Davatzes Exit Helps Keep Raven

Mar 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Just before being named to succeed A&E Television Networks founder Nick Davatzes as president and CEO, Abbe Raven, president of the A&E Network, was asked whether she wanted to be a candidate for the top spot at Lifetime, a senior Hearst executive said.

It was that opportunity and other unspecified offers for Ms. Raven’s services that appear to have accelerated succession plans at A&E and led to last week’s announcement.

“Abbe’s been in demand. She’s been getting a lot of calls from a lot of places. With what she’s done over there [at A&E] there was a lot of interest in her,” said John Conomikes, a director of Hearst, a joint venture partner in both A&E Networks and Lifetime.

The successor to Lifetime President and CEO Carole Black could be appointed as early as this week, added Mr. Conomikes, who was part of the Lifetime search committee. He said the selection of a finalist had been delayed by a few weeks because additional candidates stepped forward and were added to the mix.

“A couple of people have turned up that had to be given strong consideration,” said Mr. Conomikes, who declined to name any of the candidates for the job. “Hopefully by the end of next week we’ll be able to say something.”

One executive often mentioned as a contender is Deborah Blackwell, now general manager at Disney’s SoapNet.

Mr. Conomikes said Ms. Raven would have been a strong candidate for the Lifetime post.

Ms. Raven has been with A&E for two decades. In 2002 she moved from general manager of the History Channel to lead a comeback at A&E Network USA, which was slumping after giving up the rights to “Law & Order” reruns. She has been able to attract viewers with less-than-highbrow fare such as “Growing Up Gotti” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and has helped lower the median age of the network’s viewership, a shift that makes A&E more attractive to advertisers.

When Mr. Conomikes and Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, talked to Ms. Raven about replacing Mr. Davatzes, they also told her, “If you have interest in Lifetime, we would have to consider you for it,” Mr. Conomikes said. “She wanted to think about it overnight, even though she felt she wanted to stay.”

When Ms. Raven elected to take the top post at A&E, “I breathed a sigh of relief because she’s absolutely the right person for what’s going on there,” Mr. Conomikes said.

Mr. Davatzes has been discussing retirement for about a year with the board of A&E. (In addition to Disney and Hearst, which each own 37.5 percent of the Arts & Entertainment Television Networks, NBC holds a 25 percent stake.) The speed between last week’s announcement and the April 1 date that the appointment becomes effective appeared fast to some former A&E executives.

Mr. Davatzes noted that concern about having executives “poached” was one reason the succession plan is going into effect now. Ms. Raven declined to talk about any other offers she might have received.

“The kind of smooth transition that we’re going to have in leadership here is terrific,” Mr. Davatzes said. “It’s great for the employees, it’s great for the investors and it’s great for our customers. … Abbe’s been here since the beginning, and every assignment I’ve asked her to take on, she’s done a fantastic job. And so it was a natural evolution.”

“The idea is to continue in the tradition of the success that we’ve had at AETN,” Ms. Raven said. “My primary goal will be to continue to execute the vision that we’ve set out for the core networks and to continue to create what I consider an organizational culture that promotes creativity and great customer service.”

One of Ms. Raven’s tasks will be to name a manager for A&E to replace herself. One candidate is programming chief Bob DiBitetto, who was recently promoted to executive VP, but the company might take the unusual step of going outside to find an appropriate executive for the post.

A&E went outside to find Mr. DiBitetto in 2002 and last year hired Mel Berning as executive VP of ad sales.

In January, A&E made a big splash by buying off-network rights to the HBO hit “The Sopranos” for a record $2.5 million per episode. Ms. Raven last week reiterated, “We absolutely will make money on `The Sopranos.”‘

A&E also recently bought “CSI: Miami” and “24.” “They’ve got it all going for them. I think that by fall of 2006 that’s going to be a hell of a network,” Mr. Conomikes said.

With A&E on the upswing, it was also a good time for Mr. Davatzes to retire from the network he founded in 1983. “I probably get more credit than I deserve, and that’s just the way it is,” he said.

Mr. Davatzes marked his 63rd birthday last week, when he also celebrated the birth of a grandchild.

Under Mr. Davatzes, AETN grew into a billion-dollar company. It launched The History Channel in 1995 and has also launched a number of digital networks, including Biography Channel, History Channel International, History Channel en espa%F1;ol, The Military History Channel and Crime & Investigation Network.

Mr. Davatzes said it was “time for a new voice to be heard at AETN,” and at the same time, he needed some time for his growing family. “One day about a year ago, my wife and I were chatting and said we hadn’t had a two-week vacation in over 20 years. Every time we took a vacation … somehow business got built around it.”

“I think it’s time,” he said. “One of the things that I think is a good byproduct of effective leadership is knowing when it’s time to make a change and if you have the organization structure and the talent inside to be able to carry on in a very effective manner,” he said. “And we’ve been doing great. I’ve been doing this for 21 years and started with nothing and every year’s been, in financial terms, been more successful than the previous year in a very real way.”

Mr. Davatzes plans to maintain involvement in some industry projects, including working on diversity initiatives. He is also considering joining the boards of some companies. He will remain an adviser to A&E, with a desk at the company’s office in Stamford, Conn., just 15 minutes from home.