Venerable skein reinvents itself with fresh faces

When Abbe Raven became executive vice president and general manager of A&E in fall 2002, she had a challenge on her hands with the “Biography” series that was somewhat akin to retrofitting the QE2.

Like that ocean liner, “Biography” had a regal history, filled with 16 years worth of celebrities, royalty and the occasional villain.

Skein had a history that few cable channel original shows could match: It was among the first so-called signature series — a standout program that played a key role in defining the entire channel.

The series was so popular, it had a spinoff magazine of the same name and even its own spinoff network, the Biography Channel. But the HMS Biography had definitely seen better sailing days.

The total number of hou seholds watching “Biography” episodes (excluding specials) slipped 15% in 2001 from 2000. And it dropped 17% more in 2002 according to Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen Research numbers. The situation wasn’t any better in the 25-54 demo, which was a new area of focus for Raven.

And while “Biography” pretty much had the celebrity profile series genre to itself at one time, its success helped inspire many competitors.

“When I came on board, I said, ‘This is a critical piece of our vision.’ It became my first mandate to look at it,” Raven says.

About a year after Raven started giving it proper attention — and a few months after Didi O’Hearn became vice president of the series — the ratings were showing a dramatic lift. In 2003, the series was up +6% in all households and +9% in impressions in the 25-54 demo, according to A&E’s own analysis of Nielsen data.

“Our goal is to make it more contemporary and appealing to a younger audience,” says O’Hearn, who had most recently been director of programming at Biography Channel, and produced “Biography” episodes before that. To bring in a younger demo, O’Hearn and her new team are looking to profile celebrities such as Simon Cowell, Will Smith, Bernie Mac and Keanu Reeves.

They’re also producing profiles much more aggressively — creating entirely new episodes or refreshing existing shows when news events suddenly thrust people in the limelight.

“We produced a show on the Green River Valley killer in a week,” O’Hearn says. When Katharine Hepburn, John Ritter and Gregory Peck died, up-to-date shows about their lives were televised if not on the night they passed away, the following night.

“Biography” hired Central Talent Booking — headed by Joanna Jordan — to aid it in its quest for the most illustrious subject matter. And it also launched a splashy ad campaign featuring Annie Liebovitz photos of such celebrities as Richard Gere and Jerry Seinfeld to raise consumer awareness.

A&E produces some 100 new or refreshed “Biography” episodes per year, almost a 25% increase over 2002 levels — not including two-hour specials, which usually run on Sunday nights.

2004 Slate

These “Biography” episodes will premiere in the first half of the year

The Rock
Catwoman
Pierce Brosnan
“O.J. Reunion Show”
“Love, Hollywood Style”
“Fathers and Sons in Hollywood”
“Mothers and Daughters in Hollywood”

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