NEW YORK — Allen Sabinson is out as head of programming at A&E, victimized by financial cutbacks that prevented him from competing for original series and movies with cable networks like TNT, USA, TBS and FX. A&E has begun the search for his successor.
In an interview, Sabinson compared his exit to that of “a manager of a small-market or midsized-market baseball team that has to grapple with the big boys like the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves, which have all the resources.”
For example, in programming expenses projected by Kagan World Media for 2002, A&E will pony up only $198 million compared with TNT’s $627 million, TBS’ $402 million, USA’s $311 million and even FX’s $225 million. FX is only 8 years old, whereas A&E is in its 18th year.
These dollar handicaps began showing up in the Nielsen ratings over the last 18 months. During the second quarter of 2002, A&E’s primetime ratings dropped by 13%, the only top 10-rated cable network to decline by double digits. Among adults 25-54, A&E’s prime demographic target, the network fell by 9% while the nine other basic cable networks in the top 10 were reaping increases in the demo.
The Nielsen loss was a carryover from 2001, when A&E skidded by 9% in primetime vs. 2000. A&E’s depressed ratings came on top of the worst advertising climate in basic cable history, starving the network of the revenues it needed to produce more original movies, series and reality shows.
Despite the audience loss, Sabinson was able to schedule such high-visibility programs this year as “Shackleton,” starring Kenneth Branagh and nominated for a miniseries Emmy; “The Lost Battalion” movie, with Rick Schroder; and successful weekly series “Nero Wolfe,” with Timothy Hutton.
Sabinson started as a programming consultant for A&E in 1999, steering the original biopic “Dash & Lilly,” with Sam Shepherd and Judy Davis, to the network as well as A&E’s highest-rated made-for “The Crossing,” a costume melodrama with Jeff Daniels as George Washington. “Dash & Lilly” harvested nine Emmy nominations.
In spring 2001, Sabinson became A&E’s senior VP of programming, and since then the network has chalked up a total of 36 Emmy noms, more than any other basic cable network.
Starting in the fall, A&E may be in for an even worse battering in the nonprimetime Nielsens because it’s losing “Law & Order” reruns. TNT outbid it for “Law & Order,” which became an A&E programming staple for almost a decade.
Before A&E, Sabinson held such titles as president of production of Miramax Films, executive VP of original programming for TNT, executive VP of movies and miniseries for ABC and senior VP of original programming for Showtime.
Dan Davids, executive VP and general manager of A&E, will serve as acting head of programming for the network until a full-time executive comes onboard.