Twenty years ago, there was no A&E Television Network. Today, the company’s reach extends around the globe in the form of TV channels, books, magazines, websites and CDs. How did it get there? JONATHAN LINK traces AETN’s ascent
The rise of the Arts & Entertainment Television Network from upstart to monolith is nothing if not impressive. In the 18 years since its launch with a single U.S. cable channel (A&E), AETN has grown into an international multimedia operation that includes websites, book and magazine publishing, and four channels – A&E, The Biography Channel, The History Channel and History International – which are now seen by more than 250 million people in 60 countries worldwide, the latest two territories being Korea and Turkey. In the 2001 EquiTrend Survey, A&E, The Biography Channel and The History Channel all landed in the top 10 most recognized television network and media brands. In the beginning, however, success was far from guaranteed. While it might be an exaggeration to call aetn’s beginnings ‘humble’, few could have foreseen how big – and successful – the company would become, not even its founders.
In 1984, when Live Aid was the biggest television event in history, Nick Davatzes, then a senior VP at Warner Amex Cable, was handed a business plan. ‘It was written for bankers and a bit short on reality,’ he says of the scheme to merge two fledgling cable services, Alpha Repertory Television Services (ARTS) and The Entertainment Channel, and turn them into A&E. ‘I sat down with my wife and said ‘I don’t know where this is going.”
Called in by the primary investors – the Hearst Corporation, ABC and NBC – Davatzes guided the launch of A&E and has remained at the helm, now as president and CEO of AETN. He has earned high praise for his achievements, but when asked about the company’s success, Davatzes is self-deprecating: ‘Only some people believe their press; it’s also good to be lucky.’
The initial idea for A&E was simple: deliver high quality arts programming to the educated viewer. Not a far-fetched proposal, but many had a hard time imagining the venture as a financial success, let alone as the eventual underpinning of a broadcasting empire. Although the educated viewer is considerably more affluent than the average couch potato, there are fewer of them.
Recounting the early and rough goings of AETN, Davatzes says, ‘People would come into my office and say, ‘You don’t have photos of the family on your desk.’ I’d tell them, ‘When it’s really a company, the photos will be there.” One year after A&E began broadcasting, and after fine tuning both the philosophy and strategic plan, family photos were firmly in place on Davatzes’ desk.
For the first couple of years, A&E broadcast a heavy slate of high art and managed to reach into nine million U.S. homes. But, change came fast. ‘Opera doesn’t work very well on TV, you need to be in the opera house,’ says Davatzes. ‘We went from Cosi Fan Tutti to Elton John in the performance department.’ By 1987 A&E had also broadened its scope beyond the arts. Today, non-arts strands such as ‘Investigative Reports’ are among the most popular on the channel.
‘Success in our industry is connecting with the audience and that’s one rule they haven’t forgotten,’ says Pat Ferns, president and chief executive officer of the Banff Television Festival and a long time independent producer, referring to AETN. ‘They recognized that being a broadcaster is not just about having a licence to be shown – you have to participate with a community and not be seen as a parasite.’
Establishing a connection with an audience while providing alternative programming is a rare feat. It’s one of the reasons why the board at the Banff Television Festival chose to award AETN with the Global Outstanding Achievement Award this year. Past winners include Discovery, Boston-based pubcaster WGBH and the BBC in the U.K.
In addition to the Banff TV award, aetn’s list of awards and accolades, both for programming and community works, is staggering: Emmy, CableACE, Peabody – AETN has several of each. This kind of recognition began in the early days and has steadily increased, keeping pace with a concurrent rise in ratings.
Biography of ‘Biography’
Things really began to take off for AETN three years after going on the air, when A&E began producing the ‘Biography’ strand. With performer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker as the first subject, audiences reacted positively to both the show and the format.
The strand has since become AETN’s signature series, spawning a magazine (3.8 million subscribers) and its own channel four years ago. ‘Biography’, in its 15th year, is now television’s longest running, single-topic, doc series, profiling nearly 1,000 people, from historical figures to pop culture icons.
Davatzes explains how ‘Biography’ developed into a brand: ‘When ‘Biography’ started airing five nights a week in 1994 – a move almost everybody at the network was against – we decided to create the magazine as a TV guide.’ Although the popularity of the publication was a surprise, aetn seized the opportunity. The TV guide inspired the creation of Biography Magazine which in turn gave birth to Biography Books for both adults and children. From the printed page, it was a small step to CDs, home videos and the Biography.com website, which has a searchable database of some 25,000 names.
A majority of the ‘Biography’ episodes are produced by independent producers, many of whom return to work with aetn again and again.
‘The culture is collaborative and open, we all share the same values,’ say Jonathan Towers, who has a 12-year-long production relationship with A&E Networks, including several ‘Biography’ episodes. ‘We are in business to get ratings, but also to deliver high quality.’ Chicago, U.S.-based Towers Productions has produced episodes of ‘Investigative Reports’, but is probably best known for work on ‘American Justice’. The latter show, an A&E original, began in 1992 and has since become one of the network’s biggest successes.
Over the years, as AETN grew, the production end changed for the better. Notes Towers, ‘The budgets have increased and the network is constantly raising the quality bar. These days, there is far more development – we have to prove a project’s viability before shooting a frame. The result is shows that are better thought out, conceived and told.’
History: The New Rock and Roll
In 1995, as the 500 channel universe was becoming a reality, aetn launched The History Channel, forcing more programming changes – a process Davatzes describes as a reshaping of the ‘mothership of A&E,’ as all historical programming shifted from A&E to the new channel.
While history programming was nothing new in the mid-’90s, the style of The History Channel was, and continues to be, innovative. ‘It’s exciting education and unexpected, it doesn’t tell you the conventional wisdom,’ says Towers, who has contributed episodes to several of the channel’s most successful shows including ‘History’s Mysteries’. ‘The History Channel has stolen a march of both new and old viewers. It’s got to be making the people at PBS nuts.’
From its inception, The History Channel focused on a young male audience.
This target defined the content choices. In turn, the channel’s success helped shape the history genre as a whole. Says Banff Television’s Pat Ferns, ‘History is the new rock and roll of television and A&E saw that coming.’ In seven years, The History Channel, the only international television network devoted exclusively to historical programming, has grown to reach more than 130 million homes around the world.
Around the globe and back
Part of the success for AETN has been its international vision. In 1995, the network began forging partnerships in other countries. Today, most of the world has access to The History Channel, The Biography Channel or A&E. In some markets, an incarnation of all three exists. Like the growing number of domestic subscribers, this expansion resulted from listening to, and taking advice from, local partners in the know.
‘It’s a challenge to understand the role you play in the international arena,’ says Davatzes. ‘Our partners manage the programming. We supply product they can re-host or re-edit, but they also get content locally.’
The success of AETN around the globe has also come through flexibility. ‘An Elvis Presley or George Bush ‘Biography’ might be accepted as is. If it’s on Charles de Gaulle, it might be changed, but it’s always a local decision,’ Davatzes notes. ‘The Chinese want social or ancient history – they don’t want the modern stuff like Chang kai-Chek. You have to accept their judgement.’
The idea that programming should adapt to foreign markets was turned on its head in 1998 with the introduction of History International in the U.S., which brings foreign views of the world to an American audience. Davatzes recounts how, on a trip to China, a conversation helped spark the idea for this venture. ‘The Chinese Minister of Culture asked me about my name. I told him my parents were Greek immigrants. He said, ‘Ah, another ancient culture.”
Davatzes’ international experiences (including being a Marine) and his strong sense of Greek heritage have contributed to a healthy awareness of the rest of the world – a quality Americans are often accused of not having. This awareness has translated into the philosophy behind History International: addressing what Davatzes calls an ‘Amero-centric’ view of the world.
At the same time, Davatzes believes the exchange of views and ideas works both ways: the American market gets a taste of the rest of the world, and ‘the domestic brands travel internationally’.
Good News, Good Works
The education of Americans – and not just viewers – has always been a part of the A&E philosophy. In particular, the network has parlayed its expertise in history to inspire conservation projects and awareness throughout the U.S. and internationally. aetn has also worked with many groups, including teachers, to provide incentives and learning materials for kids.
‘Every company has an obligation to do an outreach program,’ says Davatzes. ‘There are benefits for everyone. We see and develop the market while providing a useful service for free.’ The History Channel regularly offers scholarships and prizes to teachers and students, as well as on-site videos and materials for various national historical museums and organisations throughout the U.S. Through The History Channel Classroom Initiative, schools are provided with commercial-free programming and study guides – all for free.
The list of good works doesn’t stop there. The History Channel partnered with UNESCO in 1999 to launch Save Our History, an international campaign protecting endangered sites across the globe. Public service announcements and local websites are used to generate awareness and provide information about the plight of endangered World Heritage Sites. The effort earned The History Channel an Emmy.
This mix of quality programming, loyal audiences, and good corporate citizenship has won AETN respect and has achieved a level of audience involvement that is unique in television. Continuing in that tradition is AETN’s latest acquisition, Genealogy.com. The company designs, develops and markets genealogy software and online resources that enable family history enthusiasts to research, organize and document their own heritage. What this will spin into is anyone’s guess.
Over the years, as the television universe developed, aetn has continued with the same simple philosophy and strategy. ‘The goal is to communicate to the audience from multiple platforms,’ says Davatzes. ‘The only thing that has really changed is that I have less hair now.’
As Time Goes By…
A short history of AETN
1983 Alpha Repertory Television Services (ARTS) and The Entertainment Channel merge – A&E Network exists on paper
1984 A&E Network launches with one million initial subscribers
1987 A&E begins to air the ‘Biography’ strand. First educational awards program initiated. Teachers compete for thousands of dollars in grants. Subscribers number 30 million by the end of the year and a 24 hour a day schedule begins
1991 The 50 million subscriber mark is surpassed. Launch of home video business with box set of DINOSAUR! series
1994 ‘Biography’ goes to five nights a week
1995 The History Channel launches, winning one million subscribers in the first year. A&E reaches 60 million subscribers in the U.S. The History Channel in the U.K. is the company’s first international launch
1996 AETN goes online. Biography begins brand extension – books, children’s series, website, etcetera. The History Channel has 28 million subscribers by the end of the year
1997 Biography Magazine lands on newsstands. The History Channel launches in France, the Middle East and Scandinavia
1998 aetn launches two new digital channels in the U.S., History International and The Biography Channel. The History Channel debuts in Australia, the Baltics and Spain
1999 The History Channel moves into Portugal and Japan
2000 The History Channel launches in Hong Kong, Latin America, Israel and China. The Biography Channel has its first international launch in the U.K.
2001 The Biography Channel launches in Canada. The History Channel continues its global expansion in Taiwan. a&e wins a Peabody award for The Crossing
2002 The History Channel launches in Turkey and Korea. A&E reaches 85 million subscribers in the U.S., six million in Canada. ‘Biography’ celebrates 15 years and 1,000 episodes. All four AETN channels reach 250 million subscribers, in 60 countries and in 20 languages