Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

What Does AETN’s Bio Channel Pay for Programs?

The ‘Sweet Spot’ for Bio – A&E’s Junior and Growing Brand

In our two previous posts, we analyzed the ‘Sweet Spot’ for production budgets at channels owned by AETN, led by A&E and History. (See Archives: March 4, March 11, 2010).

This week we look at Bio, the junior brand in the A&E family of channels. 

While Bio is not a Top 20 U.S. channel, it is an important network because of the scale of its distribution and audience, the total original hours it commissions, and the $25+ million it spends on new productions. 

Bio was born in 1999 out of A&E’s long-running Biography series, and is a rare case of a channel brand that successfully evolved from a single series.

Bio is now distributed to nearly 60 million of the 115 million U.S. TV homes.

In 2009, the channel averaged 200,000 total viewers in prime.  Big ticket shows delivered 400,000 total viewers or better.  Celebrity Ghost Stories is Bio’s top-rated series.

Bio is an Adult-targeted channel that is slightly female-skewing (58%). Bio executives say: “We’re watched by women, but we differ from Lifetime or Oxygen because we may be watched by men as well.”  

Bio’s branding message is “True Story: Truth is more entertaining than fiction … we can’t make this stuff up”.

The channel aims for strong, ‘emotionally-backed’ story-telling that is connected to pop culture. Bio programmers distinguish between their focus on lasting pop culture icons versus the celebrity flavor of the week.

Biography is Bio’s leading series, and tells “True stories about fascinating people”, including both celebrities and the infamous.

Bio sees its principal competitors as TLC, TRU, E!, PBS, TVLAND and Nat Geo Channel.

And now for the numbers:


Coming Soon! ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

What Do Channels Pay for Programs?
Our Research Findings for Purchase Soon

Our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels cover:

  • Network budget benchmarks for original commissions
  • Several levels: Signature, High, ‘Sweet Spot’ and Low
  • We cover ‘the biggies’ and diginets

If the data is available, we include:

  • Acquisition costs
  • Copro contributions
  • Benchmark costs for typical genres

The unique and valuable ‘Sweet Spot’ Report covers Discovery Networks, OWN Oprah Winfrey Network, AETN Networks including History, truTV, MTV, Nat Geo and many more.

How to Purchase the ‘Sweet Spot’ Data
Our 2010 archive, INCLUDING NEW RESEARCH FINDINGS, will soon be available for electronic purchase from  We’re finalizing the purchase details now.

If you need ‘Sweet Spot’ data urgently, please email Peter Hamilton.


Note on Sources
The data is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from recent conference presentations and published sources. Actual budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project.  

What the Sources Say about Bio …

  • Bio is a junior network to the A&E flagship, and the network management teams overlap.
  • Bio is an important, growing and distinct brand, but it is secondary to A&E in terms of senior executive focus and resources.
  • The AETN rights model applies to Bio. All AETN channels obtain rights for all territories and platforms, forever.
  • The few exceptions might hinge on obtaining access to a story, or for rights to footage and music – for example for the music cleared for the 2010 Biography Special on Jimi Hendrix. Even in those rare cases, Bio requires U.S. rights for 7-10 years.
  • The AETN model is that commissioned programs are work-for-hire projects for which producers rarely retain any rights or equity.
  • Bio can be a place to incubate a great show concept. While rare, it’s not impossible for a series like Psychic Kids to make the trip from Bio to A&E.

… the Bio Pipeline …

  • Bio will commission around 160 original hours in 2010, of which 125+/- are for series.
  • Fifty hours of commissions for the Biography series are comprised of 40 one-hour episodes and 5 two-hour Specials, including profiles of Rodney Dangerfield and Jimi Hendrix.
  • Amongst other series, Bio commissioned 18 episodes of Celebrity Ghost Stories for 2010, up from nine in 2009.
  • The remaining 35+/- of the 160 original hours are for Specials, one-offs and mini-series.
  • Of Bio’s 160 original hours in 2010, 30+/- are budgeted around the ‘High’ Level, 100+/- near the ‘Sweet Spot’ and 30+/- close to the ‘Low’ benchmark.

… and Bio’s ‘Sweet Spot’

  • Bio’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($250) is for a successful prime time Factual series.
  • The key criteria for Bio to invest in a program at the ‘High’ level are: expected solid ratings, ad sales appeal, and significant PR interest. For example, Scott Hamilton’s return to ice skating after a brain tumor scare was featured in a two-part Special that was scheduled on Bio during the Vancouver Olympics, where Hamilton was serving as an NBC host.
  • William Shatner is involved in two Bio series: Shatner’s Raw Nerve, an edgy talk show, and Aftermath, which examines the lives of survivors of pop culture events like the Jessica Lynch rescue and the UniBomber attacks. The indefatigable Shatner is a PR magnet who commands atypical talent fees, and his series are budgeted at the higher end of Bio’s scale.
  • Bio’s top-rated series is Celebrity Ghost Stories, which is delivered near the ‘Sweet Spot’ of $175. In each episode, 4-5 celebrities describe their brushes with the paranormal.
  • Also near the ‘Sweet Spot’ is I Survived, a non-celebrity show that tells the stories of people who defied long odds to live. I Survived: Beyond and Back extends the franchise to the people who experienced clinical death and returned to life.
  • Bio’s Inside Story two-hour Specials are about the making of memorable movies as told by the participants. Inside Story ticks two Bio boxes: ‘Celebrity’ and ‘True Story’ and yet they are budgeted somewhat above the ‘Sweet Spot’ on an hourly basis. Pangolin Pictures produced the Jaws and Caddyshack specials, with Stage 3 amongst the producers delivering Animal House 30th Anniversary Special and Specials on Silence of the Lambs, Halloween, and more.
  • The ‘Low’ benchmark ($125) is the approximate cost for Mobsters, a series that relies on archives and fair use to contain costs. The Mobsters genre is not particularly ad sales friendly, creating pressure to keep the budget low.

Bio’s ‘Hail Mary’?

  • Question
    “What needs to be added to the mix to break the status quo and move Bio up to the next level?”
  • Answer
    “A fresh, loud, buzzy show or mega-Special in the celebrity space that feels unique and has breakout ratings potential. The show would probably feel risky vs. current offerings as most breakouts do.  What Queer Eye was to Bravo or what Ruby was to Style: we’re looking for a show that becomes part of pop culture, not just capitalizing on existing pop culture.   It cannot be ad-sales repellent.”  

How Do Networks Develop New Productions? Case Study #1: A&E / Bio
Our first in a series of detailed case studies on how networks go about refreshing their schedules. We track the commissioning process at A&E and Bio … from identifying a competitive need or a pitch opportunity through Development, Pre-production, Production Supervision, Post and Delivery.  Don’t miss it!

Coming soon … more ‘Sweet Spots’
Nat Geo Channel, Nat Geo Television, HBO, Scripps Networks, Smithsonian Channel, Discovery’s Science Channel, PBS, Canadian channels, BBC, Arte and much, much more.


  • Gratitude to Neil Seiling, Anne Kovach and Lorraine Hess for posting us on LinkTV’s excellent Doc360 site. LinkTV is a unique and valued source of uncompromising documentaries. We’re honored that Doc360 is our first syndication partner!
  • And continuing thanks to our friend Melissa Houghton, executive director, WIFV, Washington DC, for recommending us to the vibrant WIFV community.
  • Many thanks to our readers for your often detailed feedback!  We update a post if we either get it wrong … or not right enough.
  • Our site is reaching further than we expected. You are network executives, producers, distributors and creatives, and also administrators, attorneys, agents, educators, students and fans of the doc sector. Thanks for forwarding to your friends and colleagues.


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