It's duck and cover time at A&E. Since reality megahit Duck Dynasty lost more than half its audience over the past year, the cable network has been dodging bullets. Most recently, A&E executives canceled Longmire after three seasons, surprising the show's producers and angering fans.
Longmire was a hit, averaging 5.6 million viewers in Season 3 — a number that would please most networks. But the Wyoming-set crime Western skewed old: The show's median viewer age was 61, way out of the adults 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet. And A&E doesn't own Longmire (which comes from Warner Bros. TV's Warner Horizon Television studio), so the network couldn't capitalize on the show in other ways. "It was losing money for us," one A&E executive says. "It's a business."
Insiders close to Longmire say A&E came close to canceling the drama after Season 2, but gave it a last minute reprieve. The show wasn't so lucky this time. Warner Horizon is now trying to shop a fourth season of Longmire to another digital or cable network.
Some observers at other networks and studios called A&E's decision misguided, arguing that a large audience, regardless of whether it was older, is still valuable for a network's overall health. But A&E needs the money — Longmire costs around $1.5 million an episode to license from the studio — to develop new projects instead. "They have to reallocate their budget," says a rival network executive, "particularly to shore up their reality programming."
It's been a rough year for most cable networks, as viewer erosion sets in across the industry. But the declines have been more pronounced at A&E, where Duck Dynasty's collapse (particularly in the wake of inflammatory comments last winter by star Phil Robertson) has been hard felt. The reality show is averaging 6.3 million viewers this summer, down from last fall's 14.6 million.
As a result, A&E's primetime viewership is down 26 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.4 million, while its audience in the key 18-49 demo is down 29 percent (from 850,000 to 604,000). A&E has also been overshadowed by its higher-rated sibling History, while parent A+E Networks focuses on rebuilding Lifetime into the ratings powerhouse it once was.
On the scripted side, the network has one shining star in Bates Motel, which averaged 2.3 million viewers in the 18-49 demo in Season 2. (Among total viewers, the show declined only slightly, from 4.4 million to 4.1 million viewers.) Along with Longmire, other recent cancellations include The Glades, which ended with a cliffhanger in 2013 after four seasons; and the Chloe Sevigny-led Those Who Kill, which was dumped after two episodes in May.
Up next, A&E has high hopes for The Returned, a remake of the French drama about a small town where the dead start reappearing. (The original import aired on SundanceTV.) The Returned shares a similar creepy tone and producing pedigree with Bates Motel, both of which hail from former Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse.
But unlike Bates and Longmire, The Returned comes from A&E's in-house production arm, A+E Studios, which is aggressively ramping up plans to produce more original fare for A+E Networks' various channels.
A&E plans to announce a new slate of pilots, many of which come from A+E Studios, in the coming weeks. Those projects will shoot early next year with an eye toward launching new series in 2016. (Among titles in development: A reboot of Highway to Heaven.) That means scripted fare isn't going away, but unscripted series are still key to A&E, making up 90 percent of the network's lineup. With Duck fading, finding the next reality hit is a priority; recent newcomer Love Prison launched without much attention.
All of this means that channel boss David McKillop has a lot of work ahead of him. McKillop took over the channel as executive vice president and general manager in June 2013, as Duck mania was at its peak. But a year later, A&E is taking a hard look at its brand, conducting focus groups to figure out its next direction. One thing executives discovered: Viewers miss the grittiness of mothballed series like Hoarders and Intervention and other crime programming, says a network source. (Intervention is being revived at sister network LMN.) Shows with those themes will start to pop up more frequently. Also, like all networks these days, A&E needs to find a way to recruit more viewers under the age of 35.
New reality shows launching this fall include Dick Wolf's reality series Dead Again (premiering Oct. 2), which follows detectives as they re-examine controversial murder cases. Dogs of War is about a couple that matches adopted dogs with war veterans. Godfather of Pittsburgh centers on a renegade nightclub owner and his family. Next year's Lachey's Bar follows onetime teen stars Nick and Drew Lachey as they open a bar in Cincinnati. Another previously announced docuseries, The Herbert Brothers, will not air.
A&E also has about 100 projects in various stages of development. Wolf and 44 Blue Prods. are behind the pilot Nightwatch, which tags along with emergency personnel in New Orleans. Another reality series in New Orleans comes from actor Channing Tatum and is set in the burlesque club he owns. Other projects include 8 Minutes, centering on former police officers who try to talk women out of prostitution. The Big Brew Theory follows a group of MIT grads as they launch a micro-brewery business.