Marking a Silver Year With Growth

Apr 26, 2009  •  Post A Comment

It would seem that A&E Television Networks could pick a better time to mark its 25th anniversary.
But amid an economic recession and a deep slump in the advertising business, AETN is coming off its best year ever, and CEO Abbe Raven sees even better days ahead.
“We’re toasting the past and, more importantly, we’re going to toast to the future,” Ms. Raven said of the shindig scheduled for May 14 at the Rainbow Room at New York’s Rockefeller Center.
A joint venture of NBC Universal, the Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp., the company has ambitious programming plans for its networks, which include A&E, History and Biography.
At A&E there are four new unscripted series coming to the network and 10 more in development, including a reality show built around Tony Danza. On the scripted side, “The Cleaner” is coming back with a number of guest stars including Whoopi Goldberg and Shirley Jones. There is a pilot being shot, six series in development and a miniseries being developed that is designed to follow in the successful footprints of last year’s “The Andromeda Strain.”
Series Making History
At History Channel, there are 16 new series including “Expedition Africa,” the Mark Burnett show retracing Henry Stanley’s pursuit of David Livingstone. The network also has four big-ticket specials, one of which is “The People Speak,” featuring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Bruce Springsteen and others bringing history to life in an original documentary.
There also will be a new series on Biography, joining five returning series and three specials. Biography has five series pilots in the works.
All that translates into an increase in programming spending, despite the recession.
“We’re continuing to make a substantial financial commitment to great quality storytelling, and this year won’t be any different than in the past,” Ms. Raven said.
Cable television programmers like AETN are among the best-
performing media properties so far during this downturn. Ms. Raven said cable remains a great value for consumers and is also a good deal for advertisers as they seek the biggest bang for their buck.
“They want quality value; they want premium places to advertise. We’re able to deliver that for them,” she said.
Ms. Raven said she is excited about the changes to the industry being caused by the economy.
“I think there are great opportunities for us,” she said. “Even though times are tough right now, I think those kinds of tough times breed creativity, and it makes people sharper and more innovative. And so I think we’re going to come out of this bigger and better than before.”
AETN doesn’t publicly report its earnings. SNL Kagan estimates the company’s revenues hit a record $1.4 billion last year. Ms. Raven said it also had a record year generating earnings, but declined to provide specific figures.
“Overall we’ve been very satisfied with the overall performance of the group,” said Jeff Gaspin, president of the NBC Universal Television Group. “They’ve done better than market overall.”
Not long ago, things weren’t so rosy. A&E was struggling with a very old average viewer age and History was a sleepy channel reliving World War II.
Ms. Raven and her team, headed by Bob DeBitetto at A&E and Nancy Dubuc at History, have changed that, starting with reality shows like “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “Intervention” at A&E and “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men” at History.
No More ‘Beast’
A&E has returned to scripted programming. The Benjamin Bratt series “The Cleaner” is returning, but Patrick Swayze’s “The Beast” may not.
While the ratings on “The Beast” were not as strong as she might have wanted, “We’ve gotten a lot of attention and personal reward for working with Patrick, and we made a lot of decisions that weren’t purely made on business. But we felt it was an opportunity to give a lot of people hope,” Ms. Raven said.
In the first quarter, A&E stacked up as the No. 9 network in primetime total viewers, with History close behind at No. 12. Among adults 25 to 54, A&E was No. 4 and History No. 7.
“I think they’ve done a nice job in the last several years of strengthening the brands,” Mr. Gaspin said. “A&E had a rougher time several years ago, and they’ve clearly come beyond that and more. Over at History, I think Nancy has done a great job broadening the scope of what the History channel can be and should be.”
Much of the credit goes to Ms. Raven, who became CEO in 2005, after stints running both History and A&E. In fact, she was at the company before the network launched, working her way up from an assistant whose first assignment was to photocopy scripts.
“Part of my success is because I’ve had a hand in programming and production—I understand the business,” Ms. Raven said.
“A lot of CEOs in this job today do not. I think they struggle because they don’t have the instinct that you need, like one of my direct competitors you might know about,” she said, firing off a zinger at former AETN board member David Zaslav, now CEO of Discovery Communications.
“Part of it is letting people do what they do well and putting the right people in the right positions, and I have a fantastic team that is very strong,” she said. “The business aspects are things that you can easily learn, but the creative part has to be instinctual. I’m blessed that I have a number of people on our staff that have great instincts.”
Amazed by Growth
Still, Ms. Raven said she’s amazed by the size AETN has attained in 25 years.
“We have grown into this major entertainment and media player, in 144 countries with 38 channels in 25 languages,” she said. “We influence 300 million people around the world every quarter. That’s how many people we touch. That’s 71% bigger than Facebook, it’s double the number of videos on YouTube, it’s double the top-grossing film in 2008. And we do that in just a quarter.”
Although the company has grown, Ms. Raven in some ways remains modest, although she noted that more people laugh at her jokes now.
“I still have to use my Metro card when I get on the subway,” she says, adding that she does consumer research as one of the few CEOs who rides the MetroNorth commuter railroad home after work.
“I’m on that train every day, watching what everybody is doing in terms of consuming media, listening to what they’re saying and what they watched last night, whether they’re on iTouches, iPods, BlackBerrys, and what computers they’re using,” she said. “The train is my little laboratory. It’s a way for me to stay in touch with consumers and I’m very proud of it.”
Ms. Raven also is proud that A&E has done more than just entertain its audience.
“I believe that we’ve also touched and changed people’s lives, and that’s amazing,” she said.
Ms. Raven said people tell her the show “Intervention” has motivated them to change their lives. To date, 100 people who have been on the show remain clean and sober, she said. And working with Mr. Swayze has given people with severe medical conditions hope. Young people have stopped her to say History inspired them to learn more about the past and become better citizens.
“That’s incredible. I’m enormously proud of that. And I think there’s not too many entertainment companies that can say that,” she said.


  1. Hey !!! Wasn’t that the reason A&E created the old THE HISTORY CHANNEL back in 1995- to serve as a stage for “History” programming, or as they now put it- “a sleepy old channel reliving WWII” ???
    Leaving the A&E stage open for other programming- why do we now need two A&E channels ?
    And, why do they never give the numbers for when THC was “a sleepy old channel reliving WWII”- I would think because there isn’t that much of a difference- they just betrayed one audience to gain another.

  2. It’s nice that A&E is celebrating their best year ever when they recently laid off about 50 people, citing tough economic times. It’s fairly irresponsible wouldn’t you think, that a “4th rated cable network” would take advantage of a nasty recession to re-organize, lay off people who become burdens of the state (unemployment, health insurance, etc) and then have the nerve to brag about how successful they are? How come no one questions this??

  3. The channel that has the nerve to continue to call itself “HISTORY”- STINKS !!!!!!!!!!!!
    All day MONSTERQUEST to mark Memorial Day ?

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