Shari Ann Brill, VP of programming for media-buying firm Carat USA, had one thought when she walked into A&E’s upfront presentation in New York last month. "I felt like I needed to get a tattoo," she says. This isn’t your mother’s A&E. In fact, president and CEO Abbe Raven kicked off the event by declaring: "The reinvention of A&E as a leading entertainment destination for young adults is well under way." At the upfront, Brill saw the rowdy cast of Knievel’s Wild Ride, with daredevil Robbie Knievel and his leather-clad posse looking like extras in a Bon Jovi video. She watched hunky illusionist Criss Angel (star of A&E’s reality series, Criss Angel Mind-freak) doff his shirt and be hoisted by his feet in an ode to Houdini. She checked out other tables with A&E talent: the cast of Dog the Bounty Hunter (also in leather and tattoos), Victoria Gotti and her sons, some actors from The Sopranos at one table and series producer David Chase at another, showing what paying a reported $2.5 million per episode can buy. As Raven exited, Brill thought: "I just didn’t get this sense of what they stand for now. And the reason I went was so I could get that." Self-reinvention is not easy, especially for a network that’s been firmly entrenched in viewers’ hearts and minds for two decades. At 21, A&E has shed its musty duds and donned hip clothes much in the way that Discovery Channel, which turns 20 this year, embraced its own "Tattoo TV" in fall 2002 when it anchored its Monday night programming block with the motorcycle hit American Chopper. A&E and Discovery, which still jostle for position in brand loyalty polls, both want to skew toward the younger viewers hotly pursued by many advertisers. Each touts the "de-graying" of their brands and boasts about how they have shaved years off their median ages thanks to their new hipper programming: seven years in Discovery’s case (to 40) and eight years for A&E (to 51). Both brands boldly have been changing their programming identity under new executives. Turner veteran Bob DeBitteto joined A&E as SVP of programming (he’s now EVP) two years ago and promptly ordered up reality series such as Airline, Growing Up Gotti, this year’s Intervention and its other so-called "real-life docusoaps." Discovery Channel last May hired BBC2 head Jane Root as its EVP and GM with a mandate to boost ratings, develop new shows and revitalize the brand. A&E’s transformation has been a tough pill to swallow for loyalists such as Scott Pierce, the TV critic who last month in Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News slammed A&E for its "slate of cheesy, embarrassing reality shows." Old-school fans miss British mysteries and performing arts shows like the concert series Live By Request, which hit its final note last December. Even the flagship Biography series is making way for a hipper celebrity profile series dubbed Being…, coming from Mick Jagger’s production company. Discovery Channel—stung by the overexposure of the home makeover series Trading Spaces on sister net TLC—has stepped back from its own overreliance on the American Chopper/Monster Garage "toys for boys" programming that played a big part in last year’s upfront. At its 2005/06 upfront presentation last month, Discovery showcased big-ticket, nonfiction specials more in the vein of what viewers (and board members like John Malone, chairman of DCI co-owner Liberty Media) have come to love and expect from Discovery. Advertisers love them too: the hottest show at the upfront was the special Planet Earth, a co-production from BBC/NHK/Discovery that’s picking up where hit nature documentary series Blue Planet left off. On Target vs. Off Brand Both networks have "traded class for mass" in order to lure younger audiences and boost ratings, according to an executive at another cable network. A&E saw its 2004 prime-time ratings for adults 18 to 49 increase 34% (and 76% for adults 18 to 34). Discovery Channel experienced 15% growth in adults 18 to 49 during the November 2004 sweep period, but got off to a rocky start this year, with its prime-time ratings down 27% in the first quarter. Viewers are still getting used to these on-air changes, while MSOs and Madison Avenue also have to adjust to the tweaking of two high-end brands that over the years have attracted high-end advertisers and subscribers. Refining a brand with sharper programming is one thing. But jettisoning older audiences could backfire, says Carat’s Brill. "Everybody wants to say they’re hitting in the 18 to 49 demo," she says. "In the case of A&E, traditional art and culture appeal to older adults, which seems to be a negative. But older adults also have more discretionary affluence because they’re empty nesters. So they’re chasing away [and] risking what built them." Similarly, cable distributors want A&E and Discovery to maintain their respective commitments to the arts and to factual science and nature programming. "I expect Discovery and A&E to be the `educators’ through compelling entertainment of our youth," says Mediacom Communications EVP of programming Italia Commisso Weinand. "I feel that to some degree Discovery lost its vision and National Geographic has filled that void… Food and HGTV have stayed focused on their core product and they are a destination for the viewers that cannot get enough of decorating and food. They have extended their programming mix to reach various age groups, but so far they have stayed true to their brand." Patrick Knorr, general manager of Lawrence, Kan.-based Sunflower Broadband, feels there is a danger of homogenization of content across all networks. "What is the point of giving subscribers 100 channels when every channel is going after the same demo with flavor-of-the-year, similar programming?" he says. "To a point, if they are popular that is important to me as an operator. But if my older demographics decide there is not quality programming for them and drop their cable service, we all lose." In Defense of Youth Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart understands why both programmers have been willing to suffer through growing pains (albeit in reverse). "In today’s cable climate, I don’t see how any channel except C-SPAN can do other than reach for short-term ratings," he says. "If their long-term brand identity is good, then they should do fine in the short run, too." He enjoys A&E’s reality programming so long as it’s balanced by such flagship nonfiction programming as its justice shows created by host/producer Bill Kurtis, a 15-year A&E veteran. Barnhart also applauds Discovery Channel’s on-air mix of reality shows. A&E and Discovery argue that they’re not only getting younger—they’re getting better. Raven, a 23-year veteran of AETN who was recently promoted to the company’s top spot, says her networks will be in the top five tier of cable channels before the addition of The Sopranos in fall 2006. She balks at the suggestion that her upfront event in New York was a bastion of black leather and tattoos. It was crafted to underline to advertisers that "A&E and History are no longer a maybe buy, they’re must buys," she says. "I’m happy that it’s not my mother’s A&E," she adds, pointing to the network’s 24 Emmy nominations last year as evidence that it still produces high-quality programming. Discovery executives also argue that they are staying true to the brand. "We’re starting to push the envelope and try new things," says Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell. "You may have monthly or weekly aberrations in the way [you] program, but if you stay true to your core and your spine—and ours really is quality—then the audience always comes back. We’re finding that younger audiences are starting to get on board." Discovery Gets Beta and Beta The Discovery Channel beat A&E in the 2005 Beta Research Brand Identity Study (for top-ranked major cable networks), as it typically has in the past. "Discovery ranks very high [this year] on specific brand attributes and has for the fast few years," says Andy Klein, president of the cable television division at Beta Research. "It has a very strong brand image, and this year its indices have increased. A&E this year also had significant increases in indices and ranks among the top 15 or so networks." Here’s how Discovery fared this year: 2005 Beta Research Brand Identity Study
The New Reality
Would this have ever been tolerated at the old Discovery? Discovery Channel EVP/GM Jane Root ruffled a few feathers when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed that Discovery offered a $250,000 prize to the crab-fishing boat that scored the biggest haul in its current series World’s Deadliest Catch, about the dangerous and competitive Alaskan crab industry. Root, who was on maternity leave and unavailable for an interview for this story, confirmed to the Post-Intelligencer that the producers (Thom Beers’ Original Productions) had offered the cash sweetener yet failed to disclose that snake-in-the-tent incentive on-air or in the credits. She dismissed the situation, calling it "a little thing." After Root was hired last May, a minor flap ensued when the Discovery Docs partnership between the channel and the CameraPlanet production company ended and the production company closed its doors in December. The partnership was created to commission feature-length documentaries from top American filmmakers such as Barbara Kopple. The only documentary that resulted from the partnership—Peter Gilbert’s "With All Deliberate Speed"—had a limited theatrical release last year and airs on Discovery May 26. Root is currently funding feature-length documentaries by European filmmakers Werner Herzog and Vikram Jayanti; both will air on Discovery. "Werner and Vikram are examples of the kind of people we want to work with: really high-level projects, high-level people," Root told CableWORLD last December. —S.B.