At one time I watched a good deal of the A&E Network. For some time it was possibly my favourite cable channel out there. As time has gone by, however, I found myself watching it less and less. The past year I have found that I only watch it for The Sopranos, Criss Angel, or, if there is nothing else on, CSI: Miami. It seems that the A&E I watched so often is long gone and an impostor has taken its place.
Today A&E has been infected by the plague known as "reality shows," but there was a time when A&E was known for quality programming. The channel was born in 1984 when the ARTS Network (ran by Hearst and ABC) acquired the programming of the Entertainment Channel (run by NBC). The new channel was named A&E, short for Arts and Entertainment. A&E aired an inordinately large number of shows devoted to the fine arts. There was A&E Stage, which featured broadcasts of various plays. There was also Breakfast with the Arts, which included interviews and even performances from everything from the stage to ballet to rock music to film.
Of course, it is sad a fact that no cable channel in America could survive on fine arts programming alone. A&E would also air reruns of high quality, classic TV shows, among them Columbo, Crime Story, Northern Exposure, Law and Order, and NewsRadio. Before BBC America came along, it may well have aired more British programming than other American cable channel (even more than PBS). These British series included older classics such as The Avengers and The Saint, as well as newer series, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Airline, Inspector Morse, and Lovejoy. A&E also showed British movie series based on popular series of books. There was Sharpe, based on the Richard Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell, Horatio Hornblower, based on the Horatio Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the novels by Baroness Orczy. A&E also aired such special programming as the miniseries Napoleon and Shackleton. The original series Nero Wolfe was one of the best things on television. Its series Biography was so popular that it was spun off into its own cable channel. The programming A&E broadcast on history gave rise to The History Channel. Quite simply, A&E was one of the best networks around.
Oh, that is not to say that A&E didn't have its share of flaws. The cable channel was joking called the "Murder She Wrote Channel" for good reason (how that show ever ended up on A&E I can never figure out). And as much as I love Biography, there were times it showed it too much. Ultimately, however, A&E was the only place one could see a lot of quality series, British programming, and miniseries on subjects the broadcast networks would ignore.
Sadly, things changed not long ago. The reality show fad finally reached A&E. In April 2004 A&E debuted Growing Up Gotti, a reality show following around mobster John Gotti's daughter Victoria Gotti. In August 2004 the channel debuted Dog the Bounty Hunter, now their most popular show. In March 2005 A&E debuted Intervention, a purely exploitative series focusing on interventions with addicts of various sorts. By March 2006 A&E would ditch many of their longtime shows, including those reruns of Murder She Wrote (which really wasn't a bad idea) in hopes of attracting a younger viewership. The British spy series Spooks (aired here as MI-5), was unceremoniously dumped. It's apparently the last British show A&E has aired. Unfortunately, all of this meant that there would be even more reality shows on the cable channel. They did eventually pick up CSI: Miami and The Sopranos, but they seem to be the only dramas the channel show of an evening any more.
When A&E got the rights to The Sopranos reruns, the channel's general manager Bob DeBitetto, claimed that the show "...speaks so eloquently as to what A&E is all about." I disagree. At one time it would have. The Sopranos would have fit in so perfectly with shows such as The Avengers, Sharpe, NewsRadio, and MI-5. As A&E is now, however, it seems oddly out of place beside Dog the Bounty Hunter, Confessions of a Matchmaker, God or the Girl, and Flip This House (shouldn't that be on TLC?). As much as I once loved A&E, I keep hoping that the ratings on their various reality shows would drop so that they would stop airing them. In fact, I would be more than happy if they were forced to cancel every one of their series save Criss Angel and The Sopranos (although Gene Simmons' Family Jewels could always move to MTV). There are many of us who wish A&E would return to what it once was, a cable channel that aired quality programming. Now, like so many other cable channels, its programming consists primarily of junk.