Abbe Raven still keeps a memento on display in her office from her early days as general manager of the A&E Network four years ago. It's a 2002 picture published in a trade newspaper of herself in a doctors' white coat, captioned “Prescription for A&E.”
One trade paper, she recalled, “called us 'a sinking ship.' Another said we were “rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”
And when she subsequently announced that the arts and entertainment channel would go after younger viewers, “a lot of people thought we were crazy,” she said in an interview last week.
Four years ago, A&E Network had gone missing in action, losing its place as one of the 10 most-watched cable networks.
Its iconic documentary series on the facts and background in crime cases, Bill Kurtis's American Justice, was being widely mimicked. TNT, in turn, outbid A&E for reruns of Law & Order, which had been an important promotional vehicle for its primetime lineup.
The channel also made the big Who Wants to Be a Millionaire mistake: overexposing one of its best properties. One-third of the network's primetime schedule became dedicated to Biography. With 1,000 hours of personal histories in primetime, the show started to lose its appeal for affluent viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.
The median age of an A&E viewer rose to 61. The network fell to No. 21 among channels watched by adults under the age of 50.
Raven's response? Get Bob DeBitetto, her successor as general manager, and A&E's heads of nonfiction development, Nancy Dubuc and Rob Sharenow, to pursue a multiyear plan to attract younger viewers. The three-part strategy:
- Create real reality shows, around real people, such as Criss Angel Mindfreak and Dog the Bounty Hunter
- Acquire top-flight primetime programs via syndication, such as CSI: Miami and The Sopranos.
- Develop original dramas, the first of which should debut in summer of 2007.
By summer of this year, A&E had worked its way back to the 11th most-watched network in primetime among adults between the ages of 18 and 49, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Then, last month, the channel started to take flight, propelled by the premiere of Gene Simmons: Family Jewels, a new show about the unconventional family of a rock star; and the two-hour wedding of the star of Dog the Bounty Hunter, its hit about a Hawaiian reward-seeker.
The latter brought the channel's highest-ever ratings among viewers aged 18 to 34; and nearly matched the adult 18-49 and 25-54 numbers for 9/11 telefilm Flight 93, which aired in January 2006. Overall, the bounty hunter's nuptials averaged 4 million viewers over its two hours.
A&E is “doing better than it's done in a long time” by following a strategy that's “all over the place,” said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Bill Kurtis and Gene Simmons — that's a wide berth.”
Raven, who is now CEO of parent company A&E Television Networks, can find some vindication by counting the ratings — and the demographics. In week two of August, it found its way back among the top five cable networks with adults 18-49, according to the Disney ABC analysis, and among women ages 18 to 34.
And the median age of its viewers? Forty-three — almost two decades younger than when Raven put together her team. Thompson calls the drop in median age “dramatic.”
That has given A&E its youngest audience since the network began measuring its viewership in 1993.
In August, the network picked up 35% growth in primetime viewership among adults aged 18-34, or 303,000 more viewers at any given time in that age group; and 31% growth in adults 18-49, or 680,000 more viewers in that larger bracket. By month's end, A&E ranked sixth among all ad-supported cable networks with viewers between the ages of 18 and 54.
“We had a real plan,” says Raven. “It wasn't a fluke. We didn't just have one hot show. This isn't the Trading Spaces phenomenon.”
A resurgent A&E Network produced about $600 million in revenue last year.
That helped push revenue from the entire A&E Television Networks stable — which includes A&E, The History Channel, Biography Channel and others — to nearly $1.1 billion, up from $1 billion in 2004, according to industry experts.
The three-stage reinvention was mapped out in 2003 and co-orchestrated by Raven and current executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto. Helping things along was interactive, Web-based marketing, overseen by vice president of consumer marketing Lori Peterzell.
A&E is not trying to compete with MTV for young viewers, DeBitetto said.
The increase in 18- to 34-year-old viewers “has been kind of an add-on and it's allowed us to do some business in that category, where A&E has never been able to do it before,” he said. “As long as we're growing our delivery of adults 18-49 and 25-54, we're completely comfortable. We're not trying to chase the MTV demo.”
The median age of an MTV viewer is 21, according to a Magna Global analysis of Nielsen data.
His mandate, DeBitetto said, was to “introduce this network and brand to an entirely new generation of viewers.”
To that end, DeBitetto, with the assistance of nonfiction development heads Sharenow and Dubuc, launched the first stage of the three-stage effort: the “Real Life” slate of reality series, which grew out of the network's hallmark documentary programming.
“We targeted cinema vérité or docu-soap,”says DeBitetto. “Not game shows, not elimination, not The Bachelor or The Apprentice, but real lives of fascinating people, warts and all.”
The channel has launched 17 such programs since 2004, including Airline, Family Plots, Growing Up Gotti, Criss Angel Mindfreak, Inked, Intervention and Dallas SWAT. DeBitetto calls them the “backbone that's been driving our demographic delivery.” Two out of three of the shows were, or likely will be, renewed for a second season — one of television's highest success rates.
Phase two of the three-phase rebuild was acquisitions. “We needed to get aggressive to compete against the TNTs, USAs and Lifetimes,” says DeBitetto.
The channel acquired the off-network rights to the popular CBS series CSI: Miami, which debuts on Labor Day, tonight (Sept. 4) at 8 p.m.
And at the start of the new year comes the big purchase: The Sopranos.
HBO's soap opera-like drama about the lives of a Mafia family's members will be shown with little gore, nudity or profanity removed.
That sparked upfront advertising sales this summer. As Raven noted, “It's the No. 1 drama of our generation. It's an attractive vehicle for our advertisers.” And, she said, more than 70% of the A&E audience hasn't seen the show.
Raven says the channel as a result has secured “over 100 new advertisers” cracking new categories such as soft drinks, movie studios, fast food and electronic gaming.
Advertisers haven't shunned the edgy Sopranos — if anything, they have “gone the other way,” Raven maintained. “We only needed to take out less than 30 seconds per episode,” to make the show palatable, she added.
Last January, DeBitetto began the most challenging of the three stages of the plan: Introduce original dramas.
The mandate of a four-person development team in Los Angeles, headed by Tana Nugent Jamieson, is, in effect, to duplicate HBO's success.
“The model I'm looking at is HBO Sunday nights with a signature time period,” that will differentiate the network and drive ad sales, said DiBitetto.
But less may be more, he said. He envisions A&E launching just two dramatic series, running successively in a signature slot. One will likely launch in summer of next year; the second would start in the winter of 2008.
Also on Jamieson's plate: original films.
Currently the network produces about four per annum, including the upcoming Firestorm (about firefighters battling to save Yellowstone National Park, debuting Labor Day weekend), Wedding Wars and Kings of South Beach, from the writer of Goodfellas — the true story of the club promoter who reinvented the South Beach section of Miami Beach, Fla., and his best friend, the undercover cop who brings him down.
The latter was got the green light partly because its storyline syncs with the CSI: Miami audience.
Going forward, expect to find marquee names attached to A&E originals. DeBitetto says the channel will clear projects with a “great filmmaker or a phenomenal author that really allows us to build a buzz campaign.”
A&E's background in crime may re-emerge on the Internet. The network now plans to launch two broadband channels in the next year, including a Crime and Investigation destination.
A&E's bucket of original justice programming — Dog, Dallas SWAT, The First 48, American Justice and Cold Case Files — are the top five justice series on cable with both adults 18-49 and 25-54. More such shows are in the pipeline.
“Bill Kurtis invented this genre 15 years ago,” DeBitetsaid. “We have a very, very loyal viewership that loves justice programming.”
To get new viewers, Peterzell also overhauled A&E's online outreach effort.
To manage the Gene Simmons: Family Jewels outreach, the network hired Fanscape, a Los Angeles-based marketing company that got its start running street marketing for rock groups. The firm tapped online sites devoted to his band, Kiss, and to Simmons himself. It posted customized clips on video sites popular with young Internet users, such as grouper.com and YouTube.
“For YouTube, we did some crazy home-movie stuff. There were no A&E logos on the videos,” sais Peterzell. “We did something raw and not corporate-feeling.”
The clips included the Simmons family horsing around with piggy-back rides, as well as raw footage from the “couch” interviews featured on the series.
In those segments, family members sit and chat amiably, often teasing each other rather unmercifully and sometimes comforting one another.
Additional customized videos were prepped for Google. Yahoo, VH1.com and RollingStone.com. And the network created a profile on MySpace.com, a social-networking site with profiles of 100 million members, real and sometimes imagined. The genesimmonsfamilyjewels profile page features an interactive Simmons who responds from his throne to questions about women, music and family.
Peterzell says A&E first incorporated My Space into their marketing with the July 17 launch of Driving Force, but the Dog wedding was its boldest Internet initiative. The channel devoted 60% of its ad spend to My Space, instead of the typical 10%.
The network designed an interactive feature and invited users to submit their own wacky wedding photos.
Peterzell freely admits the dramatic shift in ad spend on the Dog wedding was risky. But “it was a calculated risk and it's paying off. “
The Internet isn't the only way the channel reaches out to younger viewers. Intervention — a show that profiles people who are losing the battle with their addictions, and whose friends and families feel the only remaining option is to hold an intervention — marries docudrama to community service.
“There is nothing like it on television,” said Raven. “On the morning after an episode airs, we get phone calls, visits to our Web site, people calling asking, 'How do I get my son or daughter into a program?' We get letters saying, 'You're not just television, you saved my child's life.'”
Using Intervention as a platform, the channel has worked with Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable to convene town hall meetings across the country to address drug addiction and the crystal methamphetamine epidemic.
When Raven attended the Philadelphia town hall meeting, along with Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, she said she was unprepared for how many audience members wanted to speak.
“It's extremely moving. People wanted to tell their personal stories,” said Raven.
CN8, Comcast's regional network serving 9 million homes from New England to Washington, D.C., aired the event as a special television broadcast, “Comcast Town Hall Meeting,” and featured an interventionist from the A&E series.
Because of the attention the channel brought to bear on the crystal methamphetamine problem in small-town America, at the behest of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). A&E Television Networks head of public service Libby O'Connell was invited to chair the Senators' National Town Hall Meeting on Methamphetamine Awareness and Prevention.
Gatherings like those may be a prescription for how A&E, on-air and off, can keep connecting with younger viewers and their families.
“With the younger demo, it's not about selling to them,” observed Peterzell. “The expectation is that you're entering into a relationship and making them feel like they're being invited into the experiences” you create.
Or to the service that's being delivered.