A&E Network tries to turn its fortunes around

Sunday, March 16, 2003

NEW YORK -- It's the smallest of signs, but Bill Kurtis hopes his recent trip from Chicago to Gary, Ind., is an indication that things may get better at the A&E Network.

Kurtis was asked by Abbe Raven, A&E's new general manager, to use a particularly photogenic courthouse in Gary as a backdrop for some "American Justice" scenes. Previously, most filming was done in a classroom courtroom at Northwestern University.

He was impressed by Raven's attention to detail.

"I like it," he said. "I think she's grabbed hold and almost miraculously in a month or so moved it in a new direction."

Small signs mean a lot because the big picture hasn't been pretty at A&E, a cable channel in a long decline that is searching for an identity in a crowded cable universe.

A&E's problems came from several different directions.

"Biography," the series it has been most identified with, lost steam and its sense of uniqueness -- not helped by the decision to start a separate A&E Biography channel in 1998.

Reruns of "Law & Order," for years quietly one of A&E's biggest draws, were lost last year when it was outbid by TNT for the syndication rights.

Search for signature show

Original programming efforts, like "100 Centre Street," failed to catch on. The decision to rerun episodes of "The View" in early evening for working women was a flop.

Raven's predecessor, Allen Sabinson, fired last summer after less than two years on the job, complained publicly that A&E was reluctant to invest in original programming.

A&E doesn't have a hot signature program -- like "The Sopranos" on HBO, "Trading Spaces" on TLC or "The Shield" on FX -- to distinguish itself at a time when the average home gets 125 channels, said analyst Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer at Kagan World Media.

"In television you have to continually reinvent yourself," he said. "Their franchises have to get refreshed, and I'm not sure they've shown they can do that."

A&E's average viewership was down 23 percent in February compared with the same month last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. In prime time, A&E's average of 1.03 million was down 11 percent from last year.

The median viewership age for A&E is in the mid-50s, Raven said.

"How you move the needle is you do it by doing it slowly," she said, "and by saying I can deliver the 35- to 54-year-olds before I can deliver the 25-year-olds."

Raven, who has brought in a new program development and marketing team, wants to make more movies and miniseries.

The niche is available since most broadcasters have left that form of programming behind.

Raven has also given the green light for a new series, "MI5," produced in cooperation with the BBC about Britain's domestic intelligence agency. It will debut in the summer.

Despite the decline in popularity, she believes A&E's reputation is still strong.

"Without question, we should be the network for the educated, adult audience," she said. "When the audience wants more from TV, they should be turning to A&E."

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