The cable guy
US CABLE PROGRAMMING: During his five-year reign at A&E Networks, Robert DeBitetto has transformed the broadcaster from an also-ran cable network into a top-10 entertainment destination. Adam Benzine reports.
When Robert DeBitetto was promoted to president and general manager of A&E Networks last June, the move was seen as recognition not just of his role in improving the struggling network’s ratings over a five-year period, but in taking a risk that had paid off.
In a role that sees him looking after the flagship A&E Television Network, Bio (formerly The Biography Channel) and the Crime & Investigation Network, DeBitetto has delivered four consecutive years of ratings growth for the networks, and a 15-year decrease in the network’s median age.
Under his tenure, the network has also launched A&E IndieFilms, a documentary feature film division that has produced a string of critically acclaimed movies, such as Murderball, Jesus Camp and last year’s Sundance Award-winning doc American Teen.
“When I arrived five years ago, A&E Network was really struggling – in every sense,” says DeBitetto. “Its ratings had deteriorated significantly. It used to enjoy top-10 status but had fallen nearer to the bottom 20 of all cable networks in the US The average age of an A&E viewer was 61 when I got there, so as a commercial platform it had a real problem.”
DeBitetto’s solution was to bring in a range of real-life, populist series. With shows such as Dog The Bounty Hunter, Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels and Criss Angel Mindfreak, the A&E channel has drawn in a much younger audience, and increased its ad slot worth in the process.
“To attract an entirely new generation of younger viewers to the network, we felt we had to transform it from an arts programmer to a premium entertainment network that offers compelling but also entertaining documentary programmes and doc series, combined with scripted, dramatic programming,” he says, adding that it was only last year that the network felt it had started to establish docu-soaps and doc series that would become “lasting franchises,” key titles being Intervention, The First 49, Manhunters (left) and Bounty Hunter.
“We’re now no longer near the bottom of the top 20 among adults 25-54, which is a key demo,” he says. “We are the number five cable network. And among a younger demo of 18-49, we are the number six network in television, which gives you some idea of how far we’ve come in a few short years.”
Similarly overhauled was The Biography Channel, which has radically changed its programme offering and now features a talkshow, Shatner’s Raw Nerve, as well as disaster recollection show I Survived.
“It was nothing more than a platform to repurpose the huge library of biography series that we have, but we’ve changed that dramatically and it’s now become a platform that has its own unique programming,” says DeBitetto. “We look at it as TV’s premiere platform for true stories about fascinating people – whether famous people or people you’ve never heard of.
“The Bio Channel is growing its distribution and its ratings. We are in negotiations with some of our biggest cable partners right now for enhanced distribution of the channel. We see a pretty clear path for getting Bio Channel to go from 55 million to 75 million homes in the next 24 months. If we’re able to do that, I think we’re going to be able to transform it into a significant national sales platform, so I think there’s a huge growth opportunity for that network.”
Although he sees 2009 as a year of opportunities, DeBitetto, like most top-level execs, is well aware of the need to tread carefully in light of the recession. “Clearly all of us are dependent on advertising revenue to a certain extent, and all of us are concerned about national advertising this year,” he says. “So far it has looked pretty robust, under the circumstances.”
Nevertheless, he doesn’t see the economy as being the network’s biggest challenge this year. “Our biggest challenge is to offer breakout, original programming that differentiates our brand and drives our growth,” he says. “That’s really always been the key challenge in