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Changing Identity - Broadcasting & Cable

Changing Identity

A&E viewers prefer reality shows
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A&E is programming less "arts and entertainment" and more reality and pop culture. After years of watching ratings erode as a top-10 cable network, A&E is putting a new plan in place. Critics may accuse the channel of abandoning its highbrow roots, but viewers are responding.

The network's latest slate of nonscripted shows is generating much-needed buzz. Growing Up Gotti, a reality show starring Victoria Gotti and her three teenage sons, arrives Aug. 2. Dog the Bounty Hunter, about a Hawaiian family of bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, hits Aug. 31. (The latter may be a trend: HBO has its own show about a family of New York bounty hunters, Family Bonds, premiering next month.)

Executive Vice President and General Manager Abbe Raven calls the channel's new lineup "the real-life–series model." Translation: shows about interesting people—from a real mobster's daughter to Duane Chapman, otherwise known as Dog, the hard-charging bounty hunter.

The network's new reality twist kicked off with Airline, about Southwest Airlines, and Family Plots, which centers on a family-run funeral home. Now in its second season, Airline
attracts nearly 2 million viewers, and Family Plots
was just renewed.

Says media buyer Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat USA, "This is what advertisers are looking for: HBO-type shows that push the envelope a little but are still enticing to advertisers."

The next step in A&E's transformation, suggests Kathryn Thomas, associate director for Starcom Entertainment, is tweaking the brand. Its current slogan is "the art of entertainment." With new programming, that message may need an update. Airline
is powerful, interesting and compelling, but is it the art of entertainment? Or is it a misplaced show from the Travel Channel? "Maybe A&E is 'Always and Everything,'" she says. "If you're going to go broad, go broad."

The network's ratings situation is equally curious. It has seen 10 months of ratings growth among adults 25-54. In July, total viewership was off about 13% from 2003 to 1.15 million viewers. But the drop isn't necessarily bad. A&E's delivery to adults 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 saw double-digit increases, meaning older viewers are defecting. That helps business—and the network's image.

A&E needed some good news. When Raven took over in fall 2002, it was on a serious downward slide. The brand was confused, Biography
was tired, and TNT had swiped its prized off-net Law & Order. Complicating matters, A&E Networks is known as a company that's slow to change, full of longtime executives more focused on ad sales and affiliate sales than on programming.

Now, with some positive momentum behind them, Raven and programming chief Bob DeBitetto have license to experiment. The new fare "is nothing short of revolutionary," says Raven, "and we've only just begun."

Other upcoming series include Caesars, about hotel workers in Las Vegas' famed Caesars Palace, and Mondo Magic
, a docu-reality program about a veteran magician and a rising star, debuting Oct. 4. By far, A&E's most controversial project is the documentary series Intervention,
where friends and family will try to help troubled loved ones. (The participants consent to counseling but are unaware an intervention will happen.)

On the scripted front, A&E has upcoming biopics about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
and Sen. Hillary Clinton, as well as miniseries Blackout, based on last summer's power outage in the Northeast. British spy series MI-5
is returning for a third season. Come fall 2006, A&E will add off-nets of CSI: Miami
, which run upward of $1 million an episode.

Still, skeptics remain. Some media buyers grumble that A&E had a blue-chip brand and didn't maintain it. The network has made progress, they say, but reinvention is a difficult task.

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