A&E builds new image through buzz

Buoyed by PR outreach for buzz programming, Biography network grabs younger demographic

Buoyed by PR outreach for buzz programming, Biography network grabs younger demographic

A few years ago, the A&E network was probably best known for Biography, a program that arguably set the stage for the crop of biographical shows that have popped up everywhere from E! to VH1. It had also garnered attention and critical praise for its partnerships and adaptations of BBC productions, including Horatio Hornblower and Pride and Prejudice.

"A&E was always this critical darling of highbrow programming," says Michael Feeney, SVP of communications for A&E Television Networks. However, even with the critical acclaim, there was a bit of a problem: "The median age of an A&E [viewer] was 61," Feeney says, "and in television, that's not good."

So, about three years ago, the network made the decision to welcome younger viewers, primarily by creating what Feeney describes as "buzz programming."

"They saw what buzz programming and watercooler programming could do to turn around the image of the network," he says.

Reality shows, such as Growing Up Gotti, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Intervention, as well as the recent acquisitions of CSI: Miami and The Sopranos, have all been part of the plan - and A&E's PR department has had a hand in creating the buzz for that programming.

The first step, Feeney says, was to reach out to reporters to set forth the network's agenda from a trade point of view. As far as consumer outreach, the team used traditional PR tools, such as SMTs and RMTs, and targeted publications and stations that fell into the desired age demographic.

Feeney notes that PR outreach was especially helpful in garnering buzz for Intervention, a reality show that follows people suffering from varying addictions - from drugs to shopping to gambling - as their loved ones encourage them to get treatment.

With the support of A&E president and CEO Abbe Raven and Bob DeBitetto, EVP and GM, Feeney says the PR department provided The New York Times with a copy of the pilot to review. "[The Times] did a full Arts and Leisure piece on Intervention, which sparked tons of interest - and it was just a pilot at the time," Feeney recalls.

The network's strategy appears to have worked; in the past three years, A&E's median viewer age has dropped to 46. "It's unheard of in television," says Feeney.

"As a global media company that creates content for multi-platforms, it is essential for us to communicate a clear message to our customers - whether it be our viewers, advertisers, or distribution partners," says Raven. "Our PR team has done an outstanding job positioning our brands in the media for success in the marketplace."

The network's attention to the PR function is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Feeney reports directly to Raven. "[PR is] a critical piece of the [marketing] plan here, and everybody realizes that," Feeney says.

The network has also realized the value of new-media opportunities, especially in reaching out to a younger audience. Feeney notes that this is especially true when promoting Growing Up Gotti, which has a substantial teenage fan base because of the Gotti sons, and Criss Angel Mindfreak, which is also popular among younger viewers.

"Part of A&E's DNA is to be 100% customer-focused, and we know our customers are using the media, especially this younger generation, and our eye is on the ball," Feeney says. "We have to keep in touch with our audience and how they're watching."

Raven has made a companywide priority, recently installing a "new-media" room with such gadgets as a Sony PSP, Slingbox, video iPod, TiVo to go, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Argos mobile DVR.

"It's critical to get into the new generation," Feeney says. "Our goal is to track and actively go after where people are getting their information. It's critical to what we do to be in touch with our viewers across every platform that they're using."

Part of the plan going forward is to continue the dialogue, paying special attention to new media and technology.

In the TV business, part of the communications challenge is just keeping track of the information flow, especially in a new-media environment where it seems as if everyone is blogging about a particular show.

"You have to really stay on top of it," he says. "You have to correct things that are wrong. There's so much misinformation out there."

Still, Feeney recognizes the fact that buzz about A&E and its programming is a good thing in the long run.

"We're dealing with the TV business, so it's not bad to have your name out there in multiple platforms... because that's part of the buzz - the good and the bad," he says. "The one thing that declares your death in television is to have no one talk about you."

At A Glance

Company: A&E Television Networks

President and CEO: Abbe Raven

Headquarters: New York

Revenues and latest figures: Private company

Competitors: Discovery, USA, Turner networks

Key trade titles: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, TelevisionWeek, Mediaweek, Multichannel News

PR budget: Undisclosed

Global communications team: Michael Feeney, SVP of communications

Marketing services agencies: Freud Communications, Horizon Media, The Pere Partnership, SJI Associates, Shoolery Design, Art Machine, And Company, Glow Interactive, Big Fish Marketing, Electric Artists, and Fanscape

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