Biography pens next chapter

Cabler hands over hit show to net

A&E’s hand-me-downs have transformed its seven-year-old offspring, the Biography Channel, into the belle of the Nielsen ball.

Lifted by “Biography,” the series, the Biography Channel has engineered bigger gains than any other ad-supported cable network during the 2005-06 season. It soared by 58% among total viewers in primetime (compared to those of September ’04 through May ’05), climbing by 60% in the 25- to-54 demo and by 53% among 18-49.

Of course, Biography is starting from such a small Nielsen base that, even with the gains, it’s averaging only about 100,000 total primetime viewers (compared to an average of 1 million for A&E). Biography is not even among the top-50-rated ad-supported cable networks in 2005-06.But, starting in August, the channel “will become the exclusive keeper of the ‘Biography’ flame,” says Bob DeBitetto, exec VP of programming for the A&E Networks. A&E will drop “Biography” from its schedule after almost two decades as A&E’s signature show, handing it off to its corporate progeny.

“Biography” is “no longer a good fit for A&E,” says Tom Heymann, senior VP and general manager of Biography.

A&E has done an extensive makeover in the past few years to extract more dollars out of Madison Avenue. Shedding its image as an old-folks network, A&E has lowered its average age since 2004 by embracing such hyped-up reality shows as “Inked,” “Airline” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

Other former A&E shows that have taken up residence on Biography Channel include a stable of European detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot; doc series such as “Ancient Mysteries,” “City Confidential” and “Mysteries of the Bible”; and reruns of oldies like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Columbo.”

Embracing the “Biography” series, Heymann says he’s determined to inject it with a jolt of adrenaline.

“The show had gotten stale, and people tagged it with the phrase ‘old, dead, white guys,’ ” he says. “Every episode had to begin with those damn baby pictures.”

According to Heymann, the new episodes “will open much faster, and we’ll give viewers a reason right from the beginning why they should stick around.”

Biography won’t eliminate photos of the babies, but don’t expect their button-cute heads to rear up until after the commercial break.

Begun in 1998 as a receptacle of library product from the A&E vault, Biography has grown steadily, to the point where it will pocket a modest cash flow of $12 million this year, according to Kagan Research.

Biography’s position as a digital network has limited the speed of its subscriber growth. It reaches only 37 million households (compared to A&E’s 90 million), but Heymann plans to use the recent Nielsen gains to mount another assault on the cable systems that don’t carry Biography.

An additional weapon in Biography’s arsenal is the $22 million it plans to spend on programming in 2006, a 10% hike over last year’s figure. Sixty-four “Biography” hours will go into production in the next year.

Heymann also touts Biography’s family-oriented programming, its 70% skew toward women and its appeal to upscale audiences as further enticements to advertisers and cable operators.

Not to mention a third season of the half-hour “Famous” profiles, which kicks off this month with celebrities ranging from Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland to Scarlett Johansson and Colin Farrell. “Famous” focuses on the career, not the full life.

“Psychic Investigators,” another half-hour original series, premieres this month with 15 episodes. It’s a reality show that deals with the increasing use by law enforcement of people with paranormal abilities to collaborate in solving crimes with no physical evidence or no logical suspects.

Entertainment is clearly a key ingredient of the network.

“The last thing we want,” says DeBitetto, “is for people to think of Biography Channel as a homework assignment.”