush of advertisers: “There are about 50 million households in our universe that haven’t had The Sopranos available to them, so advertisers are looking at this as a magnificent opportunity.”

The packaging of the mob drama should prove to be a uniquely attractive environment as well, Berning says. In order to create a theatrical experience, A&E will program two episodes of The Sopranos at 9 p.m., following a lead-in from CSI: Miami at 8. With ad pods, the night will run until 11:30, suggesting that a two-and-a-half-hour Sopranos block will carry almost a full hour of ads and on-air promos. (DeBitetto says that, while not set in stone, Wednesday “will almost surely be our Sopranos premiere night.”)

If A&E’s $200 million investment seems poised to reap big dividends for the network, there is some concern that the series is beginning to show signs of wear. Four weeks into its sixth season, HBO’s big earner has been knocked around a bit in terms of viewership. Season to date, The Sopranos is averaging 9.09 million viewers, with a 4.2 rating/10 share among adults 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s a drop of 1.38 million total viewers when compared to the first four episodes of season five, and it represents a decrease of nearly a quarter of adults 18-49. What’s more, the audience is deteriorating like so many Uncle Juniors, falling from 9.46 million total viewers for the March 12 season premiere to 8.83 million for the April 2 episode.

Stopping short of issuing a “fugheddaboutit,” DeBitetto dismisses the notion that A&E has a potential bust on its hands. “It’s a different TV world we live in today compared to when season five premiered,” he says. Given HBO’s progressive video-on-demand philosophy––the premium net’s VOD service is now available in about 10 million of HBO’s 29 million homes––it does seem premature to suggest that The Sopranos is sleeping with the fishes.

Besides, DeBitetto says, given the show’s excruciating two-year hiatus, The Sopranos is actually performing better than anyone could expect. “I don’t know any shows that could withstand that kind of attenuation,” DeBitetto says. “It’s the No. 1 show on television, end of story.”

Actually, it’s only the beginning of the story. During last year’s upfront, Raven told her ad partners that The Sopranos would herald a new era, with A&E breaking into the exclusive company of ad-supported cable’s top five networks. (In the first quarter of 2006, A&E ranked 18th in terms of total prime-time viewers, behind a number of other networks that have had their own experiences with the vagaries of buzz: Discovery Channel, Spike TV and Sci Fi Channel.)

“I don’t anticipate them being able to scramble up the ladder that quickly,” confides one media buyer. “Nor do I think they really want to embrace any quick growth scheme. They’re doing a good job with building that younger demo and getting their new brand out there.”

Besides, as has been the case with other networks that have experienced a sudden upward jolt in ratings, buzz or any other metric one may want to quantify, these sorts of meteoric increases—like a sugar buzz—are impossible to sustain.

“The flipside to success is you are under tremendous pressure to top yourself,” says A&E senior vp of nonfiction and alternative programming Nancy Dubuc. “There are worse scenarios to be in.”

As much as the net is priming the pump on its return to scripted drama, much of what it has to sell in the marketplace will consist of reality programming.

Dubuc has a battery of new unscripted shows locked and loaded for 2006-’07. While those who lament the lack of emphasis on the “arts” component of the A&E brand aren’t exactly going to turn cartwheels, the series in development seem to be considerably more sophisticated than, say, Growing Up Gotti.

“We understand that younger audiences aren’t afraid of emotions,” says Raven, adding that the unscripted series the net has in development hinge on strong relationships between families, friends, co-workers and, in one instance, a company of U.S. Marines.

Among the clips Dubuc previewed for Mediaweek at A&E’s midtown Manhattan screening room were The Beach, a look at lifeguards on the job—and on the prowl—in Huntington Beach, Calif.; Driving Force, a series about NHRA drag-racing circuit veteran John Force and his brood of three racer daughters; Sons of Hollywood, an amusing, real-life Entourage featuring offspring-of-the-famous Randy Spelling (son of Aaron) and Sean Stewart (son of Rod).

The first new strip to debut will be Gene Simmons, a 13-episode foray into the family life of the bassist for ’70s band KISS featuring what may very well be the only charming and affable children in all of reality TV. It’s due during the second half of this summer.

And while A&E strives to keep things light, it delivers what should prove to be a real punch to the gut with Lucky Lima, a two-hour special culled from video shot by the Marines of Lima Company, the USMC unit that bears the unhappy distinction of having lost the most men in the Iraq War. It debuts sometime around Memorial Day weekend.

As much as unscripted remains A&E’s bread and butter, there’s no formula for putting together a successful series, Dubuc says. “A lot of the storylines [of unscripted shows] only begin to come together in the editing room,” she says. “But if you start off with a group of people who…actually have compelling stories to tell, then you’re less dependent on using the editor as a kind of scriptwriter.”

For the short term at least––and everything in television is short term––A&E seems to have righted the ship. Although senior vp of marketing for AETN Artie Scheff parted ways with the company in February, much of the executive turnover that marked the period between 2001 and 2003 has come to a halt. And at least one exec says he is happy with A&E’s manifest. “Advertisers gained a greater appreciation of the bond [A&E has] with viewers,” says Bruce Paisner, executive vp, Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. “And I think the power of our brands broke through the clutter.”

For now, A&E will have to wait and see how turning its back on Boomers will affect the bottom line, five years after the network dropped off the oldsters at Shady Acres.

According to demographer Ken Dychtwald, the network may have seriously underestimated the buying power of its elders. “The 40-to-60-year-old age group comprises $2.1 trillion in spending power and they are leading spenders in categories such as movie tickets, computer hardware and software, cell phones and home electronics,” Dychtwald said at a conference sponsored by the older-skewing TV Land.

“So much of marketing and media is built around the notion that we decide who we are when we’re young,” Dychtwald said.

But Boomers have shown that they are open to change, he added, pointing out that 20 percent switched religions and half changed spouses: “You think they’re not going to change toothpaste?”