AETN: The brand builders turn 25

February marks the 25th anniversary of the Feb. 1, 1984 launch of the original A&E network; a quarter of a century later the small offices of its origins have exploded into a global media concern with seven brands, two HD networks, and a robust international business, as well as consumer products, film, and home video divisions.
January 1, 2009

The origins of A&E Television Networks (AETN) were not unlike those of other broadcasters; in small offices crowded with lots of people. February marks the 25th anniversary of the Feb. 1, 1984 launch of the original A&E network; a quarter of a century later those small offices have exploded into a global media concern with seven brands, two HD networks, and a robust international business, as well as consumer products, film, and home video divisions.


Abbe Raven, president and CEO of AETN, was there from the beginning as a self- described ‘very junior person.’

Raven was working with parent company, Alpha Repertory Television Services when it merged with the Entertainment Channel in 1983 to form A&E. In 1984 when A&E went on-air, Raven was a lowly production assistant. ‘There was a real feeling of an entrepreneurial spirit, that we were creating something exciting,’ she says. ‘There was a great deal of energy to be part of something that was a brand new venture.’

To hear Raven tell it, A&E began with modest goals in mind. ‘We hoped that we could break even, and we were able to do that very early.’

She maintains that the key to AETN’s early and continued success remains its consistent focus on quality programming: ‘We learned that quality content resonates with large audiences and that became our mantra.’ To that end, when the company launched, it made the decision that it was going to own its content. ‘That decision really enabled us to leverage our destiny and be able to launch other channels,’ says Raven.

In fact, the story of AETN is really a story of brand development. From the launch of its first franchise series, Biography, to the 2005 launch of its latest network, Crime and Investigation, AETN has consistently developed its products into full-fledged brands, periodically spinning off new genre-based networks along the way.

‘We had, from the beginning, great success with high quality content, and our brand began to evolve because we became a leader in creating different genres within it,’ says Raven.


After noticing a successful block of historical programming on A&E, the company moved to launch the History Channel in 1995. This period marked the transition of A&E into AETN, and signified the company’s coming of age as a content provider.

‘Nobody had a crystal ball then,’ recalls Raven. ‘We knew that people were passionate about history and we had the same kind of feeling [as before] that if we put on great history programming, they would come.’

In the 14 years since the History Channel (rebranded this past year as simply ‘History’) launched it has become a main viewing choice for men around the world, with an audience that is 70% male – the perfect complement to the female-skewing A&E.

According to Nancy Dubuc, EVP/GM of History, the last two years have seen incredible growth. This year alone the network has grown 18% in the 18 to 49 demographic and 12% in 25 to 54.

‘We are very well positioned to steal share,’ says Dubuc. ‘And we are the number one non-fiction network for men.’

The continued success of History has set a precedent for how AETN has expanded its brands, and introduced new networks into the marketplace.

In 1998, after successfully extending the Biography brand from a show that aired once a week to airing five nights a week, and then into a magazine, a book and CD series, AETN introduced the next logical progression, The Biography Channel.

The network, which has since had its handle shortened to Bio, is currently in about 55 million homes in the U.S. The format has been expanded to encompass not just the Biography series, but any documentary programming that is about fascinating people. In this sense, Bio follows the trail blazed by History.

‘We had great ratings success with each of those genres, and we did research that said people have a great deal of interest in these topics,’ says Raven. ‘To us, that said this [sort of content] is part of the cultural fabric of the world and we could deliver more successful programs in these genres.’

The portfolio of networks on AETN has continued to grow, and now includes History International and Military History – two examples of History recognizing potential sub-genres within its own programming. And most recently AETN launched Crime and Investigation on the back of its extensive justice-based programming.

‘I think the success of our company has been that we have our finger on the pulse of popular culture, and we can anticipate the success of those genres,’ sums up Raven.


The 1995 introduction of History also marked the beginning of AETN’s foray into the international marketplace. History UK appeared on the heels of the U.S. launch, and represents AETN’s first international partnership.

Today AETN International has six partnerships worldwide, in regions including Latin America, Spain and Portugal, Japan, Germany and Southeast Asia. EVP of enterprises Steve Ronson says these partnerships have enabled AETN to deliver on its plans to offer global brands with local expertise.

‘We have decided over time to partner with an entity in each region that either brings an expertise in content development, expertise in distribution and/or expertise in operations,’ says Ronson. ‘And in many cases we get a partner that is good at all of those, or some of those.’

The success AETN has been able to achieve in each market is based on a blend of global content, stemming from the portfolio of programming from the U.S., with localized content of interest to whatever region or country they are operating in.

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to its six partnerships, AETN International has nine license operations, in Canada, Australia and Israel among others. Then, there is the third avenue of AETN International’s business model: syndication. ‘We are very fortunate to have tremendous domestic brands, Top 10 in the marketplace, that obviously are the fuel and the content and programming that we take to market overseas,’ says Ronson.

AETN channels and programs are now available in more than 125 countries, reaching over 235 million TV households. Ronson says international has already begun to outstrip the U.S. as the engine of the company. In fact, Crime and Investigation was launched in Australia, the first of AETN’s networks to not be introduced domestically.

With all of AETN’s evolution over the years, it’s easy to forget that just a few short years ago, the company was facing a major challenge with its flagship network A&E. ‘We were not attracting new audiences,’ recalls Raven. ‘We took a hard look at our programming and found we needed to introduce programs that were more relevant to a slightly younger audience to engage them to come into the tent.’

The result was reflected in a new slogan: ‘Real Life. Drama’. There was also a steady introduction of new factual programs Raven refers to as ‘real-life programming,’ including Intervention, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, and Dog the Bounty Hunter to name a few.

These were part of a three-pronged strategy that included acquiring high profile dramas, such as The Sopranos, and introducing original dramas, like The Cleaner.

The strategy to skew younger worked, and today A&E is the number five cable network in adults 25 to 54 and the number six cable network in delivery of adults 18 to 49.

Like all of AETN’s success over the last quarter century, Raven attributes this latest taste to the key lesson that was learned in the early days of the company.

‘Whether it’s AETN, whether it’s the History Channel, Bio, any of our channels, or any of those channels around the world, it’s still about the secret ingredient – people want to watch entertaining quality programming.’


1983 – Alpha Repertory Television Services (ARTS) and The Entertainment Channel merge – A&E Network is formed.

1984 – The A&E Network launches with one million initial subscribers.

1987 – A&E begins to air the Biography series. 24-hour programming begins by end of year.

1991 – The 50 million subscribers mark is hit. Launch of home video business with box set of DINOSAUR! series.

1994Biography goes to five nights a week.

1995 – The History Channel launches. The History Channel UK follows, and is the company’s first international launch.

1996 – AETN goes online. Biography begins brand extension. The History Channel has 28 million subscribers by the end of the year.

1997 – 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 UK.

2001 – The Biography Channel launches in Canada. The History Channel continues its global expansion in Taiwan.

2002 – The History Channel launches in Turkey and Korea. Biography celebrates 15 years and 1,000 episodes.

2003 – The History Channel launches as a programming block in Indonesia and Greece, launches History Channel in Italy. A&E Networks celebrates its 20th anniversary.

2004 – The Biography Channel launches in Australia. A&E Network launches The First 48. The History Channel en español officially launches. A&E Network debuts Dog The Bounty Hunter on August 31. The History Channel launches in Germany.

2005 – The Crime & Investigation Network debuts worldwide on January 1 in Australia on FOXTEL Digital. The Biography Channel launches in Spain and Portugal. Abbe Raven is named president & CEO, A&E Television Networks. Military History Channel launches.

2006 – The Crime and Investigation Network launches in the UK, Turkey and Greece. Gene Simmons Family Jewels premieres. AETN content becomes available for download through iTunes. The History Channel reaches more than 91 million Nielsen subscribers.

2007 – The History Channel and Crime & Investigation Network launch successfully in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei. re-launches home page. A&E posts its best year in network history across all key demographics for 2007.

2008 – A&E launches its first scripted series in more than six years, The Cleaner starring Benjamin Bratt, and doubles A&E’s 2008 primetime audience.


Bob DeBitetto, president, A&E Network, Bio, Crime and Investigation

For DeBitetto the biggest challenge facing A&E going forward is to continue its current run of success, or, as he puts it, ‘How do you grow on top of growth?’

DeBitetto stresses that A&E is intently focused on the delivery of two key demographics, adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54. In this respect A&E is hitting its target, but in order to grow past its current status as the number five or six cable network in the U.S. [depending on which demographic you look at], it’s going to have to stay aggressive.

‘The strategy really is to take all the franchises that we have that are working so well and add to them sought after, first-class original programming,’ he says.

According to DeBitetto, this involves a strong push in scripted original drama, but he is adamant that the push will not come at the expense of factual programming.

‘Remember what A&E has been for the last few years, [a home for] great factual programming documentary series,’ he says. What DeBitetto is looking for is a balance between factual and scripted dramas.

As far as content goes, DeBitetto says when it comes to A&E it’s got to have mass appeal. ‘It is all about the absolutely best highest quality, factual and scripted programming, things that we are convinced have high ratings potential.’

The Bio Channel, on the other hand, offers some room for risk-taking. Currently Bio is available in 55 million homes in the U.S. and DeBitetto’s plan calls for that number to grow to 75 million homes in the next 24 months.

‘We are looking for creativity,’ he says. ‘It’s less about necessarily having a huge audience potential, and more about having the potential to reinforce Bio as a very viable network.’

As for Crime and Investigation, the channel was launched in Australia, and has become a success overseas. DeBitetto’s current plans focus on replicating that success in the U.S.

‘The strategy for CI is very much a distribution strategy,’ he says, adding that AETN is working with some of its key MSO and satellite partners to grow the distribution of this relatively new digital network.

Nancy Dubuc, EVP/GM, History (History, Military History and History International)

According to Nancy Dubuc, History’s current brand strategy for growth is already in its third year, and has proven to be quite successful.

The plan for History was to build on the success the network traditionally had with specials by focusing on the development and delivery of new series. ‘We knew if we could hit it out of the park with series, then we had this audience that was ready, willing and waiting and they would come to us on a nightly basis, which is sort of where we are now,’ says Dubuc.

All of the top shows in the network’s run have been launched in the last two years. This success has allowed History to extend its brand beyond more traditional historical programming. ‘I think we have proven that the audience is willing to allow our brand to expand,’ she reasons. ‘There are many different genres of history.’

When it comes to History’s outer limits, Dubuc says it’s all about common sense. ‘Within our own world the audience tells me everyday what’s acceptable to do and what not to do.’

Additionally, there has been a concerted effort at AETN to grow the brand beyond its linear beginnings. For one, the network rebranded itself in early 2008 as History, as opposed to The History Channel. ‘That was a deliberate positioning of the network for a new era of multimedia, where we wanted to be a history brand, not a ‘history channel’ brand,’ she explains.

In this vein, has announced a partnership with the Library of Congress, which enables users to access the library’s database. The deal ‘delivers a tremendous amount of content to our users, and the Library of Congress gets some much needed marketing and media attention from us,’ says Dubuc.

History International is another key area of development for Dubuc, one she plans on giving much of her attention to in the coming year.

‘I think that we can do a lot of work to develop that brand and to grow the programming and the audiences on that network,’ she says, adding that price point on programming remains a key concern when talking about History International in these tough economic times.

And as far as Military History goes, Dubuc says its content remains largely dictated by its genre.

‘Military history has long been a core attribute of our brand,’ she maintains. ‘Just the way that History was born out of programming on A&E that was working, Military History was born out of programming on History that was working.’

Steve Ronson, EVP of Enterprises, AETN International

AETN International has a two-point plan for growth over the coming years, according to Ronson. First, extend the brand to areas where it still hasn’t penetrated the market. In essence, the aim is to extend the global footprint into territories such as Russia and France, which currently do not have any linear AETN channels.

The second phase of the plan is to expand AETN brands in the markets they are currently in by offering a full bouquet of AETN content.

‘Our international business and brands have been growing very rapidly and have been tracking in excess of 20% growth year on year for the last three-plus years,’ says Ronson.

Thus, Ronson’s optimistic about the future, even in the face of a global financial downturn.

‘We still believe that the international segment will continue to grow,’ he says. ‘We think there are a lot more opportunities for the distribution of our brands in each territory that we are in, and certainly in some new territories.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.