Around 11 years ago, when A&E Network gave birth to a
new series called Biography, the program stood alone in its field.
The show took a simple concept -- telling a notable
person's life story, in chronological order -- and built it into a hit. More than a
hit, actually: It became the network's signature show, so successful that it spawned
videos, audiocassettes, a Web site, books, a Biography magazine and even talk --
since quelled -- of a Biography Network.
"It was a natural," said Michael Cascio,
A&E's senior vice president of programming. "It's a form as old as
Biography is now such an established part of American
culture that the show has been a final Jeopardy question and it has been satirized
on Saturday Night Live. And while critics have faulted the show's by-the-books
chronological approach, which emphasizes facts over analysis, it has long been praised for
its comprehensiveness and its evenhanded efforts that avoid tabloid sensationalism.
These days, Biography is more popular than ever --
its ratings have climbed 30 percent over the last four years -- but it has plenty of
company: Too much company, according to A&E executives.
The plethora of biographical shows that have sprouted up on
other cable networks -- including E! Entertainment Television's Celebrity Profile,
The Learning Channel's Legends and VH1's Behind the Music -- irked
"We're considered the standard," Cascio
said, adding that A&E has upcoming Biography episodes on Ozzie and Harriet
Nelson and on Truman Capote. "Copying another's form and imitating success are
not new -- it is the law of television."
But cable, he said, was supposed to avoid the habits of the
broadcast networks -- always producing clones of hits like Seinfeld and Friends
-- and continually break new ground.
"I just hope that people at the other networks are not
neglecting other forms of documentary," Cascio said.
A&E spokesman Gary Morgenstein was even more
disparaging of the other networks' "me-too-ism," calling those shows
"biodegradables" and "rip-offs" that still trail the original in the
For this season, through April 9, Biography was
earning a 1.6 Nielsen Media Research rating on weeknights. By contrast, Lifetime
Television's Intimate Portrait scored a 1.2 when it ran on Sunday nights, but
only a 0.7 in its Monday-through-Friday strip form. Legends rated a 0.6 in its
weekly appearance, and Celebrity Profile garnered a 0.4, which is higher than
average for E! in primetime.
Executives at the other networks disputed A&E's
arguments, with most claiming that the success of Biography played little or no
role in their decisions to create their related programs.
"We were just trying to diversify and present a
programming element that wasn't just music within the context of our music,"
said Brian Hughes, vice president of programming for The Nashville Network. TNN's The
Life and Times of ... debuted in 1995.
Jeffrey Gaspin, VH1's senior vice president of
programming and production, was rare in acknowledging that his show, Behind the Music,
is the network's equivalent of Biography, adding that he was concerned enough
with the similarities to look for ways to make Behind the Music different.
More significant, Geoffrey Darby, president of CBS Eye on
People, vehemently rebutted the notion that cable networks are failing their viewers by
using a similar genre of programming. Copying Biography is "what everybody
sort of expected," Darby said. "I think that the opposite is true."
Darby said his network is filled with people-oriented
shows, none of which are strict chronological documentaries of famous people.
The Best of Us tells stories of everyday people doing
heroic things. Signature features in-depth, biographical interviews with everyone
from sportscaster Bob Costas, to social critic Stanley Crouch, to comedy writer Larry
Gelbart (none of whom are likely to be Biography subjects).
"I don't think that it is cloning," Darby
Darby admitted, "Biography opened people's
eyes to viewers' fascination with people," but he pointed out that the show is a
broad-based venture. By contrast, he said, the way that each network has adapted the genre
to fit its own niche "has fulfilled the promise of cable diversity," giving the
viewers what they want: A fan of country music can see bios of Johnny Paycheck, Tennessee
Ernie Ford or Carl Perkins on TNN, but they may not tune in for bios of Rick James or
Billy Joel on VH1.
And while TV and movie buffs prefer E!, where they can see
the life story of Rob Reiner, they may not watch Katherine Graham on Lifetime. (The
downside, of course, is that these shows have less range than Biography. The
year-old Celebrity Profile sticks to fairly obvious Hollywood stars, like Tim
Allen, Michael J. Fox and Jodie Foster.)
In fact, Douglas McCormick, president of Lifetime, said Intimate
Portrait was born out of research that showed that "there were stories of women
that weren't being told in other places."
The show is complementary to Biography, but not
competitive with it, McCormick said. Lifetime's Intimate Portrait of Jessica
Savitch was the highest-rated ever for a biography shown on cable. Further, he said, the
Lifetime show skews younger and more toward women.
McCormick maintained that women like Liz Tilberis, editor
of Harpers Bazaar, who has successfully fought off ovarian cancer, or writer Maya
Angelou would never make the cut at A&E.
"So if they're saying that it would be better not
to have these women profiled, I think that's a little hoggy," he said. "Biography
is a great series, but hey, get over yourself."
Many of these shows also offer different approaches than Biography:
The music channels feature numerous performance and video clips, and other networks
usually do "authorized" versions, with the full cooperation of the subjects.
On the other hand, The E! True Hollywood Story --
which has done specials on performers like Sam Kinison, River Phoenix and Mia Farrow, and
which will become a daily primetime series this fall -- is a bit more sensational. It
relies on gimmicks like dramatic re-enactments, which are more reminiscent of the Unsolved
Mysteries genre of reality programming then of traditional biographical documentaries.
"We want to be Rosie [O'Donnell], not Jerry
Springer," McCormick said, but this can lead to sanitized storytelling, in some
Indeed, many of these shows lack the gravitas of Biography's
Yet Hughes said the trust built up by TNN's producers,
who also take a celebrity-friendly approach, enabled them to persuade Naomi and Wynona
Judd to talk openly about the tensions in their relationship. And E!'s Celebrity
Profile on Rob Reiner, while filled with fluff, showed Reiner's friend, Billy
Crystal, mocking Reiner's failure with North, and it openly discussed the
criticism of Ghosts of Mississippi.
Additionally, the newer shows need time to improve. Hughes
said Life and Times' producers are now weaving more voices into their stories
-- the Owen Bradley episode featured 65 interviews.
And Gaspin said Behind the Music, which debuted in
August with a 1.0 rating, started by examining the downfall and struggles of Milli
Vanilli, MC Hammer and Boy George. Other episodes, such as the ones on Billy Joel and
Fleetwood Mac, were puffier, and Gaspin acknowledged that the early episodes may have been
"We're getting better at it," Gaspin said,
30 episodes later. The show is now VH1's highest-rated original program.
Like Biography in its early days, Legends
initially relied heavily on acquisitions, said Steve Cheskin, TLC's vice president of
programming, but it is now turning more and more toward co-productions and commissioning
episodes and production, giving the network control over its tone and content.
TLC has also learned that its "younger, hipper"
audience for Legends doesn't overlap much with the older A&E audience. A
"beautifully done" episode on Audrey Hepburn -- a prime Biography
candidate -- scored only a 0.55 Nielsen rating in total households and a 0.2 with adults
25 to 54, losing more than one-half of its lead-in. By contrast, a Ron Howard episode
scored a 0.9 in total households and a 0.6 with adults 25 to 54.
Hughes doesn't think that saturation will become an
issue, saying that each show attracts a fairly small audience relative to the entire cable
audience. So, new biographical shows continue to appear.
Next up in the first quarter of 1999 will be Animal
Planet's World's Most Famous Animals -- yes, that's right,
biographies of Lassie, Bonzo and Moby Dick. But Animal Planet spokesman Matt Restive said
each show will take an appropriate tone, with a Secretariat bio celebrating the
horse's athleticism, while the Yogi Bear episode will be more tongue-in-cheek.
Meanwhile, at A&E, the Biography Network idea has been relegated to the back burner,
but Cascio's ambitions for the show itself remain undiminished.
"Our programs are getting richer and deeper, and the
packaging is a lot better," he said. And no matter how many newcomers appear on the
horizon, A&E will "defend what we believe is our turf."