The Biz: 'Biography' ages, but aims young

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A&E executives realized last year its signature show "Biography" needed some moxie. After 14 years, the documentary had become somewhat stodgy and plodding. And if it didn't appeal to the MTV generation, even the older VH1 crowd had a thirst for faster-paced, edgy and more provocative TV.

In the spring, A&E launched a campaign that tried to quash any notion the show was on some sort of PBS orbit. "You've scored more than any player in history," boomed a TV-spot voice-over with a zoom in on Bill Clinton. Then came the artifice-a cut to Pele and a plug for a "Biography" on the great soccer player.

In June, the network turned each Monday night's "Biography" into "TVography," where a TV show replaced a person as the topic-a nod to how pop-culture subjects could drive needed interest among younger viewers.

Next month comes another step in the revitalization attempt. A new show opening offers aspirational music, more color and shots of Jerry Seinfeld, Princess Di and Tom Hanks. (Einstein, Reagan and Judy Garland are out.) And it's only 10 seconds, down from 30, in a bid to speed the pace. In the same vein, onscreen graphics will include glossy quick-fact boxes. "We're stepping on the gas with `Biography' in the pacing." says Whitney Goit, A&E's exec VP.

changing subject mix

Also on deck is are appearances by handsome Gen-X-er David Folk Thomas, who will do interviews with people on the street about the "Biography" subject.

"Biography's" subject mix may also change to add more glitz. However, executives are chary of straying too far from the show's roots as a trusted informational vehicle-similar to what CNN grapples with in balancing its credibility with entertaining-and have no interest in becoming "E! True Hollywood Story." So the playlist may be more Ben Stiller, but will still include Ben Franklin.

"If we stop doing people that are important just because that person isn't going to get a 1.6 [rating], we're missing our mission," says Mike Mohamad, A&E's senior VP-marketing.

trouble making numbers

"Biography," however, has had trouble getting the 1.6. Household ratings have dropped from a 1.7 (1.6 million viewers) in 2000 to a 1.0 so far this year (1.1 million). The key 18-49 demographic advertisers crave has dropped from a 0.5 (494,000) to a 0.3 (288,000) over the same period. The show's success is critical because it leads off A&E's prime-time line-up and is so closely identified with its brand.

The show's hiccups have been only one of A&E's recent struggles. Rerunning ABC's morning show "The View" as a prime-time lead-in flopped. Earlier this month, programming head Allen Sabinson was let go.

The network also has seemed conflicted between its artsy roots (perhaps occupied by Bravo now) and the belief that with a distribution of 85 million homes it must play to a wide audience. Ad sales have suffered too. A&E's upfront dollar haul this year, in a healthier market than last year, was flat. Last year, A&E had ad sales of about $390 million, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

It's ironic that the show has lost luster as the genre it created has blossomed elsewhere with such shows as VH1's"Behind the Music."

"Biography's" revamp is all about attracting a younger audience, though A&E will never be MTV. "Most people who are under the age of 30 would rather stick needles in their eyes than watch TV for information," Mohamad says. But he says the network can attract advertisers by focusing on 35- to 49-year-olds with annual incomes of $65,000-plus. A&E has done so in the past, and there is some evidence its bio still does. "The kind of people the network attracts tend to be better-educated, more affluent and that's a rare breed," says Lowe's Executive Director Alan Jurmain.

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