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The Agent Provocateur Is Also the Boss

When Bob DeBitetto arrived at A&E in early 2003 as head of programming, he faced a daunting challenge to help revive the network. A&E, once a cable power, had lost rights to Law & Order reruns and overdosed on its famed Biography series. The network's median age was a creaky 61 and it had fallen out of cable's ratings elite.

The position would have stressed even the most experienced cable executive, but DeBitetto faced an even larger test: He had never worked for a cable network, let alone as a programming chief. He says he was undaunted. After a career spent in the movie business and creating original programs for cable, DeBitetto says he brought a fresh perspective necessary to make a major overhaul.

“We needed to introduce this network to a new generation of viewers,” he says. “We had to do something far more radical than hold onto things that had worked a decade ago.”

So, with the support of then-A&E president Abbe Raven (now head of A&E Networks), DeBitetto crafted an ambitious three-part plan: First the network needed to craft catchy reality shows to lure new viewers, then nab a handful of high-profile acquisitions and, eventually, produce original scripted dramas. “I adopted a role I had never played before,” DeBitetto says. “I was the provocateur, the change agent, the 'Can you believe he wants to do that?' guy.”

Slowly, the pieces were put into place. Reality shows like Dog The Bounty Hunter and Growing Up Gotti posted solid ratings and attracted younger viewers. On the acquisitions side, DeBitetto made two aggressive buys in The Sopranos (for a cool $2.5 million per episode) and CSI: Miami. At the same time, he distanced A&E from its older-skewing past. Biography, long A&E's staple, was all but banished from the schedule, although it spawned a dedicated digital network, the Biography Channel.

The ambitious moves proved successful, and ratings and revenue improved. A&E's median age has dropped to about 47. That, DeBitetto says, is a huge boon to business. “When I got here, we only sold the 25-to-54-year-old demo to advertisers, and we weren't even in that demo,” he says. “Last year, we outdelivered 18-to-49s over 25-to-54s.”

In 2005, DeBitetto was tapped to lead A&E as executive VP and general manager. He also oversees the Biography Channel and fledging Crime & Investigation Network.

With A&E now regularly back in cable's top tier, DeBitetto says he is focused on growing the size of the audience. One key to continued growth, he says, is original scripted programs. That is the third leg of his turnaround plan and perhaps the aspect that DeBitetto is most enthusiastic about. Original programming takes him back to his roots.

Production and managing the creative process are both his passion and where he boasts the most experience. In 1978, after graduating from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the New York-area native moved west to California to attend law school at UCLA. DeBitetto worked for several years for powerhouse firm Finley Kumble, but like many young people in Los Angeles, aspired to work in the movie business. When a friend told him about a position at Disney, DeBitetto jumped.

He spent 10 years in business affairs and overseeing production, working under Disney legend and current DreamWorks SKG head Jeffrey Katzenberg. But when the Katzenberg-led team was dismantled and his co-workers moved on, DeBitetto found himself looking for another challenge. He found an outlet in Ted Turner's startup movie studio Turner Pictures.

In the Los Angeles-based job, DeBitetto managed development and helped build the operation. The studio was having some success—the Meg Ryan romantic comedy You've Got Mail was one of its best finds—when Time Warner purchased Turner Broadcasting and the fledgling studio was dismantled. DeBitetto once again found himself looking for a new opportunity and, once again, Turner delivered. DeBitetto was offered a position overseeing TNT Originals, the studio that created made-for-TV movies and series for the Turner networks.

After years in movies, he says he hadn't given TV much consideration. In movie-centric Hollywood, he says, “TV was always the little brother to movies. Movies got the glory, and the business was sexy and got the attention.” But he was intrigued by Turner's plans.

DeBitetto says TV is now as exciting as—if not more than—the movies. “In TV, you can rock and roll. You have a lot in production all the time,” he says. “Networks need programs, and you can see a project through from the first script to the final cut.”

When Time Warner merged with AOL, the production company was shuttered. That led DeBitetto to A&E. He says he was attracted to “the opportunity to combine his creative and development chops with the strategic mindset of how to build a network.” And although he'd run productions and created programming, he'd never dealt with scheduling and marketing, two aspects that DeBitetto finds exciting.

His boss Raven (now head of A&E Networks) said she respected his skills. “He had great experience on the programming side and on the business side,” she says. “He was very clear and thoughtful about executing a plan for the network.”

These days, DeBitetto is in the third phase of that plan: creating scripted originals. First up is a medical thriller miniseries, The Andromeda Strain. Plans call for an original scripted series next year. Finding a hit series, he says, is key to growth—in ratings and revenue. “In the cable business, it not good enough to be a good business, you have to grow,” he says. “That is a challenge for all of us.”