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Original Lessons a Boon in Picking A&E's Off-Net Fare

Bob DeBitetto's first off-net buy for A&E was a blockbuster, bringing CSI: Miami
to the network. It will air weekly starting in 2004 for a modest license fee and then be stripped in 2006, when the cost jumps to around $1 million per episode.

Before joining A&E last January, DeBitetto, 47, was president of original programming for TNT, where he crafted original movies and scripted series. Although he was involved in internal discussions about acquired fare, other executives made the decisions and the deals.

Fortunately, DeBitetto says, making originals was outstanding training. "If you ever need a crash course in making great television, go create something," he says. "You develop an appreciation for how hard it is."

According to DeBitetto, what makes a good original holds true for acquisitions. He wants "the fundamentals," like good storytelling, compelling characters, high-quality production.

CSI: Miami
fits the bill. It also matches up well with some of A&E's investigative non-scripted shows, like Cold Case Files
and American Justice. The show also boasts a highly coveted trait: tight storylines that are closed-ended. "Learning tells us that shows that are very closed-ended, with a very identifiable structure and a story arc within an hour work best," DeBitetto says.

With such shows, viewers can come in and out. Of course, A&E once boasted the best example with Law & Order
until TNT scooped up the latest deal.

Now CSI: Miami
will be A&E's cornerstone. But DeBitetto is still shopping.

He has a checklist. First, he asks whether a show will deliver the audience A&E needs? A&E is trying to get a little younger and focus on adults 25-54. So shows that skew too young are out, and older series are less desirable.

Next, the show needs to be promotable, with a hook to market to viewers and sell to advertisers. That could be a marquee title, like a Stephen King book, or a product with big-name star attached. "You need at least one presold element to build a strategy around," he explains.

It also needs to hold up well in repeats. Of course, that's why DeBitetto favors closed-ended series. And the final element—he stresses this comes last after all the other considerations—is price.

He tries to sample as much TV as possible ("I use the remote like I am playing a videogame"). MTV is a favorite. Seemingly an unusual choice for an A&E programmer, MTV tells him which way the wind is blowing. For example, it has been big on reality and lifestyle programming for years. Says DeBitetto, "If you are trying to predict where things are headed, you have to watch MTV."