A&E fills primetime slots with ‘real life drama’

Simmons, Alley, Snider star on network

A&E is reloading primetime with a fresh crop of unscripted series that fit the channel’s “real life drama” brand.

Joining the channel’s roster of stars such as Gene Simmons and Kirstie Alley is one-time Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider. And the network of “Intervention” and “Hoarders” will tackle obesity with “Heavy.”

Several new crime and justice shows are also on tap — including one from rapper-turned-thesp Ice-T.

The round of pickups arrives as the channel, led by prexy/general manager Bob DeBitetto and his team, come off the highest-rated quarter in A&E history, and that follows on the heels of the cabler’s highest-rated year in 2009.

“There aren’t that many networks ahead of us anymore,” DeBitetto said. “We have solidified our position as the No. 5 network in cable (among total viewers). … It does feel like so many of the pieces we’ve been constructing over the past few years have come together and are jelling quite well.”

Channel’s growth has come following A&E’s deliberate move to shed its previous, older-skewing programming mix and moved toward a brand heavy on edgy, unfiltered fare like “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” and “The First 48.”

“What we set out to do in 2003 was lay out a long-term play that introduces A&E to a wider, newer, younger audience,” said A&E TV Networks boss Abbe Raven. “We stick to the plan, and started out one-by-one developing these franchises.”

As a result, A&E’s median age dropped from 61 — in mid-2003 — to 48. The channel also finished among the top 10 ad-supported cable nets in 2009 with adults 18-34; the channel placed a dismal 28th in 2003.

“I’m extremely proud of how we evolved,” Raven said. “We haven’t done it with just one show, but a number of shows consistently.”

A&E, which moved its long-running “Biography” series to its sister Bio channel, has also filled that celeb void by focusing on docuseries like “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” and the just-launched “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life,” as well as the upcoming “Bob Saget’s Strange Days,” “Teach: Tony Danza” and a project featuring David Hasselhoff.

Next up, A&E has ordered six episodes of “Growing up Twisted,” starring Snider, his wife, Suzette, and their children.

Evolution Film & Tape (“Real Housewives of Orange County”) are behind “Twisted,” which centers on the couple as the face off with their kids — wannabe rock star Jesse, budding filmmaker Shane and 12-year-old Cheyenne.

“It’s pre-sold programming, and that’s always valuable in network TV,” DeBitetto said of A&E’s move toward celebrity fare. “We’ve learned by experience that if you present these celebrities in their natural habitat, that is of interest to our audience. We’re not going to put David Hasselhoff on an island.”

In the vein of “Intervention,” “Heavy” will focus on 12 individuals (one per episode) whose lives were crippled by their weight — and how their struggle to lose the pounds has impacted their lives. Tijuana Entertainment and Megalomedia are behind the 12-episode series.

“We’ve been fascinated by the weight loss space,” DeBitetto said. “And our Monday night has been so successful, with ‘Intervention’ and ‘Hoarders.’ It’s the night showcasing the human condition and the real struggles that people have. These shows are trying to offer redemption, they’re not just downers.”

As for the Ice-T series, “The Peacemaker” centers on gang interventionist Malik Spellman, who has spent the past 15 years helping the LAPD on violence prevention efforts. Four episodes, from Asylum Entertainment (“American Gangster”), have been ordered.

A&E also gave a 10-episode order to “The Squad: Prison Police,” from Wild Eyes Prods. Show looks at the police force inside Tennessee Prison.

A&E has been criticized for moving far away from its original “arts” mandate (or, as DeBitetto called it, “PBS with commercials”) — but Raven said she believed A&E “never walked away from quality,” and points to the Emmy-winning “Intervention” for proof.

A&E has also benefited from a handful of acquired off-net dramas — including, most recently, “Criminal Minds” (which it snatched for a bargain $650,000 an episode) and “CSI: Miami.”

Next up, A&E hopes to find a lasting scripted franchise. The cabler had mixed results with “The Cleaner” and “The Beast,” and will try again with the upcoming “Sugarloaf.”

“That would be a strategic asset for us. Some blue-chip advertisers really want a scripted environment,” said DeBitetto, who’d like to eventually launch two scripted shows per year.The exec said he also wants to ramp up one big A-list event per year (in the mode of its successful “The Andromeda Strain”), and would like to build out another new night of original programming.

“The goal over the next few years is growth,” he said. “Audience growth, revenue growth. That’s what’s expected of us.”

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