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Flip-flop at the tippy-top

A&E is hoping the former head of sister net History Channel can help cure its many ailments. With sagging ratings and a bushel of programming woes, A&E last week tapped History Channel EVP and GM Abbe Raven to fill its top post.

In an unusual exec swap, A&E EVP and GM Dan Davids will assume Raven's position at History. A&E Television Networks President and CEO Nick Davatzes engineered the switch in recent weeks.

"We decided it would be easier if we had someone with more programming experience at the head of A&E," he said of Raven.

The History Channel's "real challenges are ad sales and marketing, and those work for Dan's strong suits," he added.

Of the two, Raven faces the more daunting challenge. (No one at AETN will say it, but the swap smells like a demotion for Davids.) A&E's prime time ratings have been slipping, down 17% in September and off 8% the last two quarters, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"A&E is a little bit stale," said one veteran media buyer. "Biography
is a little old, The View
didn't excite anyone, and they lost their best show in Law & Order."

Indeed, losing Law & Order
to TNT left a gaping hole in A&E's schedule. The legal drama had been a ratings workhorse since 1994, and pairing it with Biography
every night was a powerful combination.

A&E plunked down $700,000 to buy a replacement, NBC's middling drama Third Watch, but it lacks the same cachet and cult following. Third Watch
is averaging about a 0.8 rating, half of Law & Order's old marks.

Also troubling are A&E's recent original-programming failures. The network canceled its two original dramas, 100 Centre Street
and Nero Wolfe,
and ousted programming chief Allen Sabinson.

"If you have [shows] that aren't meeting a standard, you have to move on," explained Davatzes. He's still looking to replace Sabinson, but installing Raven, who comes with a programming and production background, buys him some time.

The History Channel is healthier, both in ratings and programming. Prime time marks waffle between 0.8 and 0.9, among the largest audiences for a niche network. Advertisers like its hard-to-reach upscale, male audience.