A&E’s popular reality series Duck Dynasty drew a network-record 9.6 million viewers for its third-season finale last Tuesday (April 23), continuing a strong ratings start to the year. The network garnered its best first quarter ever among total viewers (1.7 million) and adults 25 to 54 (835,000). A&E president and general manager Bob DeBitetto recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about consumers’ changing tastes, the problem with lagging ratings, and the challenges the network and the cable industry face in a crowded field.
MCN: A&E finished 2012 strong and has thus far enjoyed a big ratings start in 2013. What is A&E doing to keep up its ratings momentum?
Bob DeBitetto: I think the network has bucked a trend of top cable networks having audience erosion. For us to stay ahead of the crowd, to me, means that we continued to grow. It would be a wonderful achievement if we see a 10th consecutive year of growth in the key demos.
Also for the first time in the network’s history, [A&E] will become 100% original programming in primetime and will stop relying on off -network programming in primetime. We feel as a network and a company that it’s absolutely the right thing to do. In order to accomplish that, we needed to add more successful franchises to the lineup — more Duck Dynasties, more Storage Wars, more Longmires and Bates Motels. We’re going to redouble our efforts in drama — we’ve got a few pilots in development — and we have another round of development that will hopefully bring in another 15 potential scripts.
On the reality front, it’s just trying to build on the fan base that we have.
MCN: Speaking of reality programming, are you surprised by the incredible success of Duck Dynasty, and what makes it so popular?
BD: When we were developing Duck Dynasty, we knew we had something different and exciting, but you never know what the audience response will be. Now that we have been delivering bigger audiences than its cable and broadcast competition, it is incredibly rewarding. This isn’t the “train-wreck” reality that typically garners attention. It’s an immensely entertaining show that can be enjoyed by entire families and we couldn’t be more proud.
MCN: What are some of the challenges facing A&E in 2013?
BD: I think its fragmented viewership. You have more programming and more networks, but you have rapidly-growing consumption of media in other areas, whether it’s DVR penetration or from over-the-top suppliers like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, etc. Plus, you have the authentication model that’s taking shape.
Through one portal or another, a lot more of all of our content is going to be available on a non-linear basis. I think it’s a net pickup — more people are going to be watching A&E than ever before; whether they’ll be watching on a live, same-day basis remains to be seen. We’ve been able to continue that, but one has to wonder about the future.
MCN: How about the biggest challenge for the cable industry?
BD: One of the big challenges facing the industry is that measurement of so much of this viewing lags. We’re all aware of it and everybody is scrambling to deal with it, but mobile and tablet viewing -- while they can be measured and sold -- can’t be aggregated right now. As a result of that there’s pressure on the revenue model and I think that’s something that will really take a few years to get sorted. So for networks, particularly those on the margins, that’s a risk, and I think the best anecdote to that is to have utterly irrefutable programming.
The last challenge is changing tastes. There’s been so much success with a certain type of programming and certain kind of sensibility. A lot of the reality genre has been criticized – maybe rightly so, maybe not – but I detect that there is change in the area again, and I think one of the big challenges facing all of us is how to be ahead of the curve creatively – what are our customers looking for? Is it really going to be the same things we’ve seen over the past few years? One of the biggest challenges we have as a network is figuring that out before the other guys do.
A version of this interview that appeared in the April 29 print edition of Multichannel News misspelled Bob DeBitetto’s name. Multichannel News apologizes for the error.