When cable legend Nick Davatzes announced he would step down as president and CEO of A&E Television Networks after 21 years with the company, there was no doubt whom he wanted to choose as a successor.
Abbe Raven, a veteran of the company almost since its inception and most recently president of A&E Network-USA, was the natural choice.
“Not only does she have her finger on the pulse of popular culture, but she is an excellent manager of executives,” Davatzes says. “She has put together one of the most creative teams working in television, and she rewards them for taking big risks and creating bold strategies. The key to Abbe's success is her ability to understand people.”
Raven steps in as only the second ever president and CEO in the history of the company, which is owned by Hearst, Disney and NBC. Now under her aegis are AETN's television networks—A&E, The History Channel, The Military History Channel, The Biography Channel, History International, The History Channel en Español and the upcoming Crime & Investigation Network—in addition to AETN Consumer Products and AETN International.
With the company's channels and programming extending to more than 130 countries and reaching more than 230 million households, that is quite a large undertaking. But it's no sweat to Raven.
“Looking at the company's work over the past two decades, we've continued to have new challenges,” she says, “and I'm absolutely looking forward to this one.”
After stints in teaching and stage managing for New York regional theater, Raven kicked off her cable career in 1982 as a production assistant for the oddly combined Daytime and Arts Channel, which later converted to Lifetime Television and A&E. She saw A&E through its 1984 launch and climbed the ladder there in a variety of executive roles, helping to greenlight much of the programming for which the various networks are now known.
After a few years as GM of the History Channel, Raven took the reins as EVP/GM of A&E and The Biography Channel in October 2002 and subsequently helped boost viewership in the 18-49 demo by 88%, with a year-to-date average audience of 523,000. Prime time February viewership in the demo climbed 23% from the previous year, to an average 459,000 viewers 18-49.
Raven also helped A&E to earn 24 Emmy nominations—a cable record—in 2004, the same year she was promoted to serve as the network's president. She successfully lowered the network's median viewing age through an edgy mix of originals, including reality shows Dog the Bounty Hunter, Growing Up Gotti, and Airline and new addition Intervention, in addition to major acquisitions including 24 and CSI: Miami, a strategy that raised questions from those long familiar with A&E as an older-skewing network.
“Our audience was very loyal, but they were aging,” she observes. “So we said, it's not the network for my mom anymore; it's the network for the next generation.”
She has more shows in the works for A&E, with originals including Knievel's Wild Ride, Inked and Texas Roller Girls yet to premiere.
One of Raven's most recent feats was winning a tough competition for cable off-net rights to HBO's The Sopranos, a deal that cost nearly $200 million—and a record $2.5 million an episode.
“There's a reason almost every cable network wanted The Sopranos,” she says. “A property like that doesn't come along very often, and there's nothing like it on the horizon in the next few years. It's the water-cooler show of the decade and has been ingrained in the fabric of our culture. I looked at it for the things we look for when we look at drama—is it well-written, well-produced, great auspices—and there wasn't another show that came close.”
The New York native enjoys guiding up-and-coming women in the industry as a member of Women in Cable and Telecommunications and of American Women in Radio & Television.
“She's big into mentoring,” says AETN spokesperson Michael Feeney. “Other women in the office look to her for that.”
Education is near to her heart. Currently VP for The National Council for History Education, she has worked with Lynne Cheney, former Secretary of Education Rob Page and the National Endowment for the Humanities to advocate for history education in the classroom. In addition, she is a member of CTAM, Promax, ATAS and NATAS.
Raven, an arts enthusiast, holds a B.A. in theater from the University of Buffalo, where she was a fellow of the Center for Theater Research, and an M.A. in cinema and theater from Hunter College, where she was named a Brookdale Fellow. In 1997, Hunter inducted her into the school's Hall of Fame, and in 2001 the University of Buffalo gave her a Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In addition to regular trips to the theater and movies, Raven loves to travel and vacations with her husband, Martin Tackel, an attorney, and college-age son. Growing up in a family that was involved in politics—her mother advocated for civil rights—and current events, she is also a major newshound and gets four newspapers delivered to her house each day, in addition to reading dozens of magazines.
She nurtured the news habit while working in the New York Public Library's periodicals section following high school, and it has served her well in keeping current on all things media-related.
“Abbe is going to be a leading voice in television for years to come,” Davatzes says. “Her energy, enthusiasm and creativity have made a mark, not only on AETN but on the cable industry as a whole.”