A&E’s race to the top of the cable charts over the past decade is strong proof that Americans prefer Dumpster-diving to ballet and frog hunting to opera.
Scoring with blue-collar reality hits such as “Storage Wars” and “Duck Dynasty,” A&E, which once built its brand on high-brow but little-watched programming, is giving several top-rated cable nets a run for their money.
Much of that growth can be credited to Bob DeBitetto, the network’s president-g.m. who was hired away from Turner to become A&E’s head of programming, strategy and scheduling in 2003.
When he got to A&E, “It was no secret that A&E was a network that was pretty significantly challenged,” DeBitetto says. “Everything was going in the wrong direction — ratings, revenue, everything. A&E was the 17th-ranked network in delivery of adults 25-54 and 23rd among adults 18-49. The median age of the A&E audience at that time was 61 years old.”
Today, A&E is ranked fifth among adults 18-49, 25-54 and viewers among all entertainment cable networks so far this season, and the network’s median age is 47.
“We’ve become a solid perennial top-10 network,” says DeBitetto. “We are nearly complete in the transformation of the network from what it once was — high-brow, elevated and niche — to what it is today. If our competitors a decade ago included the likes of PBS and Bravo, today our competitive set is absolutely the other top entertainment networks in cable, including TNT, USA, FX and TBS.”
“Storage Wars,” which performs very well in its Tuesday 10 p.m. timeslot, can claim much of the credit for that strong performance.
“What I love about Bob is that he comes from programming. He communicates his vision well,” says Thom Beers, who exec produces “Storage Wars.” “He knows exactly what the show needs and what the network needs from the show.”
” ‘Storage Wars’ is fun, but it’s also high quality,” says David McKillop, A&E’s exec vice president of programming. “The characters are fantastic. There are so many reality shows out there, but what people want to invest in is other people.”
But “Storage Wars,” high-rated as it is, has gotten some strong assists. Newcomer “Duck Dynasty” averaged 1.1 million adults 18-49 and 25-54 in season one, growing more than 50% in both demographics from the beginning to the end of its first season.
“Keeping the comedy intact is the challenge with that show,” says Dierdre Gurney, one of the exec producers of “Duck Dynasty,” along with her husband, Scott. “That’s why A&E has been the best network for the show. On any other network, it would have been a very different. It would have been a process show about making duck calls, but A&E was really looking for something different. They give their producers an opportunity to take risks and try something new.”
On the scripted front, A&E saw a steady performance from the third season of “The Glades,” and gained ground with “Longmire,” starring Robert Taylor as a cowboy sheriff looking to avenge his wife’s murder. “Longmire” premiered in June to big numbers, becoming A&E’s best scripted premiere with an audience of 4.1 million viewers, and growing over the course of its first season to close with an audience of 4.3 million viewers.
“Bob has been a key player in A&E’s success, developing a clear and thoughtful plan to grow the brand, which has resulted in A&E’s position as a top-tier entertainment network,” says Abbe Raven, A&E’s CEO.
Though DeBitetto is focused on the network 24/7, he does find time for outside activities. When not at the office, DeBitetto has a passion for architecture and painting, and actually trained as an artist. A graduate of Stony Brook U. on Long Island and UCLA law school, the exec enjoys a nice bottle of red wine along with a night at the movies. For that reason he relishes having the A&E Indie Films banner under his domain.
When at work, though, and thinking how to grow the network, DeBitetto aims to have A&E move into all-originals in primetime by sometime next year. Already, the only offnet that A&E still airs in primetime is CBS Television Distribution’s “Criminal Minds.” Prior to that, A&E leaned on such offnets as HBO’s “The Sopranos” and CTD’s “CSI: Miami,” but now DeBitetto wants to take the network in another direction.
“Considering how much these off-network shows are selling for, we’ve made a decision to invest those hundreds of millions of dollars into original programming, most of which we own,” he says. “That makes us masters of our own destiny and provides us with branded environments all of the time. I don’t care how many people watch a great off-network series on a cable network, you aren’t going to brand that network based on somebody else’s show.”
Moreover, the future will belong to those who own their content, he says.
“When it comes time to control the nonlinear distribution, if you own the content you will have some control over your destiny and if you don’t, you won’t. We all know that nonlinear consumption of our content is going to continue to grow through DVR usage and second-screen viewing,” says DeBitetto. “Whatever companies and networks control this premium content will benefit the most from all of this nonlinear viewing.”
That’s bad news for studios selling dramas and fans of procedural crime repeats, but great news for the 5 million or so people each week who want to watch the “Storage Wars” gang bid on unclaimed storage lockers, truckers fight over unorthodox loads or the hirsute members of the “Duck Dynasty” clan try to build a million-dollar business in between hunting trips.
Says DeBitetto: “Whether it’s ‘Pawn Stars’ on History or ‘Storage Wars’ on A&E, I’d rather be investing in finding the next one of those.”