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TBI Interview: A&E’s Abbe Raven

Abbe Raven has been president and CEO of A&E Television Networks since 2005, with overall responsibility for its domestic and international networks and business. She talks to TBIvision about where the company is headed and A&E’s move back into original drama

The global economic situation is pretty bleak – how will that impact ad revenues and AETN overall?
A good number of advertisers have learned that during a recession they should keep advertising. As of today there’s no change in the status quo – people are waiting. Right now the fourth quarter is looking good. But there’s a lesson to be learned about marketing. Look at the companies that retrenched in hard times and look how long it took them to recover.

What does it mean for your programming budget?
The number one strategy is to continue investing in programming. In some respects you will see more people wanting to buy our programming, our syndicated product. More people are also looking for coproduction. Overall, there are opportunities for a company that owns its product.

Will there be cutbacks elsewhere?
There are always economies that we can put in place and any smart executive would be looking at that – but as a company we already operate lean and mean.

A&E has some big-ticket original shows – do you think that in terms of quality and reach cable now matches broadcast TV?
We are seeing a blurring between cable and broadcast. People have a loyalty to a cable network that they don’t have with mainstream networks.

As a cable channel it helps if you have a breakthrough show. Recent successes for us include 102 Minutes that Changed the World on History, which comprised archive footage put together chronologically. It was put on without promotion and reached 13 million people over two nights.

How important is it to have a signature series for each of the channels?
On each of our networks the goal is to have a show that defines it – but you don’t want to be a network with just one show. We have seen over the years what happens to networks with one show, like TLC and Trading Spaces.

What’s the thinking behind the move back into original scripted programming?
Scripted is a critical piece of the puzzle. Three or four years ago we wanted to transition the network for younger viewers and acquired scripted was critical. Now, the next phase is original scripted programming.

The Cleaner [just picked up for a second season] is one of our younger-skewing original dramas and that has been getting over a million viewers. We’re in production with The Beast with Patrick Swayze and that will debut next year. We’ve also had The Andromeda Strain.

You have 38 networks internationally and 17 of these have launched in the past two years, how important is the international business?
International is a critical piece of the business strategy, it is a growth engine for us as a corporation. We very wisely saw that a few years ago, we thought about it, and built a library of content. We want to be a leader in quality programming around the world.

In the same way, we were an early advocate of HD. It was a gamble to take that leap not knowing whether we would get a return, but we are seeing that return now.