While cable has "made enormous progress" on women’s issues, we "still have a long way to go," and if "you don’t [continue to] forge ahead, it will slip back," AETN chief Abbe Raven says in a wide-ranging interview. One problem, she says, is that women presidents and CEOs are talked about as women executives, instead of just good executives. Raven also shares her view of diversity and why WICT remains important. In this expanded interview, Raven discusses AETN’s record summer ratings, The Sopranos and how Ice Road Truckers fits The History Channel brand.
How does a young former teacher named Abbe Raven rise up to head AETN, a $1 billion-plus enterprise with seven networks and programming in some 145 countries?
Abbe Raven: A good question. Let me tackle the how does it happen first. I always felt early in my career that the key to being successful is being passionate about what you do, by working really hard, and being willing to take new risks and steps in your creativity and business applications. I never set out from day one to be the CEO. I wanted to be the best executive that I could and was very happy to accept various challenges along the way. I was extremely lucky to be with a company that was continued to grow over 20-plus years, and then to take on new responsibilities. So having an early challenge being on the creative team that launched The History Channel, then later the rejuvenation of the A&E Network, those were stepping stones to being part of a company that was continuing to grow. I think the recognition that I was able to take on big challenges and build teams that could take more and more challenges said…it was a great place to be.
But if you said to me 20-plus years ago that not only would I be CEO and that this company would be in 145 countries and have 7 networks and be part of the popular culture, I don’t what I would have said [laughter].
It’s all about evolution, and not only evolving as a company, but also evolving as an executive. Through some pretty hard work and a dedicated team not only has the company achieved success but I’ve been part of that, and I’ve been blessed to be part of that.
Would it have been conceivable 20-plus years ago that a woman would be heading a network?
A very good question. There were some, not that many. The world has changed. There have been a number of women who started in junior positions and have become CEO. You look at [chairman/CEO] Ann Moore at Time Inc., who has been with the same company for 20-pus years. I think 20 years ago you wouldn’t have said we’d have a woman running for president or a woman speaker of the House. Would we have said that two secretaries of state in the past 10 years would be women? The role of women has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Our culture has allowed women to be successful.
So, the obvious follow-up: Do we need to concentrate on women’s issues? Is WICT still useful?
Yes, I think it’s still useful. I think [about diversity] not just in terms of WICT, but across race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. One of the great challenges for any executive in any business is that you tend to surround yourself with people who look like you. And I think it’s very important for organizations and an industry to recognize that we need to embrace people who are slightly different.
I think had we not raised the awareness that we need more women in our business and at senior levels I don’t think it would happen. I think there’s still a long way [to go] in our industry. So WICT still has a role. For example, we need to promote more women in the technology side of our business, so I think absolutely there’s a need for it.
I hope that future generations won’t need to think about this, that equality will be natural. But I think we still need to point out the struggles that exist for any group.
What have you done to increase diversity at AETN now that you’re CEO?
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that making change takes time and that the first step is talking about it and being honest about it and recognizing that we have a lot of work to do. So we have taken a lot of steps within the company to put this on the front burner.
And your senior team?
On a team with fewer than one dozen, I have some people of color, three women, so it’s not to say we have further to go, but I am very cognizant of that. And I think the most important thing is that we’re honest with ourselves and are saying, "Are we giving everybody an opportunity to move ahead?" I’ve placed Nancy Dubuc as EVP and GM of The History Channel. She has within a few months proven herself over and over again. That’s an opportunity I gave to someone to break through, but it’s also about talent and drive. Still, clearly, diversity is on our agenda.
You just returned from a conference on women’s issues. Based on that, is cable among the more progressive industries?
What impresses me is that clearly there is a great representation of women in this industry, cable and broadcast. There are women at my level like Debra Lee, Gerry Laybourne and Anne Sweeney. And women running networks like Nancy Dubuc, Bonnie Hammer and Andrea Wong at Lifetime, Nancy Tellem at CBS. What has not happened yet is that it’s totally transparent, that it’s still, in some senses, a novelty. We’re still, at times, talked about as "the female CEO" as opposed to "a really good CEO." The industry has a long way to go. We have made enormous progress, but if you don’t forge ahead it will slip back.
Do you recommend the pursuit of careers in media to young women?
Absolutely. This is one of the greatest industries, there’s so much opportunity and I think we are at the cusp of transforming this industry into something we can’t quite predict. In the same way that 20-25 years we didn’t quite know where the cable industry was going.
Any advice to them?
I tell young men and women, get your foot in the door. If you do a good job you’ll shine and succeed. Some students are advised to hold out for the best job possible, don’t take an administrative job. I think getting yourself into a good company and getting experience is critical. It’s not just about your degrees, it’s about on-the-job training. The cable industry is certainly a wonderful place to get that kind of training.
Your new series are wide ranging. What’s the new A&E all about?
A&E is a quality network that has embraced three areas. The first is original programming, including reality programming, which has certainly found resonance with viewers, shows like Dog The Bounty Hunter and Criss Angel.
There’s also original drama. That’s been the heart and soul of this network, and I’m thrilled we’re back in that business and that we were able to jump-start that with smart acquisitions like The Sopranos and CSI: Miami. We are building a foundation with The Sopranos for our original programming, which will be high-quality series like The Andromeda Strain, which has people in it like Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Ricky Schroder, directed and produced by Ridley Scott. We have three pilots with really strong scripts. Those auspices are true to the A&E brand.
Why go into scripted series? That’s a tough business.
Yes it is, but drama has always been part of our plan. Now that we have established a wonderful ratings base with our acquired drama series and our real-life programming it continues to help a network resonate. It resonates with advertisers and affiliates. But more than that, it resonates with an audience that identifies with those kinds of programs. We’ve acquired some of the best off-net programming. Now we’ll have some of the best scripted drama.
Has The Sopranos met your expectations so far?
Without question. We’re up almost 20% year over year in ratings growth, and The Sopranos has been a key part of that. We’ve also attracted more than 100 new advertisers. It’s created buzz for us. We approached it as one of the best dramas on television, and we think of it as original programming because almost 70% of our audience has not been exposed to The Sopranos, so it’s really a hybrid.
Let’s move to History. Which upcoming specials are you looking forward to in particular?
I’m absolutely looking forward to 1968 With Tom Brokaw. I’m so pleased that we can bring this event to the network. It was a year that changed the world, and changed my life. We’ve been able to succeed in saying History is the definitive place for looking at these special events in history. And who can tell it better than Tom Brokaw? So it has some personal resonance for me—it was such a watershed year. I’m just thrilled he is doing it on our network, and I certainly hope that he will do even more with us.
Appointment viewing is a goal at History. Have you gotten there yet?
We’re beginning to get there. I absolutely believe in it. It’s certainly part of Nancy’s strategy. And I think we’ve seen it with shows like Ice Road Truckers, Cities of the Underworld and The Universe, all shows being renewed. They have shown us that our core audience has made appointments to follow these series, so it shows us it’s clearly an opportunity for us to continue to create more shows that everyone clearly identifies with The History Channel. That’s been a big breakthrough for us.
Talk about Take a Vet to School.
I’m extremely proud of that new initiative, which will launch in November. I’m so excited that the cable operators have embraced it. We are working with our affiliates in terms of blowing out this grassroots campaign. My father was a veteran, he’s no longer with us, but how moving it would have been to bring him to students and let him talk about his experiences.
And R. Lee Ermey is still involved with it?
Yes, he’s our spokesman for it. The beauty of this has been the welcome we’ve gotten from the local communities. It’s what makes The History Channel so special, that we can collaborate and work so closely with local communities. That’s what the cable business is all about. Very few other businesses can reach into their local communities the way the cable business has. This is our first year, but I know we can make it better. We will kick it off here in New York with Mayor Bloomberg around Veteran’s Day.
You’ve created broadband The Backyard Astronomer and The Naked Underground as companion sites for two of your series. Will this pattern continue?
What we’re doing is looking to create original content on broadband so viewers can have a richer experience. The experience they get on television is one thing, but we can give them a deeper dive on broadband, so we’ve invested a lot in short-form original programming and companion pieces on broadband. History has enormous power, we’ve dramatically increased our visitation over the past few months. We believe history.com can be and is one of the key sources of history on the ’Net, and we feel the same way about biography.com for people. So it’s very exciting to be building out compatible businesses with our television business.
We also think there’s a real opportunity there, that we’ve been able to touch, with educators and students, who clearly come to us for their information.
Five to ten years from now, will people be watching linear television?
I’ve said this publicly that people will continue to watch television in their living room, as well as other places. People are investing in big-screen televisions because they want to watch HD, which is why we’re glad we’ve launched A&E and The History Channel in HD. You see the trend right now of people watching television on big screens and buying them in record numbers for their homes. They’re also watching programming on iPods and other small devices. That will be the shift to personalized entertainment. That’s another reason why we’ve become a content company. But do I believe you’re not going to want to sit down and have an experience in your living room or bedroom or den? No, I think that’s here to stay. It will be enhanced by the fact that you may be doing other tasks at the same time. You may have your computer on, you might be texting someone. What it says to us is that our brands must continue to be as strong as they can be. We think we are in a great position to be a leader in global brands on whatever platform there will be in the future.
You’re in 140 countries. Do you manage that business?
You have to have the right team. You can’t be everywhere at the same time. This is a big business. I have a team now at MIPCOM, and we have a strong international group working with our ventures across the globe, and we continue to look at creating new ventures and syndicating programming around the world. What’s been a great benefit to us is that our brands and content translate around the world.
Ice Road Truckers has become your top-rated series ever. Why has it worked?
I think it worked for a number of reasons. Primarily it was great storytelling and characters that came to life. It had great auspices. It targeted in to what our history lover loves. The mesh of history and adventure, life and death stakes. That’s really at the heart. A key for us for years at The History Channel has been man vs. nature. This story is as old as time. In this case it was on ice roads, which people are fascinated with. We created a show on Modern Marvels a few years ago about building an ice road, and how truckers travel across it. That resonated with our audience, so we just took it to a new level and told it in a little bit more contemporary style.
When you first saw the idea for this show did you think it belonged on The History Channel?
I knew it belonged on The History Channel because, as I said, we had created this other show and played it several times and it had always done well. When we go out and do focus groups and talk to our core viewers we hear themes that resonate with them. One of them has always been man vs. nature throughout history. So I felt we were smack in the middle of the wheelhouse on this one. When I first saw the rushes I couldn’t turn away.
What happens today is news. What happened yesterday, as well as 1,000 years ago, is history. What happened yesterday becomes the telling of history tomorrow. We look at this and say this is a profession that is very rich in our history. They’ve been trying to work on these ice roads for 80 years and there’s a rich history there. Go to CableWorld’s 2007 Most Powerful Women in Cable – The Top 50
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