Abbe Raven is the president and CEO of AETN, the cable channels group comprising A&E, Bio, History, Military History, Crime & Investigation and now female-skewing cable net Lifetime.
Since swapping a teaching career for TV in the 80s, Raven made a name for herself as part of the team that launched History in 1995 and subsequently was responsible for revamping the A&E network and bringing in a new wave of younger viewers. In programming terms, Raven has overseen repositioning of several of the AETN channels. Part of that strategy at A&E has been a drive into original scripted programming like The Cleaner and more recently The Glades and, conversely, at History, it has been the introduction of unscripted shows like Pawn Stars.
Appointed to the top job in 2005, making her the company’s second ever CEO after longtime previous boss Nickolas Davatzes, Raven has recently overseen the deal that has brought Lifetime into the fold.
The deal for Lifetime was announced last August, how is the integration going and where are you at now with regards to the channel?
It’s almost a year now since the merger and, while integration takes a while, the nuts and bolts of that process are over and now we’re really focused on the nitty gritty, which is programming. Nancy Dubuc [Lifetime president and GM] and the programming team are heavily involved in development.
With some of the other AETN networks there has been a conscious effort to reach out to younger viewers, is that part of the plan with Lifetime?
Our goal is to be the network that attracts a large number of women. We have already produced our fall programming and have had the number one and two TV movies, Project Runway is the number one competition show on cable and we continue to have great dramas like Army Wives and Drop Dead Diva. We’re looking to solidify Lifetime’s leadership for women and if the age goes down in the process it’s a bonus.
Do you envisage AETN acquiring other channel brands?
I’d never forego adding more brands but at this point the focus is organic growth.
In programming and revenue terms it could be seen as a golden age for cable. Why is that?
Cable reaches so many people because of the diversity of the programming and at AETN we have diverse networks that resonate with popular culture. There’s a different creative process in cable and that offers a real opportunity to swing for the fences. It allows you to have that opportunity to be creative.
Across our networks we have had the most-watched year in our history. We’re the growth leader in adults 18-to-49.
You have pushed A&E towards original drama in recent years. Now History has its first-ever dramatic miniseries, The Kennedys. Will scripted programming become a regular part of the mix on History?
A&E was always committed to drama, we just launched The Glades and that’s doing well. History’s focus is more on series and big-ticket, high-end specials like America: The Story of Us [known as America: The Story of the US internationally], which was introduced by President Barack Obama.
How do you think the production community perceives AETN, especially with the move into original scripted programming at A&E?
We do a lot of work with producers across the board and we have been embraced by the creative community because they look at us as a place where there is a lot of experimentation and creativity. That’s why some producers working for A&E have said they’d like to do something for one of the other networks.
As a company you have a wide-ranging international presence. How does that business sit alongside the domestic activity?
There’s no question there needs to be a mix, but we’re absolutely committed to international growth. For example, we’ve just done a JV in India and will hopefully launch channels there and we have a block in China. We are the largest non-fiction company around the world.
What are the plans internationally for Lifetime?
It’s part of AETN’s overall philosophy to look at brands and launch them overseas – it’s a natural inclination. We’re very focused on developing Lifetime for the international market, it’s in process.
Is the focus programme sales or launching the network outside the US?
The TV movies have always sold well internationally so yes, it’s a syndication and channels business.
With Lifetime in the mix you have channels catering to a female demo as well as the existing networks that skew male and male/female. How important is it to have a balanced portfolio of channels, does adding Lifetime make that portfolio worth more than the sum of the parts?
Yes, it creates an incredible portfolio of networks. There’s a great energy around that and the goal is to be number one for adults. Each has its own demographic and we can cross promote across them.
You have a digital division, how important a part of the business is that today – does it generate a profit?
Digital is still in its infancy. We’re looking for it to be profitable, but we really look at how that space can work with the [TV] brands. For example, with History.com the goal is for it to be the number one in search for the history category online. They have to work in tandem.
There is a lot of chatter about 3D, although not much by way of content or channels yet. What is AETN’s feeling regarding the potential of 3D on the small-screen.
The jury is out on how widespread it will be, but it’s our hallmark to respond and be ready so we are working on some 3D programming.
Where will the business be in a year’s time?
We will have even more growth and we will not be talking about ‘integration’, we will be talking about a portfolio of channels that includes Lifetime.
Finally, in the UK there is a debate about women being under-represented in media. Do you think that is the case in the US?
No, it’s really about talent and what you can bring to the table and I think the cable industry, in particular, is enormously open to women. Programmers, CEOs – at all levels women are on an even footing.