Q&A: A&E's Bob DeBitetto

A&E Network chief talks with B&C about the future of "Dog the Bounty Hunter," the economy's effect on programming and development and how the "Sopranos" acquisition has panned out.
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With off-network reruns of CSI: Miami and Criminal Minds, a deep roster of unscripted crime shows (The First 48, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, premiering Dec. 9) and original series (The Cleaner and the upcoming The Beast), A&E is carving a niche as a law-and-order destination.

Bob DeBitetto, president and general manager of A&E Network and Bio Channel, talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about how he sees the network positioned during an economic downturn, when the financial crisis may impact television development and his prognosis for veteran reality shows Dog and Intervention.


It seems that at a time of great economic uncertainty, viewers are rejecting open-ended serials and frivolous dramedies for the black-and-white world of cops and criminals. Do you think any of that will matter as we head into hard times?

We're all looking at a challenging year next year in television. All of us. There's just no question about it. One of the things that you have to do to be successful is to read the tea leaves, to look forward, not backward.

It is fortuitous that some of the genres that we compete so well in are genres that people today are watching in greater numbers because some of the alternatives seem more frivolous in today's serious economic climate. We like where we are right now. Maybe in a few years we'll stick our finger up in the air again and see where things are.


The economic crisis has softened the scatter market. When does the recession begin to impact development?

Everybody is looking to first quarter as a major indicator of what 2009 is going to be like. Despite all the bad news, the fourth quarter has remained remarkably robust for us. If the retail spending numbers are really as bad as everybody thinks they might be this holiday season, that's when [advertisers] might really decide to cut back on ad spending in the first quarter.

There are a couple of things that are fiscally in favor of A&E right now. Broadcast networks continue to see extremely alarming losses in audience. And some of those audiences are going to cable.

There's a similar phenomenon going on in advertising spending. We're seeing the migration of advertising dollars from broadcast to cable. The CPM differential makes cable extremely attractive. In challenging economic times everybody is looking at their ROI and saying where can we most effectively place our ad dollar? I think cable offers a very attractive alternative in a difficult economic environment.

That's not to say cable's going to have a banner year next year. We're certainly all battening down the hatches and taking a close look at our plans.

What is the future of Dog and Intervention?

When you look at the network the last few years, if there is any one thing in terms of nuts and bolts and why we have succeeded, it's the consistency of our ability to develop, launch and sustain franchises. Not just a show that comes and goes after one or two seasons, but franchises that have staying power for three, four, five, six seasons.

This year, Intervention is having its highest ratings ever, and not by a little bit—50% over last year [in adults 18-49]. So when do I see them ending? I don't. In those two shows we haven't seen any indicators yet that maybe we're getting close to [the end]. We look for it. We haven't seen it.


Several years ago, A&E paid a lot of money for The Sopranos, which had to be stripped of all cussing, nudity and a lot of violence. In hindsight assess that decision.

If we had it to do all over again, I absolutely would.


Why?

At that time, a few years ago, A&E was in a very different place. We needed an A-triple-plus premium platform that was going to vault us to the next level not only in terms of brand and in terms of network perception, but in terms of a true premium property that we could bring into the ad marketplace to move us forward. If I showed you the list of between 50 and 100 clients that came to us and bought the network who had never bought the network before The Sopranos, you would see what I’m getting at. That franchise led such advancements in the ad marketplace. It really sort of vaulted the network to a new plateau.

I honestly don’t think the network would be where it is today in terms of brand perception and viewership but mostly in terms of CPM pricing and in terms of client mix. I just don’t think we would be in the same place. BMW is one example. BMW never bought A&E before The Sopranos. BMW has been a client ever since. Many many premium clients started to think of our network differently.

Now, given how it performed on the network, would I have preferred to pay less for that franchise? Absolutely. But nevertheless if I had it to do again, I would have absolutely done it again. So there has been a method to this. You just don’t necessarily see it when you look at it from the outside.

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