A&E launched on February 1, 1984, initially available to 9.3 million cable television homes in the U.S. and Canada. The network is a result of the 1984 merger of Hearst/ABC's Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS) and (pre–General Electric merger) RCA-owned The Entertainment Channel. When A&E debuted, the channel took over the satellite transponder timeslot that ARTS occupied from its launch in 1981. Children's television channel Nickelodeon signed off just before 9 p.m. Eastern Time, and A&E took over at 9 p.m. with a three-hour programming block, which was repeated at 9 p.m. Pacific Time. In January 1985, A&E moved to its own dedicated transponder and began delivering its programming 24 hours a day, while Nickelodeon replaced the vacated A&E programming with a classic television block called Nick at Nite on July 1 of that year. However, some cable providers continued to carry Nickelodeon and A&E on the same channel and would usually switch over to A&E at 8 p.m. Eastern. It was not until the early 1990s that these companies found separate channels for both networks.
A&E was envisioned as a commercial counterpart to PBS, and in its early days focused on such PBS-style programming as the Leonard Bernstein Fidelio, filmed in 1978. In the 1990s, it began to add programming originally seen on commercial networks, such as reruns of Columbo, Breaking Away, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, The New Mike Hammer, The Cosby Mysteries, Quincy, The Equalizer, Law & Order, and Night Court. Highbrow British mysteries including Agatha Christie's Poirot, Cracker, Dalziel and Pascoe, Inspector Morse, Lovejoy, Midsomer Murders, the Joan Hickson Miss Marple series, and Sherlock Holmes were also featured; several of these series were produced in association with A&E. By 1990, A&E's original programming accounted for 35 to 40 percent of the network's program content. The comedy series An Evening at the Improv built a young adult audience in the late 80s and continued through 1996. Also, Comedy On the Road won a CableACE Award (13th Annual Event); both series were produced by Larry O'Daly.
A&E's signature show was Biography, a one-hour documentary series that A&E revived in 1987. In 1994, airings of Biography went from weekly broadcasts to airing five nights a week, which helped boost A&E's ratings to record levels. The nightly series became A&E's top-rated show and one of cable television's most notable successes. Biography received Primetime Emmy Awards in 1999 and 2002.
In its first decade, A&E had limited advertising, with fewer commercials at the time, mostly for A&E programs and its magazine. Beginning in the mid-90's, advertising was increased substantially on the channel.
In May 1995, the channel's name officially changed to the A&E Network, to reflect its declining focus on arts and entertainment. By 1996, the network had branded itself as simply A&E, and was using the slogans "Time Well Spent" and "Escape the Ordinary."
"The word 'arts,' in regard to television, has associations such as 'sometimes elitist,' 'sometimes boring,' 'sometimes overly refined' and 'doesn't translate well to TV,'" Whitney Goit, executive vice president for sales and marketing, stated. "Even the arts patron often finds arts on TV not as satisfying as it should be ... And the word 'entertainment' is too vague. Therefore, much like ESPN uses its letters rather than what they stand for – Entertainment Sports (Programming) Network – we decided to go to just A&E." Of the network's tagline, Goit said, "Intellectually, 'Time well spent' defines a comparison between those who view a lot of television as a wasteland, and their acknowledgment that there are good things on TV and that they'd like to watch more thought-provoking TV."
A&E commissioned Horatio Hornblower (1999), winner of two Primetime Emmy Award, and the seven subsequent dramas in the series; Dash and Lilly (1999), which received nine Emmy nominations; and The Crossing (2000), which won the Peabody Award. The network created two original weekly drama series, Sidney Lumet's 100 Centre Street and Nero Wolfe, both of which lasted from 2001 to 2002.
In mid-2002, A&E underwent an overhaul in management which moved the network's focus toward reality television in order to attract a younger demographic and cancelled the network's two original scripted series. In May 2003, A&E launched a marketing campaign with the network's new tagline, "The Art of Entertainment." Between 2003 and 2007, the channel gradually retired several long-running series, moving its classic mysteries to The Biography Channel and cancelling Breakfast with the Arts, in favor of reality programming such as Dog the Bounty Hunter, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Growing Up Gotti, Family Plots, Airline, Inked, King of Cars, and Criss Angel Mindfreak. In addition, A&E had garnered favorable notice for true-crime documentary series such as Cold Case Files, American Justice, City Confidential, Investigative Reports, and The First 48. The network also cut back on its broadcasts of Biography from originally twice daily to weekend mornings only.
The changes were criticized as causing A&E to become an aberration of its original focus on fine arts programming. For example, Maury Chaykin reflected on the cancellation of the A&E original series A Nero Wolfe Mystery in a 2008 interview: "I'm a bit jaded and cynical about which shows succeed on television. I worked on a fantastic show once called Nero Wolfe, but at the time A&E was transforming from the premiere intellectual cable network in America to one that airs Dog the Bounty Hunter on repeat, so it was never promoted and eventually went off the air."
The docudrama Flight 93, about the hijacking of the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania during the September 11, 2001 attacks was the most watched program on the network; it attracted 5.9 million viewers for its initial telecast on January 30, 2006. This was later surpassed by Duck Dynasty's third season premiere. The previous record-holder for the network was a World War II docudrama, Ike: Countdown to D-Day, starring Tom Selleck and broadcast in 2004, with 5.5 million viewers. A&E later acquired rights to rerun the critically acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos; its A&E premiere on January 10, 2007, averaged 3.86 million viewers, making it the most-watched premiere of a rerun off-network series in cable television history at the time. The series has continued to perform well for A&E, and the network now regularly ranks in the top ten basic U.S. cable channels in prime time ratings.
On May 26, 2008, in conjunction with the premiere of the original film The Andromeda Strain, A&E rebranded with a new logo and slogan, Real Life. Drama., representing its shift from an arts-focused network to a more contemporary network focused on scripted programming.
As part of its continuing efforts to include more scripted shows, A&E ordered several dramas for fall 2009. Among them were projects from Jerry Bruckheimer, Shawn Ryan and Lynda Obst, and a Western miniseries from Kevin Costner. Several unscripted series were also renewed or ordered for fall, including Intervention, The First 48, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Crime 360, Criss Angel Mindfreak, Paranormal State, Manhunters, Storage Wars, Parking Wars, and Shipping Wars.
In June 2009, it was reported that A&E Television Networks was in discussions to acquire Lifetime (then jointly owned by two of A&E's then-three corporate parents, Hearst and Disney). The transaction was eventually consummated on August 27, 2009.
In July 2012, NBCUniversal sold its 15% stake in network parent A&E Networks to Hearst and Disney (which each owned a 42.5% interest in the company), making the two companies 50/50 partners in the joint venture.
On December 11, 2013, A&E unveiled a new on-air brand identity built around the slogan "Be Original", emphasizing the network's lineup of original productions and positioning it as a "much lighter, more fun place to come and spend time".
On December 19, 2013, A&E placed Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty on indefinite hiatus following remarks on homosexuals in an interview with GQ. A&E said in a statement, "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community." On December 27, 2013, A&E announced they would begin filming again with the entire Robertson family on the heels of large public outcry and discussions with the Robertson family and numerous advocacy groups.
On February 20, 2014, A&E Networks UK announced a UK version of the channel to launch on Sky channel 168 on March 24, with a Virgin Media launch date planned for next year. In Spain and Portugal, the channel was launched on October 1, 2014, replacing The Biography Channel in that market.
A&E was again involved with controversy when the network cancelled Longmire after three seasons; ending the series on a cliffhanger and angering fans. The network cited production costs and the fact that the show skewed an older audience as reason for its cancellation. The series was later picked up by Netflix. In 2015, A&E picked up the CBS drama Unforgettable for a fourth season as well as the second season of docuseries Married at First Sight, which will move from sister network FYI. The network also announced the revival of Intervention following its cancellation in 2013.
A&E is known for reality series such as The First 48, Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty. It also broadcasts a limited amount of scripted programming, including original series Bates Motel.
In its original format, the network had often shown programming from abroad, particularly BBC network productions from the United Kingdom. Examples of British programming frequently broadcast on the channel included the documentary Freud. However, the broadcast of British programming on A&E has diminished greatly since it began incorporating more reality shows onto its schedule. For example, the network waited almost a year and a half to show the fourth series of Spooks, retitled as MI-5, first airing it after prime time on Friday nights at 11 p.m. Eastern, before pulling the series after only two episodes, it later aired the rest of the season's episodes in a day-long marathon on October 21, 2006.
Its fine arts programming have also been completely removed from the channel's schedule. Thursday nights once featured an anthology series called A&E Stage, hosted by Tammy Grimes and later John Mauceri, which featured telecasts of notable plays, concerts, full-length documentaries related to the arts, and complete operas, although shown with commercials. Such programs as Otto Schenk's 1978 production of Fidelio, with Leonard Bernstein conducting, were rebroadcast on this anthology, as well as an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Spider's Web, starring Penelope Keith, originally broadcast in the UK on December 26, 1982. The final fine arts-related show to air on the network, Breakfast with the Arts, once featured a higher quantity of classical music than in its final years, and fewer interviews. The show was cancelled in July 2007.
Notable movies and miniseries produced or co-produced by the A&E Network include the following:
The 1080i high definition simulcast feed of A&E launched on September 4, 2006; it was formerly in 720p before the merger with Lifetime Entertainment. The network is available in the format on most cable, satellite and telco systems.