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Making History a Hit

The History Channel was put to its own special test these past few months. And it has turned out to be one of general manager/executive vice president Abbe Raven's proudest moments.

The network had already finished up a documentary on the World Trade Center for its Modern Marvels
series when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place. Raven said the channel was besieged by phone calls from news networks that had heard about the show and wanted to use footage from it, including interviews with several trade center officials killed when the towers toppled.

"There was a lot of pressure," Raven recalled. "But we felt we did not want to be exploitative in the situation. We made some very difficult decisions and we decided to hold the show for a couple of weeks."

Raven went so far as to have her staff call survivors of those who were interviewed for the show to give them a heads-up about the program, and offer to send them a copy.

"To a person, they were very grateful for that phone call, for letting them know," Raven said. "It was an unusual step for a network to take."

When the documentary debuted in October, it attracted a whopping 2.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched show ever on the network.

"We aired it as it was — as a historical record," Raven said. "We can hold our heads up high. We did a public service and asked ourselves the tough questions so we could look ourselves in the mirror when we went home."

In these troubled times, Raven believes the network's role is more important now than it has ever been before.

"We have such a potential for being recognized as an authority on what is happening in the world, more so after Sept. 11," she said. "We have an opportunity and a responsibility to illustrate the connection between what is currently happening and what is past, and the intersection of where the news meets history. It is such a critical juncture."

She claims that it's her "personal passion" to see that History Channel becomes "a national institution."

Raven, born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, N.Y., was promoted to the posts of general manager and executive vice president of The History Channel in April 2000, after serving a five-year stint as the network's senior vice president of programming. During her watch as chief programmer, the network won the Governor's Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and several Peabody awards. Last year, The History Channel got its first primetime Emmy nomination, for Egypt Beyond the Pyramids.

Raven's roots are in the theater, a love that first surfaced when she in high school and was sealed when she apprenticed at age 16 at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, N.Y.

"I became a good carpenter and learned a lot about technical theater that summer," Raven said.

She went on to major in theater at the University of Buffalo, and earned a master's degree in cinema and theater from Hunter College.

Before coming to cable, she worked as production and stage manager for theaters such as the Manhattan Theater Club and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Looking for more normal hours, Raven left the business for five years to teach high school English and drama. But Raven ultimately yearned to return to entertainment.

"It was really where my heart was," she said.

In the early 1980s, Raven heard about an opening in a burgeoning new industry: cable television. She got an interview for a programming job for Daytime and ARTS. Because of her lack of TV experience, she was only offered an entry-level job answering phones, as an assistant, in 1982.

"It was tough for me," she said. "I was already a professional. I had an Equity card."

But Raven soon won a promotion into production. Daytime and ARTS was later spun into A&E Network and Lifetime Television, and in 1984, Raven became A&E's director of production, later moving to History Channel.

She now leads a network that was once teasingly derided as the "World War II Network" or "The Hitler Channel," but has blossomed into a 79.3 million subscriber service that often ranks among the Top 10 cable outlets in primetime ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Referring to the network's 0.9 primetime rating average last year, Raven said, "I don't think we have plateaued at all."

Raven, who is enjoying her broad duties as general manager, takes umbrage when History is described as just concentrating on World War II. According to Raven, less than 20 percent of the network's programming is military related, and only a portion of that relates to World War II.

"We've had a compelling two years that really has dispelled that myth," she said.

Adding to its luster, The History Channel just finished second among the 85 TV networks measured in the fall EquiTrend Survey.

The History Channel's mission is to create high quality original documentaries, and it hugs that goal closely. "I always said we were the ultimate in reality television because we were showing things as they have happened," Raven said. "It can't be more real than that."

Much to Raven's delight, the network is now firmly ensconced in popular culture. It is mobster Tony Soprano's favorite network on HBO's The Sopranos. And during a span of several weeks last May, the network was mentioned on ABC's Once and Again
and The View, as well as turning up as a category on Jeopardy. But it won the ultimate pop-culture accolade when it was parodied on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

"I came in that Monday after Saturday Night Live
and said, 'Guys, we have made it,'" Raven said. "It was a watershed."