Drama Queen

Abbe Raven, president of A&E Network, knows how to jazz up—and age down—a cable channel. Since she took the reins in October 2002 as EVP/GM of A&E and The Biography Channel, A&E’s prime time viewership in the key 18-49 demo is up 88%, with an average year-to-date audience of 523,000.

Raven was promoted to A&E president in September 2004, the same year the network roped in a record 24 Emmy nominations. Under her leadership, viewership continues to climb: In January, 18-49 ratings were up 42% in prime compared with a year earlier. (Total prime time viewership is up 9%.) Plus, A&E, one of a family of networks owned by Hearst Corp., ABC Inc. and NBC, recently won a fierce competition for cable off-net rights to HBO’s The Sopranos. The A&E chief, who will receive NCTA’s 2005 Vanguard Award for “Distinguished Leadership” in April, discussed that programming coup and the network’s formula for success with B&C’s Anne Becker.

Some say A&E is all over the map. What does the network stand for?

There’s an emotional connection that differentiates us from other services. On the surface, Dog the Bounty Hunter may seem larger than life, but when you really look, it’s all about redemption and dealing with people emotionally. Look at HBO as the pay model: quality, the most Emmy nominations, the only other network with a mix of high-quality drama and documentary programming. Set it against A&E, the basic model: high quality, the most Emmy nominations of any basic-cable network in history, and a devotion to documentary, drama and performance. You really can’t go to another network, a USA, and say that. I’m not going to be as bold as to say we’re the HBO of basic, but our models are very similar.

Several networks are changing their taglines or logos to better explain their programming. Does A&E plan to do the same?

We’re taking our lead from our viewers. If it’s right, we’ll evolve. When I was asked to return to A&E in October 2002 after the loss of a big-ticket show [Law & Order] and a plummet in ratings, we were A&E for the 50-plus audience. I said we had to refine the brand for the next generation. It’s still all about the programming. The first step was to introduce the art of entertainment, emphasizing entertainment. We could make our greatest impact immediately in nonfiction. That was the motivation for ramping up alternative development. We got Airline, Family Plots, [Growing Up] Gotti. We spent 2004 making a splash by launching a new show almost every other month. That was a bold, risky move, but we’ve had one success after another. We introduced MI-5 and started bolstering dramas, acquiring CSI: Miami and Miramax movies. We’d have less questioning about the brand if we were 18 months down the road and you saw more drama on the network.

What do you say to critics who call A&E youth-addicted?

I tell critics we’ve become a buzz network. That’s a goal for any network, whatever their brand. Over the next few years, you’ll see a more defined A&E with 24, CSI: Miami, The Sopranos. Take those pieces and juxtapose them against the real-life series, performance programming and original movies. You get a bigger picture of what we are. Critics and competitors point to pieces in isolation, but it’s always a mix. In the same way, CBS, a broadcast network, goes from CSI to Survivor. The key is balance. Because our nonfiction has gotten so much attention, people see it as slightly off-balance; it’s not.

Are there any reality programs you wouldn’t do?

We won’t do anything contrived, so we’re not doing a game show or a contest. It has to become drama in a nonfiction setting: real people, real situations with an emotional connection to the audience. I call it the A&E voice. The New York Times called The First 48 a near-perfect drama. Intervention is a gripping drama about people at a low point in their lives and how friends and family rally to help. We recruit by going to facilities with connections to people with addictions. If there’s any indication the subjects think there may be an intervention, we won’t do the show. If we’re going to have any credibility with our viewers, it has to transpire in a real way. We’re not there with our cameras telling people what to do; we’re trying to craft a story.

Do you have a go-to person you run ideas by?

I have a great team: head of programming Bob DiBitetto and Nancy Dubuc, SVP for nonfiction and alternative programming. We have a building filled with 20- and 30-year-olds. They are our potential viewers, so we have an informal system. From the beginning, I said we are going to make this a network you want to go home and watch. I hired all new, edgy people. We did a workshop. We made a list of 30 pie-in-the-sky ideas. No. 1 on the list was having The Sopranos.

Give me a cost-benefit analysis of The Sopranos deal.

It cost nearly $200 million for repeats, $2.5 million an episode. We would never do anything without a financial return. Advertisers that never had a chance to advertise on The Sopranos wanted to partner with us. Advertisers that had never advertised on A&E [wanted to] target a younger demo. It becomes a cornerstone to the schedule in fall 2006. If it’s on for a few hours a week, there are programming hours we’re not investing in. But this is such a great platform to build off and launch originals. It will not inhibit us from growing the network.

How will The Sopranos fit the brand?

It not only fits, it elevates the bar. I want A&E to continue to be one of the top networks, and drama is a big part of our mix. Our off-network dramas are a cut above. We’ve always stood for quality and excellence in programming, and there has never been another program that has generated the acclaim, attention or popularity of The Sopranos. It has been the jewel in the crown for HBO. There is no property like it on the horizon that will go into syndication in the next few years. We’ve been trying to take the essence of our brand—stories about people, character development, heritage and biography—and lay that over popular and contemporary culture and The Sopranos fits.

What’s on your TiVo?

24. I watched it last night at 11 because I got home late from work. I’m totally hooked. I’m so happy we bought it. Also, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Desperate Housewives.

Do you watch any reality?

None of the contrived ones. I watched The Apprentice its first year. Didn’t hold it for me. I got very angry—it portrayed women in business very badly. Carolyn was great, but the women contestants? Just not real enough.

Any programs you see as a cut above?

Nothing that jumps out.

What’s coming up on A&E?

Texas Roller Girls just went into production. I love the concept: women in roller derby leagues. They are becoming very hot, especially in the South. By day, they’re teachers, lawyers, reporters, social workers, mothers, wives, single. At night, they’re competitive in this league. It’s like Sex and the City on blades. Go Go Lucky [Laguna Beach’s production company] is doing it, so it’s like film—a whole different look. Nancy Dubuc was circling this, but we put it in a demo tape, and all of us hands down said we have to have it. Then you know you’ve hit a home run.

You just got tapped to head A&E’s new Crime and Investigation channel. It launched in Australia on Jan. 1 and will be available for U.S. affiliates to preview April 2. Isn’t that a lot on your plate?

We’re experts at growing the corporation and launching networks from the mothership. It’s one of the things I’m really good at. I was at A&E when we first launched. Also, when we did The History Channel, The Biography Channel and History International. So it doesn’t feel daunting. To have a blank canvas is always fun.