Jack Myers Lunch at Michael's with A&E's Bob DeBitetto
Since taking over the helm of A&E Network, Bob DeBitetto has introduced programming that has brought A&E's median age from 62 into the mid-40s. That's considered a nearly impossible feat in TV, but it's also a dual edged sword. On the positive side ad revenues are up. But younger audiences are also more likely to use DVRs to skip commercials, they switch channels more frequently, and they expect online content extensions. "The TV business isn't an easy game," says the general manager of A&E, Biography Channel and Crime & Investigation Channel. But, he adds, "how lucky am I to be in the TV industry when it's the most dynamically changing industry in the world? We all have a lot to learn but we're learning at the same time."
"We managed a risky strategy of pushing the envelope while being respectful of our brand," Bob told me during our Lunch at Michael's. "We had a very specific plan" that included original non-fiction programming (Criss Angel Mindfreak, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Intervention, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Dallas SWAT); acquisitions of great dramatic series (CSI Miami, The Sopranos); and planned for next year, a major TV event and at least one original dramatic series. Bob's plan for the future includes a "powerfully articulated repositioning that emotionally and attitudinally defines our DNA."
Bob and "specific plans" did not necessarily go together when he started out after graduating from SUNY Stony Brook and traveling far from home to attend law school at UCLA. "I had seven majors at Stony Brook and spent most of my time booking concerts and listening to rock n' roll," he laughs. "I wasn't especially entrepreneurial; I just loved music. And going to law school helped me avoid being asked what I was going to do when I graduated." UCLA attracted him since he was certain "law school would be boring, so I should at least go to Southern California.”
To his surprise, Bob enjoyed law school, finding the philosophical discussions engaging, and he was recruited by an entertainment law firm where he was working when introduced by a colleague to Disney. The studio was looking for an in-house attorney and Bob's timing was perfect. "It was the beginning of a magical decade," Bob reminisces. "It was like a MASH unit of talented people who had a great time and achieved great success." Working with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Mechanic, Chris McGuirk and Rich Frank, Bob was promoted from in-house lawyer, to business affairs, to financing acquisitions and co-productions.
After Katzenberg left Disney, Bob joined Hollywood veteran Amy Pascal to launch a new film studio for Ted Turner, which had only a short life-span after Time Warner acquired Turner. "My career path wasn't exactly planned up until then," Bob admits. "But my parents instilled in us that we should get the best education we could and to be as creative as we could be in everything we did."
Growing up in Westchester County, Bob was a fan of iconic variety programs like Sonny & Cher and The Smothers Brothers, provocative series like All In the Family, and he "never missed" Saturday Night Live. "Television was more risk-taking then," he recalls. "There was a fearlessness as television tackled the divisive issues of the day. The environment in TV today is less receptive, but as the political climate changes, these lessons from the past aren't lost on me."
While Bob believes you can't underestimate the importance of new media, he points out "when you are a mature TV network with access to 90 million households nightly, it gives you a real advantage and ability to have relevance. We can't lose sight of TV's power and instantaneous reach. The new platforms support and help us create sustainable program franchises that appeal to younger audiences."
"Three years ago, A&E was #21 ranked network among adults 18 to 49, and today we're #6," Bob says proudly. But, he asks, "how do we capitalize on this and establish a clear brand with this audience? We need to translate to viewers and advertisers what our original and off-network programs have in common."
The Sopranos' acclaimed final two seasons, including the controversial finale, will run over 20 straight weeks as a major A&E event next year. "Great stories, well told" was instilled in me at Disney," Bob comments. "That's been our strategy for off-network program acquisition and now we have several concepts for original dramas in development, targeting at least one original series next summer." A&E is also producing one of next season's biggest TV events, a remake of the classic 1971 Michael Crichton thriller, Andromeda Strain, with executive producers Tony and Ridley Scott. The four-hour mini-series features Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Ricky Schroder, Andre Braugher, Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) and Christa Miller (Scrubs).
Bob also has responsibility for The Biography Channel, which he believes has exceptional online applications and extensions, as does sister network, The History Channel. A&E Networks also owns the Crime & Investigation Channel in the U.K., Hong Kong and Australia, and Bob says the company is exploring launching it as a non-linear broadband channel in the U.S.
Bob and his wife Caroline Rogers live in Manhattan but, he says, he is "hopelessly confused. I love New York, but I also love L.A. and my teams are on both coasts! New York amazes me, and experiencing Manhattan has been a real benefit. "One of the best parts of New York is the art museums," Bob effuses. "In L.A. you need a parking reservation to go to the Getty! New York gets the creative juices flowing like no where else." Surrounded at Michael's by industry celebs Charlie Rose, Peter Price, Mark Rosenthal with Universal McCann's Nick Brien, Mediaedge:cia's Andrew McLean, Time Warner's Ed Adler and many others, Bob quietly confided that not only are his programming juices flowing, but he's thinking about again taking up painting after a several year hiatus. It's a little known fact, even among his close friends and colleagues, that Bob is an accomplished abstract impressionist, having studied privately in Los Angeles with UCLA professor Joseph Blaustein. "Someone saw my doodling and said I should either get therapy or take art lessons," Bob smiles. "You need to find something to lose yourself in where everything else melts away, especially if you want to stay creative."