Since Abbe Raven, president and CEO of A&E Television Networks, joined the company in 1982, she has been a constant through vast changes in name, size and scope. As the company rebranded from Daytime to Daytime & Arts to A&E, it expanded with the addition of new channels and now encompasses A&E, History and Lifetime, along with a number of smaller cable channels. In that time, Raven went from assistant to VP of production to programming chief at History, among other positions, before reaching her current perch.
When Raven became president and CEO in 2005, she made it her mission to continue driving expansion, both domestically through growing networks like Bio and abroad as the company evolved its international business. With the completion of the deal last month to incorporate Lifetime into the group, she now also oversees the network that 25 years ago was split off the original Daytime network she first joined. “Lifetime and A&E have been corporate cousins, and in a lot of ways we are extremely similar,” Raven says. “Now we have three of the best brands under one roof, and it just makes sense.”
The new ownership structure sees Disney and Hearst each controlling 37.5% of A&E TV Networks, with NBC Universal taking a 25% stake.
Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group and co-chair of Disney Media Networks, who also once sat on the AETN board, says Raven is perfectly equipped to add Lifetime to her plate. “The quality I treasure in her most is that she is a great listener,” Sweeney says. “She not only listens to her employees and their ideas, but she has a great ear for what people want.”
A great admirer of theater growing up, Raven knew she wanted to get into the entertainment business early on. She studied theater at SUNY Buffalo. “I really wanted to be behind the scenes, a director, production manager, stage manager,” she says.
Raven got that chance after graduating from college, working as a stage manager off-Broadway. But the schedule was tiring, she says. “I decided that I wanted, frankly, to work during the day,” she recalls. She enrolled at Hunter College, where she received a master's degree in theater and film. She would use the degree to become a high school teacher, where she taught English and drama. Teaching helped her learn crucial leadership and management skills, figuring how to get “people excited about stories.”
The experience paid off, according to one of Raven's longtime reports, History Channel General Manager Nancy Dubuc. “Abbe is first and foremost a great leader,” Dubuc says. “You can have great strategists and great creatives, but great leadership is its own quality and she has it in spades.”
As much as Raven enjoyed teaching, the entertainment business kept calling. Cable was still a brand-new business when she set her sights on a new network being launched by Hearst and ABC called Daytime. The channel had an event in the lingerie department at Macy's in New York, where talent and executives would be discussing the network. Raven brought her resume, hoping to get a few minutes with an executive, but when she arrived “there were about 100 other women with exactly the same idea,” she recalls.
After the crowd thinned, she spoke to one of the network's programming executives and made her pitch, discussing what she could bring to the table. She landed a position answering phones and operating the Xerox machine. “My personal philosophy has always been that there is never too small a job to do,” Raven says. “My mom taught me that whatever you do, do it well.”
She was able to move into production quickly, eventually becoming production manager. When the company split into two networks, A&E and Lifetime, in 1984, Raven stayed with A&E as its director and later VP of production.
In 1995, she transferred to the company's then-startup, The History Channel, where she served as its first head of programming. “My own mantra at that point was, 'How do we find the a-ha moment in history?'” Raven recalls. Shows like A&E import Modern Marvels epitomized the new direction the network was taking under her leadership.
In the early 2000s, her focus returned to the A&E network. “I was asked to see whether I could take on what I called the revitalization of A&E,” Raven says. “A&E was aging, so how could we contemporize it? How could we bring younger viewers to the network?”
She looked to the network's best-known series, Biography, for inspiration: “It is about people, so what about looking at them on a day-to-day basis in a real-life way?” That thought led to programming like Dog the Bounty Hunter and Growing Up Gotti, unscripted shows that changed the direction of the network, bringing in more and younger viewers.
“One of the things that struck me right from the beginning was that Abbe had a really great competitive spirit and was leading the charge to make A&E competitive again,” says A&E GM Bob DeBitetto, who joined the network as senior VP of programming in 2003. Big off-network acquisitions like CSI: Miami and The Sopranos served as a gateway for the network to launch original scripted dramas of its own with The Cleaner and The Beast.
In 2005, Raven succeeded Nick Davatzes as president and CEO of AETN, overseeing not only the two brands she helped nurture but the entire portfolio, as well as its adjacent businesses such as consumer products.
As Raven joins the 2009 class of B&C's Hall of Fame, her history of starting at the ground floor with the company she now leads continues to propel her passion for its future. “It has given me a real appreciation for how this company was built, and its core values, which have always been about integrity and entrepreneurial spirit,” Raven says. “It has been a big part of my life, and I care very much about it.”—Alex Weprin