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Cable Success 'Biography' May Only Be the Beginning

Television: A&E's top-rated show may give birth to its own cable channel. Now that's 'brand extension.'

August 16, 1996|VERNE GAY | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — A large framed poster hangs over the desk of Nick Davatzes, the boss of cable's Arts & Entertainment Network. And every time he enters his Manhattan office, it serves to remind him who the real boss of A&E is.

On this poster is the word "Biography," printed in elaborate and elegant script. Above it hovers the likenesses of people--Queen Elizabeth, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway--who have helped make this nightly series A&E's top-rated show and one of the more notable successes on cable television.

Indeed, in the fragmented world of cable TV, where audiences are usually measured in the hundreds of thousands rather than in the millions, "Biography" is an undisputed phenom. So far this year, its ratings are up nearly 20%, and 1.5 million faithful tune in each weeknight to catch a portrait of some heralded--or not-so-heralded--individual.

"Biography" has become, far and away, the signature show of A&E. (A weekend version, called "Biography: This Week," is seen on Saturdays.)

Born 12 years ago after the merger of two failing arts networks, A&E was envisioned as a somewhat less tony (and more commercial) counterpart to PBS. Despite an occasional blockbuster like "Pride and Prejudice," A&E is mostly the repository of network reruns ("Quincy," "Law & Order"), highbrow British mysteries ("Cracker") and specials (the supernatural are preferred subjects).

To many viewers it is just one thing: "Biography." The show is a one-hour look at the lives of famous (or infamous) subjects, which range from the feuding hillbilly families the Hatfields and McCoys (the highest-rated "Biography") to Jim Carrey. The show will sometimes rush in programs on people in the news, such as Saturday's program on Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

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And wherever success lurks in TV land, you can be reasonably certain that "exploitation" is not far behind. Over at A&E headquarters, they prefer to use the more polite term "brand extensions"--marketing buzzwords that typically refer to offshoots of toothpastes or cereals rather than TV shows.

A "Biography" Web site (http://www.biography.com) was launched early last month, where the hard-core "Biography-o-phile" can download bios on some 15,000 people. Biography magazine, full of profiles and interviews, will launch in January. "Biography" home videos are being sold in bookstores, with audiotapes to be available in January. Oh, yes, there's more: A book series (in conjunction with Random House) is in the works and so are "Biography" movie dramatizations, as well as a "Biography" fall series for kids.

Oh, yes, there's much more: The apogee of all this activity will be a cable channel. The Biography Channel, with a likely launch date sometime late next year or in '98, will be wall-to-wall "Biography." Twenty-four hours a day--365 days a year.

Ridiculous? Or brilliant? In fact, Davatzes says it is merely logical. One of the more durable series on TV, "Biography" actually began as a syndicated series back in 1961, when it was hosted by Mike Wallace who was trying to reignite a stalled career. (The show helped: After only a few years as host, he was hired by CBS News.) A revival in the late '70s was hosted by David Janssen.

A&E launched its version in 1987, with Peter Graves and Jack Perkins as hosts. "We had in the back of our mind that we were looking for an anchor series, where people could say, 'Tonight on A&E at 8, this is what's on,' " Davatzes says. " 'Biography' was that choice."

Fine, but a cable network? The idea, in fact, is not so preposterous. Consider this: Time Warner, which has been given a green light to purchase Turner Broadcasting System, is reportedly musing the idea of a cable channel based on People magazine. Such a channel would not be a dramatic departure from a Biography Channel, for it would incorporate lengthy profiles as well as news. (Davatzes says he is unaware of such a channel proposal, while TBS officials declined comment.)

The Biography Channel, in effect, would not merely be wall-to-wall bios because A&E does not wish to dilute the franchise on its own network. But there will be various permutations, including movies, miniseries, dramatizations and even fictitious biographies (no big departure for A&E: It has done Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes).

"There are lots of stories to be told, in a lot of forms that they can be told," says Davatzes, who once ran Time Warner's revolutionary (and now forgotten) two-way cable venture Qube, before joining A&E in 1983. "You could tell a one-hour story about Churchill or you could tell a 10-hour story about Churchill." The basic litmus test for a suitable "Bio" subject, he says, is whether that person's story can be told within an hour.

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A surprisingly large number of people, in fact, qualify. A&E has a list of the 500 profiles it has done over the last nine years. It begins with names like Abbott and Costello, and Adam and Eve, and ends with the Great Ziegfeld and Zorro.

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