A&E scripting diverse future

DiBitetto has brought in edgy reality shows

Four years ago, A&E was floundering.

The network had foolishly failed to renew its bellwether reruns of “Law & Order,” letting TNT snatch the high-rated prize with a higher bid.

A&E signature firstrun series “Biography” had begun to soften in the ratings, partly because a number of other cable networks were ripping off the franchise by producing their own versions.

And the average age of A&E’s audience was a Madison Avenue-repellent 61.7, says Bob DeBitetto, who had joined the network as its head of programming early in 2003. He has since risen to exec VP and general manager.

It took DeBitetto almost five years to do it, but thanks to an influx of edgy reality shows over the last few years, including “Intervention,” “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” and “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” the network’s average age has shrunk to an advertiser-friendly 48.

If reality shows are the darlings of A&E, the network is also aware that some of the biggest breakthrough hits on its cable competitors are scripted originals such as “The Closer” on TNT, “Monk” on USA and “Nip/Tuck” on FX.

So A&E is about to embark into territory that’s booby-trapped with more risks than a minefield in Baghdad: scripted series. These costly shows play better in reruns than reality series do, so A&E has given a go to four pilots, each of them dealing in some way with criminal justice and starring Patrick Swayze (as a tough FBI man), Benjamin Bratt (as a counselor to addicts), Connie Nielsen (as a detective who solves high-profile cases) and Henry Thomas (as a former bad guy-turned NYPD cop).

One of the reasons A&E is keeping its development within a narrow compass is that reruns of “CSI: Miami” continue to draw lots of viewers during its weekly multiple runs. When a new scripted series is ready to kick off, “CSI: Miami” will be its lead-in, and — A&E hopes — will give the rookie a solid sendoff.

DeBitetto and his boss Abbe Raven, exec VP and general manager of the network, started A&E along the rebound trail late in 2003 by commissioning three weekly reality series: “The First 48,” “Airline” and “Growing Up Gotti.”

The trio got gold stars from Nielsen when they kicked off during the first half of 2004, regularly attracting more than 1-million people each in the network’s target demo of adults 25-54. (Almost four years later, “First 48” is still racking up pretty good numbers; but after a few seasons of solid Nielsens, “Airline” and “Gotti” succumbed to viewer fatigue and are gone from the schedule.)

“A&E has succeeded in its stated goal of putting on programming that’s younger, broader and edgier,” says Jason Maltby, executive director of national TV for MindShare, many of whose clients buy time on the network.

Mike Egan, a partner in Renaissance Media, which consults with cable operators, is even more bullish. “A&E has done a great job of boosting its ratings and its profile in the industry,” he says. The network deserves even more kudos, Egan adds, because it “can’t take full advantage of the leverage that typically comes with being owned by a single giant media company.”

A&E and its History Channel sibling have scattered ownership: Disney (a 37.5% stake), Hearst (37.5%) and NBC Universal (25%). But the three stakeholders tend to let Raven and DeBitetto do their thing because, according to various estimates, the network chalked up $250 million in cash flow last year. (Raven became president of A&E in September 2004 and, seven months later, rose to president and CEO of all of A&E’s networks.)

The advent of higher ratings and more young adults pried open advertisers’ wallets, turning A&E’s cash flow into a rushing waterfall. In 2007, the number of total primetime viewers of A&E shot up by 20%, to an average of 1.35 million, bolstered by double-digit increases in key younger demos.

And these gains came on top of a 7% jump in the number of total viewers in 2006, along with even bigger double-digit boosts in demos. All of these added viewers have pitchforked A&E into a powerful seventh-place finish among ad-supported cable networks in 2007, up from 13th place a year earlier.

One series that’s not drawing as many young viewers as A&E hoped is “The Sopranos,” whose primetime reruns on Wednesdays and Sundays are more popular with adults over 50 than under. A&E ponied up heavily to get “Sopranos,” paying a cable-record license fee of $2.5 million an episode, a lavish expenditure that still stands as a benchmark four years later.

But A&E is not hanging crape: In 2007, “Sopranos” averaged 1.8 million viewers during its Wednesday night showing, a 37% increase over A&E’s primetime average. (Dismayingly, 54% of those viewers were people over the age of 50.)

In a bid to boost Nielsens for the show, A&E’s new primetime schedule features a “Sopranos”- episode premiere every Sunday — the night that the show became a cultural event on HBO from 1999 through 2007.

Elsewhere, in something of a departure, A&E has commissioned a rare scripted big-event special for late spring: the four-hour, $15-million remake of Michael Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain,” exec produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.

The network is preparing to spend more money promoting “Andromeda” — which stars Bratt, Rick Schroder, Eric McCormack and Andre Braugher, with Mikael Salomon as director — than for any other special in A&E’s history.

Moreover, a new reality series that began in December, “Paranormal States,” is averaging 1.2 million adults under 50, a 94% improvement over A&E’s primetime average in the demo for 2007.

And after two weeks, “Parking Wars,” another reality newcomer, is 11% higher than A&E’s primetime average in the 18-49 demo. The show follows the men and women of Philadelphia Parking Authority and their run-ins with ill-tempered drivers.

A&E got smacked with a little too much reality on Nov. 1 when it had to suspend production of its biggest reality hit, “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” The suspension became unavoidable when widely circulated tapes captured a stomach-churning racist rant delivered by Duane Dog Chapman during a phone conversation he didn’t know was being recorded.

Chapman has issued a sheaf of apologiesfor “my regrettable use of inappropriate language.” DeBitetto says A&E is sticking with Chapman, because “Dog and his family have worked hard to plead his case to the African-American community and others that he offended.”

The show is off the air for the time being, but A&E is hoping that after more time has elapsed, Madison Avenue may be ready to forgive Chapman and start buying spots on the show again.

MindShare’s Maltby says Dog will probably be back on A&E’s schedule, because “there’s a long list of celebrities who made big mistakes, apologized and then laid low for a time. Look at Don Imus.”

Imus is indeed back on the air, but it’s unlikely he’ll book Dog on the show anytime soon.