A&E Retools After Sabinson's Exit

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Amid struggling ratings, A&E Network will look to chart a new course without senior vice president of programming Allen Sabinson, who left the service last week.

While no successor has been named, A&E executive vice president and general manager Dan Davids will head up programming until a search for Sabinson's replacement is completed.

Sabinson, who held the job for nearly two years, presided over the launch of several highly touted, Emmy-nominated movies and miniseries, including Shackleton
with Kenneth Branagh.

But A&E — once one of the highest-rated networks in cable — succumbed to a dramatic falloff during Sabinson's watch. Despite accolades from critics for its mix of eclectic miniseries, documentaries and original movies, the network has been unable to keep pace with its main competitors in the ratings.

"It's a parting of the ways, but we wish Allen well and we appreciate all of his contributions to the network," said A&E director of public relations Sal Petruzzi.

Petruzzi also said longtime A&E Television Networks VP of public affairs and communications Gary Morgenstein will exit the company.

Sabinson's replacement will face the daunting prospect of stopping the performing arts and drama network's dramatic ratings freefall.

Through June 2002, the network's year-to-date 1.1 primetime rating was down 15 percent, compared with a 1.3 in 2001. Those numbers follow a 14 percent primetime ratings slide in 2001 from 2000.

DEMO DECLINES

The network also posted declines in key demographic groups during the first half of 2002 — including a 9 percent falloff among adults aged 25 to 54, the network's target demographic.

The downward trend continued in July, when A&E sustained an 8-percent household ratings decline and a 4-percent drop among adults 25 to 54.

Even the network's signature show, the often-imitated Biography, has lost some of its luster.

Later this month, the show will celebrate its 1,000th episode, but industry observers said the show can no longer shoulder the network's ratings burden.

"There's only so many Biographys
that A&E can do," said one MSO executive who wished to remain anonymous. "They've relied on that franchise for so long that now that it's getting older, there isn't anything to fill the ratings void."

Indeed, the network hasn't had a breakout original series to help carry the ratings load. The network only has one original scripted series on air — the dramatic show Nero Wolfe,
with
Timothy Hutton — and doesn't have any in development for the near future.

The critically acclaimed, Sidney Lumet-directed 100 Centre Street
was cancelled earlier this year, due to poor second-season ratings.

Sabinson, in an interview with Variety, blamed the network's misfortunes on its reluctance to invest in original programming. Kagan World Media projects that A&E will invest $198 million in 2002, compared with Turner Network Television's $627 million, TBS Superstation's $402 million, USA Network's $311 million and FX's $225 million.

The network's loss this fall of the popular off-network crime series Law and Order
to TNT could escalate A&E's ratings drop, although it did go out and acquire second-window rights to NBC's successful Third Watch.

A&E vice president of film, drama and performing-arts programming Delia Fine recently acknowledged the channel's need to reinvent itself.

But she called the fall slate of mini-series and documentaries — including an Oct. 6 airing of a remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World
— a step in the right direction.

"I think that in the shelf life of television, we've moved from a baby network to a toddler network to now, a mature network," Fine told Multichannel News
during last month's Television Critics Association press tour.

"When you go through a certain growth cycle, you have to take a look at where you are and where you've been and the changing environment around you. We've been looking at our strengths and weaknesses and realized that there are certain parts of our basic knitting that we need to get back to.

"We need to appeal to an audience that might be tempted by other networks that weren't around when we first came on the scene, but I'm optimistic we will turn the corner."

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