NEW YORK--For A&E Network, the third stage of its three-part programming plan was on stage Monday night.

A&E executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto, speaking at the J.P. Morgan Library here during the network’s upfront presentation, reminded media buyers that A&E had set out to transform itself from an older-skewing preeminent art service to a preeminent entertainment destination.

To get there, A&E’s game plan called initially for the introduction of real-life series like Intervention, First 48,Gene Simmons Family Jewels and Paranormal. With phase two, off-network acquisitions in the form of CSI: Miami and The Sopranos, and last’s week purchase of cable-exclusive rights to Criminal Minds, were designed to build audience and help bolster sampling for the original shows.

Those gambits reduced the network’s median age significantly, while pushing A&E from the bottom of cable's top 20 among adults 25 to 54 and adults 18 to 49 to the medium's upper echelon with those metrics..

With “phase one and two firmly in place,” DeBitetto said July would be the time when A&E moves into its third stage “with the introduction of scripted dramas to our portfolio.”

The first manifestation: The Cleaner, a series based on the real-life story of Warren Boyd, who serves as an executive producer. The show stars Benjamin Bratt as William Banks, an ex-con and addict. He makes a deal with God to go straight and to help others “clean” their addictions, processes that often take precedence over his family and their needs and feelings.

Bratt, who is also appearing in Tony and Ridley Scott’s miniseries adaptation of The Andromeda Strain for A&E on Memorial Day weekend, and series creator Jonathan Prince (American Dreams, Cane) joined the network executive on stage to talk up the show. Writer Robert Munic (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) was in the first row.

Bratt said the show “would never exist on the Big 3 broadcast networks. It could never play out, it’s too real,” he said, noting that with “Munic’s different handling” of the series, he “actively campaigned for the role. I think this has the potential to resonate because addiction affects every one in this room in some way. I think you’ll be pleased when you see it.”

Prince noted the series trades on self-enclosed dramatic stories and the emotions they evoke.

“It’s not about thinking, not a puzzle kind of show,” he said. “It will have you on the edge of your couch because it’s heart breaking about the addict or [Ben’s] character or his family.”

Scenes screened from the first episode centered on a high school basketball star, who has not been able to get over his father’s death a year earlier. The teen is sinking deeper and deeper into drugs, while his mother continues to delude herself that things are okay, until she finds him stealing some of her jewelry after failing to crack the family safe. Meanwhile in attending to this and other storylines, Bratt’s character forgets a school function appointment with his daughter.

DeBitetto called The Cleaner “our first signature drama,” adding it was a perfect illustration of the “Real Life. Drama” tagline the network will make the centerpiece of its new rebranding campaign. He said A&E is actively engaged in “a targeted development process” that he hopes will yield a pair of scripted shows annually.

A&E’s programming team is currently evaluating two pilots: The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost) as a tough and unorthodox FBI agent; and  Danny Fricke, led by Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, Ice Harvest) as the eponymous detective, whose sleeping with the boss may have gotten her the gig on a high-profile murder investigation.

“Ideally, we’ll make our selection over the next few months and have one of the shows come on early next year," DeBitetto said, noting that Swayze’s health issues certainly enter into the equation. The actor is battling pancreatic cancer.

The network is also looking for the return of what had been its top show, Dog The Bounty Hunter, currently in production, sometime later this year. A&E suspended the show in November after the National Enquirer posted an audio clip of star Duane “Dog” Chapman using a racial slur for African-Americans in reference to his son’s girlfriend during a private phone conversation.

DeBitetto said that even without Dog in the lineup, A&E’s performance improved. “It showed we had a deep bench,” he said.

In fact, the success of the docu-series and off-network acquisitions have enabled A&E to shave 15 years off its median age viewer to 46 and helped make 2007 the best in the service’s 24-year history in terms of primetime delivery of adults 25 to 54 and 18 to 49. The network upped its average by 10% last year with both of those key groups over 2006 levels.

Momentum continued in the first quarter, which DeBitetto said was the best in A&E history, when it finished fourth and fifth in ad-supported cable with the 25-to-54 and 18-to-49 sets, respectively.

Those results are the prelude to the previously alluded to rebranding initiative. Blasting off with The Andromeda Strain and running well into the summer and The Cleaner’s launch, the campaign will showcase key A&E characters posing a challenge to the viewer that gets to the emotional heart of the real-life drama in each of the shows. The multimillion dollar, multiplatform initiative will encompass national and local television spots, online, print advertising in major publications and out-of-home in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago.

Some of that creativity was on display during the upfront event. The antechamber to the screening room featured posters of various characters, accompanied by copy. For instance, Gene Simmons was accoutered with “I’m perfect. You’re not. Can you handle that?” For the second season of The Two Coreys, Feldman and Haim, appear with ice pops in hand and the words, “What comes first, friendship or fame?

This motif also transferred over to TV, as A&E ran a 70-second compilation commercial touting nine shows, including newcomers, The Cleaner, a standing Bratt, with the phrase, “Now I’m clean, who’s next?”; and Manhunters, where the question is asked “Would you go in if you knew you might not come out?” as U.S. Marshalls bust into a room.

Also, Tony Sirico, Paulie Walnuts of The Sopranos, is shown digging a grave, flanked by the query: “Will you be there for me when I have to deal with a death in the family?”