A&E Network and The History Channel swapped executives last week in an unusual version of corporate musical chairs, but industry executives aren't sure the changes are enough to revive the two struggling networks.
The tasks of redefining A&E's brand — and developing and promoting strong original programming to help curtail an alarming falloff in the ratings — now fall to former History general manager Abbe Raven, who was named executive vice president and general manager of A&E on Oct. 21.
Raven replaces Dan Davids, who returns to History as executive vice president and GM.
A&E Television Networks CEO Nick Davatzes also shifted Mike Mohamad to History as senior vice president of marketing, supplanting Artie Scheff, who assumes that post at A&E.
AETN's executive shuffle stemmed from recent discussions between Davatzes, Raven, Davids and AETN executive vice president Whitney Goit — all 19-year company veterans.
Some observers actually see the quartet's long tenure at the top of AETN as more of a detriment than an asset. They contend the networks need new blood to turn around the brands — especially at A&E, which has seemingly stood still as other major networks adjusted to cable's changing landscape.
"All of their executives are talented, but at this point what they probably need is a new set of leaders to take the networks into a new direction," said one industry executive who requested anonymity. "They should learn from what other networks in similar situations, like Discovery [Channel], have done."
Discovery Networks, which has also experienced a recent decline in ratings, recruited Hollywood executive Billy Campbell as president and lured longtime CBS Television Network president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese to head its domestic ad-sales efforts in a bid to shake up its operations.
Rather than look outside the company, Davatzes said that he decided to give both Raven and Davids "a different set of challenges."
Neither Raven nor Davids were made available for comment last week. Davatzes said the executives would not discuss their respective plans until they "settle in," and deflected questions pertaining to programming and promotional budgets by saying that, as a private company, AETN "never talks about numbers."
Raven faces a particularly daunting challenge: Breathing new life into an aging A&E brand. The network has suffered a major ratings erosion over the past year.
Through Oct. 25, the entertainment network averaged a 1.1 household rating, 16 percent below the 1.3 it tallied through the same span last year, according to a Turner Broadcasting System Inc. analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
The network barely remained a top-10 service in September, finishing in 10th place with a 1.0 rating, down 17 percent from last year.
A&E has also suffered ratings losses within key demographic groups, notably its target of adults 25 through 54.
The network has failed to develop any signature programming beyond its creaky Biography
series, which has sustained hefty Nielsen declines of its own.
Since September, Biography
ratings are down 31 percent from the same period last year, according to Nielsen.
Some high-profile and critically acclaimed shows have failed to produce breakout performances.
A&E's latest big-budget movie, The Lost World, was a Nielsen disappointment earlier this month, earning a 1.8 household rating. "We would like to have done a little bit better [in household ratings]," Davatzes conceded, "but it did good demos for us."
The network has also failed to drive ratings through its repurposed plays of ABC's The View
Some observers said A&E's biggest mistake might have been losing the popular off-network series Law & Order
to Turner Network Television. A&E's replacement, Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution's Third Watch, hasn't come close to matching Law & Order
in the ratings.
Since its September debut through Oct. 20, the off-NBC Third Watch
is averaging a 0.7 during the 11 p.m. time slot — 53 percent below Law & Order's 1.5 rating during the same period last year.
The loss of Law & Order, which ran at 7 p.m. weeknights, has also taken its toll on Biography's ratings. Biography
averaged a 0.9 from Aug. 26 through Oct. 20, down 31 percent from last year.
"The Law & Order
thing is a disaster," one programming executive said. "They didn't realize how strong it was and how important it was as a lead-in to Biography."
The network has also struggled to establish a breakout scripted series. Earlier this year, A&E cancelled its only two scripted skeins, Nero Wolfe
and 100 Centre St., due to failing ratings.
But Davatzes said the network has not given up on the scripted-series business, even though that genre "is the most difficult thing to do in television."
A&E expects to launch a new series in the second quarter, he added — an apparent reference to Sidney Lumet's upcoming May It Please the Court.
Many of A&E's recent programming failures were blamed on former network programming vice president Allen Sabinson, who left the network last summer after two years at the helm.
While Sabinson oversaw the development of some quality series — and presided over the launch of several highly touted, Emmy-nominated movies and miniseries, including Shackleton
with Kenneth Branagh — A&E's ratings continued to sag.
The network has not put a premium on spending for programming, which observers said has contributed to the its decline.
Kagan World Media projects that A&E's budget will total $198 million in 2002, trailing Turner Network Television's $627 million, TBS Superstation's $402 million, USA Network's $311 million and FX's $225 million.
"They have money, but they're not spending it wisely," said one executive who wished to remain anonymous.
Some ad-agency officials also said A&E doesn't differentiate itself enough and that its program mix — aside from 20-year-old signature series Biography, has been all over the lot — from originals and off-net crime shows to documentaries to literary epics.
But Davatzes is confident Raven will be able to right A&E's sinking ship. He said her "strong programming background" is key to the network's future as she develops programming for next season while also looking for Sabinson's successor.
Finding that replacement will become less critical now that someone with Raven's credentials is in charge, he said.
Davatzes summed up A&E's creative process as "a little like a roller coaster … We'll hang in there."
History not over yet
Davids's return to his old job is fraught with its own set of issues.
"His primary challenge is in marketing and ad sales," Davatzes said.
The AETN chief made note of Davids's "strong sales and marketing background" and the fact that he launched History, "which he loved and originally didn't want to leave" a few years ago.
He also returns to a network that's been experiencing Nielsen shortfalls. From Oct. 1, 2001, to Sept. 29, 2002, History's primetime ratings dropped 11 percent to a 0.8 household average.
And History sustained a 5 percent decline among the 18-to-49 audience and a 3 percent drop in viewers 25 to 54 over that period.
Since 70 percent of History's audience is male, "the challenge is to get the advertising industry to understand the value of History in light of news and sports budgets," Davatzes said.
In other words, History faces stiff competition for ad dollars against bigger networks' news and sports fare.
To enable Davids to concentrate on that arena, Charlie Maday will continue as senior vice president of programming, Davatzes added.
Davatzes did single out Raven's "whole programming strategy for History, especially moving to non-World War II military programming."
"By advocating that shift, she widened [the channel's] appeal beyond 55-year-old guys," he said.
Industry observers lauded Raven's efforts at developing History's brand and identity. "Abbe's done some good things with History," said one programming executive. "She has wonderful sensibilities as a programmer [and] she was the reason the network made its big move a couple of years back."