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The Gospel According to Abbe Raven

A+E Networks president and CEO Abbe Raven was in a bubbly mood as she arrived for a lunch meeting last Monday in New York. She’d just learned that History — one of the crown jewels in A+E’s 10-network portfolio — had the second biggest premiere in cable history when 13.1 million viewers tuned into the March 3 debut of its five-part series The Bible.

History’s premiere of Hatfields & McCoys last May drew cable’s highest audience for a series, with 13.9 million viewers. And a week prior to the premiere of The Bible, A&E drew a record 8.6 million viewers for the season-three debut of its quacky reality series Duck Dynasty.

For Raven, 60, who rose from the ranks of production assistant for A&E precursor Daytime & Arts Network in the early 1980s to lead one of the most successful cable-network portfolios, The Bible is the latest success in a long rally. The A+E Networks stable had more shows with 1 million or more viewers within the 25-to-54 demographic than any other programmer.

Raven oversaw the much-criticized but ultimately successful rebranding of A&E and History into broader entertainment networks that now rank among the top five in all of cable. A&E in particular has averaged an incredible nine straight years of ratings gains.

Raven is now looking to extend her touch to Lifetime, the struggling female-targeted network that in 2012 posted its biggest audience gain in more than 10 years. That uptick was accomplished by focusing on developing quality, company-owned original programming that Raven believes will serve the network well on both the international and digital platforms.

Raven talked with Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux and programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the future of the A+E Networks brand, including her cautious-but-forward-looking approach to TV Everywhere and concerns over the contentious issue of network bundling.

MCN: Why was The Bible such a success?

Abbe Raven: I have to give [The Bible producers] Mark Burnett and Roma Downey much of the credit. The Bible averaged 13.1 million total viewers, making it the No. 2 entertainment event in ad-supported cable history, behind only Hatfields & McCoys. So it means we had the No. 1 and 2 entertainment events.

The series debut of Vikings pillaged 6.2 million total viewers (laughter), making it the No. 1 new cable series of the year among total viewers in adults 25-54. It’s great.

MCN: It’s also a very risky topic for a miniseries. Did it meet your expectations?

AR: Absolutely, without question. And the numbers today validate our belief that you can bring millions and millions of people to event television with a brand that they believe in. We have been able to do it with multiple topics.

So it’s not just one show or one event. And the beauty of this is not only did we launch an event, we launched a series in Vikings. So that’s a long-term play.

MCN: Do you believe God had a hand in this?

AR: I’ll leave that unsaid. All I can talk about is my whole portfolio at my company, and of that, we’ve been blessed.

MCN: So what exactly is the secret sauce to A+E Networks’ overall success?

AR: 2012 was our best year ever; we had more shows in the top 25 than any other cable group. We have the largest number of hit shows than anybody — all without investing in sports programming. It sort of goes back to the old days with the reinvention of A&E.

If you’ll recall, more than 10 years ago, there was a trade magazine that said we were shuffling the chairs on the Titanic. But we said how do we take a well-respected brand and reinvent it for a contemporary audience?

We looked at the core values of A&E and asked, how do we then break them out to be more contemporary, and that’s when we did a shift in programming for A&E. From there, we used the same technique, basically, for both History and Lifetime, which is development of original programming. We believed that we needed to control our own destiny for all our networks, and so it was a time to walk away from off -net programming and to create our own franchises. We own it. And we’re not at the mercy of others.

We are way ahead of what other networks have done in terms of the fact that we’re not at the mercy of what’s coming off at the broadcast networks.

MCN: Despite some early criticism, you’ve effectively rebranded A&E and History and now you’re trying to do it with Lifetime. Lifetime arguably has more competition in the marketplace than the other two channels, so how do you go about accomplishing that?

AR: Well, when we took it over [in fall 2010] they had some problems. We have used the same philosophy [as the other networks] and we have developed a very strong strategic plan. We are the only network for women that features drama, original movies and nonfiction programming. Think about it. Nobody else has that. They are all trying to get into that game now, and nobody has it right now, and we were there first. And for the first time in eight years, [Lifetime] had a growth story in 2012 with successful shows like Dance Moms and The Client List. We’ve brought back Army Wives. We just announced we’re going to bring back Drop Dead Diva and big-ticket movies. So I think Lifetime is well on its way.

MCN: Will that network go broader in its reach to appeal to younger viewers?

AR: It will always have a female focus, but it will go deeper and therefore skew younger. So Dance Moms, for example, is skewing in the 30s, high 30s. I think 39, average age. That’s amazing considering our [average age] is 48 to 49. Sometimes you have to get rid of some of the core viewers to focus on reaching a bigger audience. We always say this: “Don’t have the fear that you may lose some of the older audience while you’re trying to recruit a broader, younger audience.” That’s OK. When I went in and said we’re going to be doing these shows on A&E, I know we’re going to lose the older audience, and everybody cringed. But trust us, it’s going to help us build for the future.

MCN: You’ve had far more hits than misses with original series launches in recent years, particularly on A&E and History. What is your strategy for building a hit?

AR: We look at a show and we support it, most of the time beyond its first season. With most other networks, if a show was mediocre in the first season, they’ll say, I’m not going to put much more into it. We believe that if there’s life in there — and we see that by careful research and analysis, who came to it, how long they stayed — we make a strategic decision to market the second season. We’ve also taken a lot of chances and big risks. The good news is they’ve paid off and we have the highest percentage of success rate in terms of from pilot to air and then air to new season. But that’s also because we, as I said earlier, nurture our programming and we do a lot of research.

MCN: Is that what happened with shows like [History’s] Pawn Stars and Swamp People?

AR:Pawn Stars, Swamp People, Duck Dynasty… We felt the momentum was there, we had done research, and then this social [media reaction] really brought it home.

MCN: What was it in particular about Duck Dynasty that made you believe it could work?

AR:Duck Dynasty is a little different. First of all, the family aspect to it has been very much embraced by audiences… These are larger-than- life characters, but there is a down-home quality to them. There is also that quality of they had a clever idea and they were able to blow it out. They are entrepreneurial and they’re hard-working Americans, and people respect that. We have seen that a lot in our other shows, in Swamp People and Ax Men.

MCN: Don’t you need conflict to make a good reality series?

AR: Well there’s some conflict between nice people that are likeable. Another reason for our success is that we really look at who our target audience is and really focus on that. So for Lifetime, what does the contemporary woman want to watch? It’s different than what it was 10 years ago. History, the same thing. Then we take the kernels of good, solid programming and break them out.

The other distinguishing factor, I believe, from a programming point of view, is we have never rested on just a couple of shows. … You need to build a good show and then figure out what you’re going to launch off of that, so that we don’t have 12 Top Chefs across the week or Desperate Housewives.

MCN: You’ve had success on the traditional cable platform. How do you now move forward in the digital world?

AR: We have launched TV Everywhere quietly with a couple of big players. We’ve launched our apps, so we’re very much looking at technology as an opportunity for us. And we have original content on all our sites too. We have a younger demographic; this appeals to them. We are anxiously lobbying for and waiting for measurements.

MCN: Let’s talk about international for a second. You’ve been able to dub your original programming into several languages, right?

AR: Yes, yes, absolutely. High on the list is to continue to roll out our networks in countries around the world. A priority is launching Lifetime internationally. So that’s high on the list. We have done some really great things around the world. In Canada, there was a History Channel, and it is now basically ours. We’re a partner, but it’s our brand, so it’s really getting our brands around the world. So we’re doing very well.

We launched in India last year in seven or eight languages. It’s the No. 1 non-fiction network launch in India. Each of the channels are either No. 1 or No. 2 in their markets; No. 1, 2 or 3 in the non-fiction world.

MCN: Everyone’s been talking about bundling and unbundling networks. What’s your take on this whole discussion?

AR: I think it’s all about value. And the way we look at it is, we look at all our networks as very important. We don’t have 20 networks of which 10 nobody knows the names of, but we believe that we bring incredible value to an operator, to the distributor, and that our networks are fairly priced.

It’s the reason people subscribe to cable, because they want original programming, and right now we’re one of the top cable groups. So I do think it’s unfortunate that there’s some squabbling going on and I think it does damage to the industry.

MCN: Do you believe the courts should get involved?

AR: Our philosophy has always been that these are private negotiations. We have never had a public fight.

MCN: Have you thought about how the A+E Networks would survive in an a la carte world?

AR: Here is what I would say to anybody about that, and I’ve said it to members of Congress when we’ve talked about this during lobbying or whatever. The best example is the History Channel, which has changed the way young people in this country view history and appreciate history. It would never have gotten off the ground in an a la carte world.

MCN: Are you going to add to the portfolio in the future by buying any existing networks or starting any new networks?

AR: You’re going to see the growth of our digital networks because that’s the area we’ll focus on. H2 is a big focus for us. It’s an emerging network. We think it has enormous potential, along with Bio.

MCN: We’re seeing a lot of networks being rebranded. Is there a possibility of rebranding an existing A+E Networks-owned service?

AR: We always look at that and evaluate that. We always look for evolution of a brand so that we know we’re serving the consumer and it’s contemporary of what the consumer is looking for. We are constantly evaluating that.

MCN: If we’re sitting here a year from now, how will the portfolio change?

AR: I think that you’ll see the networks that you’re not as familiar with be even bigger and better, such as H2 and Bio. I think you will see that we have tapped into the digital social world in a much bigger way that goes hand in hand with our programming.

I think what we ask ourselves all the time is, “What’s next, what’s the next big idea?” And I don’t think we know that yet. I think the beauty of the programming and marketing team has always been to say what are the next big trends and be a leader in that.

Right now, we see a few things that could possibly be shifting television viewing and we’ll start to roll those out. We started what we call “artifactual” entertainment on History. That was a different trend.

So, there are other franchises like that that we are working on. So I think there will be some surprises.