During a casual conversation, Abbe Raven tells a male peer she runs the History Channel. Did she say the History Channel? The channel of America' s fighting men? The Suicide Missions channel? The most manly channel on cable?
" A chick runs that channel?' " Raven recalls the response, giggling.
Actually, Raven was put in charge of the channel as executive vice president and general manager only three weeks ago, but she has programmed History from day one.
Raven and her former boss, Dan Davids, were on the same wavelength about programming, she says. They wanted what was accurate, original and real. "Documentaries are the purest form of storytelling," she says. "We can't make these stories up."
Raven rose to the top of History by a convoluted path that started at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, N.Y. She landed a summer job as a stagehand there at the age of 16. Afterward, she studied theater in college and became the youngest Equity stage manager in New York. Raven actually made a living on theater work alone, but she eventually yearned to reclaim her evenings and weekends. Earning a master' s degree from Hunter College in theater and film in 1977, Raven took a hiatus from entertainment and taught high school. Five years later, she was craving the bright lights. Cable television was just getting its legs, and she set her sights on two targets: CBS Cable and a budding women' s network venture called Daytime.
It so happened that Daytime was throwing a party at Macy' s to recruit new employees. Armed with her résumé, Raven marched down to the merchandise mecca to become a producer for Daytime. She encountered about 100 other women with the same idea. Here she was, a high school teacher with a little theater under her belt, looking to break into TV. Get real, she told herself, and turned to leave. Then the voice that knew best said, "This is your one chance," she recalls. Raven waited for the throngs to leave, then approached the Daytime executive.
"I asked if they were doing any arts programming for women." Contact this producer, she was told. The producer took one look at Raven's résumé and told her she could answer phones.
That was enough. She was in. She answered phones for two weeks before she wormed her way into production. Within a year, she was production manager for Daytime and Arts, a second partial-day cable network owned by Hearst and Capital Cities/ABC. A year later, on Feb. 1, 1984, Daytime and Arts were simultaneously launched as the 24-hour cable networks now known as Lifetime and A & E. Raven went with A & E as director of production. Ten years later, History was made, and Raven was handed the programming reins.
The schoolteacher who broke into television answering phones now has an Emmy Award on her office coffee table. There are also the two Peabody Awards, a Governor's Award from the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, and several other prizes scattered around her workspace.
History does have its detractors. One astute cable observer calls it the "Nazi she-wolf channel" for what seems a preponderance of programming about Hitler and World War II. Raven, whose father was wounded in WWII, calls that a misconception. Great American History Quiz asked questions about everything from advertising to zeitgeist, she points out. Modern Marvels is a showcase for technological wonders of the age. Robin Hood, Amazon women and cave men were subjects of History's Mysteries. The History of Sex was exactly that. Military-related programming accounts for less than 20% of the schedule, she maintains.
"Look, World War II was a huge part of our history," she notes. For History to ignore World War II would be like "ESPN not doing baseball in the summertime."
Nielsen numbers testify that History's mix of storytelling appeals to a growing segment of the TV audience. History's total-day cable rating increased 25% from 1998 to 1999, from a 0.4/190,000 to a 0.5/275,000. Its prime time rating jumped 33%, from a 0.6/319,000 to a 0.8/450,000. History' s total distribution grew roughly 10% in the same period.
History's appeal is the stuff of quietly formed trends. It's the favorite channel of Tony Soprano, the lead character in the wildly popular HBO series. Raven's whole body smiles when she relates that little marketing bonanza. Marketing and distribution form the core of her first objective as general manager. She will eventually be replacing herself as head of programming, the job that was once perfectly suited to an ex-schoolteacher.