A&E’s Goal: Keep Getting Younger

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A&E Network will roll a little message for advertisers attending its upfront Thursday night at the skating rink in New York’s Rockefeller Center: It plans to become a top-five service for delivering adults 18-49 and 25-54 by the end of 2006.

This ambitious plan is being fueled by an aggressive programming strategy that will meld such acquired fare as The Sopranos, CSI: Miami and 24 with a bevy of original movies and series during the 2005-06 TV season.

Telepics like Young Knights, starring Ted Danson, and such series as Inked and Criss Angel Mindfreak in July will join such docu-soap skeins as Dog the BountyHunter, Airline and Growing Up Gotti that have helped A&E to raise ratings among the aforementioned demos, as well as adults 18-34, and to lower its median-age viewer by a decade to 49 in the process, according to executive vice president of programming Bob DeBitetto.

“A&E is becoming, in my view, the premium entertainment destination in cable,” he said “We’re in a big growth stage and have more youth-oriented original programming on the way. We’ve also made significant investments in acquired series. This programming should coexist together very nicely.”

DeBitetto, in an interview Wednesday afternoon, described Criss Angel as the “master illusionist working today. The show will be a 360-degree look at the life, work and performances of this very telegenic man. Here, we’re adding a performance element that will blow your mind to the cinema verité approach we’ve taken with our other docusoaps.”

A&E has ordered 13 one-hour episodes of the show with Angel, who was expected to perform at the upfront.

Also bowing in July is Inked, tracking the action at Hart & Huntington Tattoo Co. in The Palms Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. Over 13 one-hour installments, the cameras will follow owner and freestyle-motocross champ Carey Hart and co-owner Thomas Pendleton as they cater to celebrity clientele while managing a staff of eccentric tattoo artists.

“Tattoos have gone mainstream, and every tattoo has a story,” DeBitetto said. “This is sexy and youth-targeted.”

Roller Girls, which will begin next January, follows the women who compete in a modern-age roller-derby league in Austin, Texas. In addition to viewing some of these women on and off the track, DeBitetto said, the series will showcase some of the music culture in the area melding country, rock and punk genres.

A&E Wednesday ordered 10 episodes of Random 1 (working title), in which two buddies in a high-tech vehicle -- replete with Wi-Fi, data banks and phones -- “take a road trip across the nation looking to help deserving people gain another chance in life,” DeBitetto said.

One of the stories will involve a former model, reduced to stripping, who is given a shot at a high-profile Manhattan agency. He said the show would like air in 2006.

Other series in various stages of development include: Spying on Myself, in which people receive extensive makeovers and coaching from CIA operatives as they form new identities and then re-enter their former worlds; Single Again, in which couples are disconnected for a month and then see if life is better or worse without their partner; and Little Red Man, in which those who forget an anniversary or owe someone money are followed around by the little red man who attempts to maximize the offenders’ awkward moments.

On the movie front, DeBitetto said, a script reading took place Wednesday and principal photography would begin next month on Young Knights. Based on a true story, Danson stars as English teacher David MacEnulty, who struggles to better the lives of several poor children in the South Bronx. Allen Hughes (Dead Presidents, From Hell) will direct.

A&E -- which, DeBitetto said, has 25-30 telepics and miniseries in various stages of the development pipeline -- is also fast-tracking a movie about Johnny Cash, focusing on the late musician’s love with June Cash Carter; a tribute to those who acted valiantly on Sept. 11 on Flight 93; Blackout, showing just how fragile and antiquated the power grid is; and Touch the Top of the World, based on Erik Weihenmayer's moving memoir in which he overcame degenerative blindness to excel at wrestling and become a world-class mountain climber who scaled the Earth’s seven highest peaks.

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