A&E lights fire under ‘Biography’

O'Hearn upped to showrunner on floundering skein

NEW YORK — A&E has elevated Didi O’Hearn to VP and executive producer of its signature nightly series “Biography” as part of an aggressive push to reverse the network’s 18-month slide in the ratings.

“We’re re-energizing the ‘Biography’ franchise,” said Bob DeBitetto, senior VP of programming for A&E. The reinvigoration, he said, includes the signing of Joanna Jordon, an executive with Central Talent Booking, to help O’Hearn gain access to the wish list of celebrities who have still not given their okay to the “Biography” treatment.

Jordon’s contacts with the Hollywood community could trigger fresh entreaties to stars who have so far resisted the lure of the “Biography” siren song, including Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn.

Super-duper size

One extra lure would be A&E’s willingness to lavish two hours on these celebs, not the usual one hour. A&E has engineered more two-hour “Biography” specials than ever before, premiering them on Sunday nights. Recent two-hour pieces on Elizabeth Taylor and John Travolta have scored in the Nielsens.

But the A&E Network itself is still struggling in primetime. In May, A&E fell by 5% in total primetime viewers compared to May 2002. For the first quarter of 2003, A&E was off by 10% in total primetime viewers vs. the same period a year ago, and down by 17% in its target demo of 25 to 54. The primetime declines for calendar 2002, compared to 2001, were 17% in total viewers and 13% in 25 to 54.

Forthcoming two-hour bios include Arnold Schwarzenegger (July 2), Will Smith (July 23) and Paul Newman (Aug. 3). Others penciled in for later in the year include Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, the Dixie Chicks and Dr. Seuss.

This fall, A&E will generate a massive marketing campaign for “Biography” centering on snapshots of “Biography” subjects taken by the well-known photographer Annie Leibovitz, among them Jerry Seinfeld, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford.