Showman of the Year 2012: A+E Networks

“Lindsay Lohan is playing Elizabeth Taylor whether you like it or not,” blared one blog in an avalanche of press after Lifetime named the starlet to play the iconic diva in Lifetime’s upcoming original movie “Liz & Dick.”

The A+E Networks portfolio includes A&E, History, Lifetime, Bio, H2, Crime and Investigation, Military History, Lifetime Movie Network, Lifetime Real Women and History Espanol. Its channels and branded entertainment reach 300 million households in more than 150 countries around the world.

“Lindsay Lohan is playing Elizabeth Taylor whether you like it or not,” blared one blog in an avalanche of press after Lifetime named the starlet to play the iconic diva in Lifetime’s upcoming original movie “Liz & Dick.”

Filming wrapped in late July and Taylor’s legion of fans are becoming used to the idea of Lohan portraying the legendary actress. If parent company A&E Networks recent track record is any guide, they’ll be glued to their screens this October as ratings will hit the roof and “Liz & Dick” will become the latest in a string of high-profile gambles for CEO Abbe Raven that pay off in a big way.

Whether it’s “Pawn Stars” or “Hatfields & McCoys” on History, “Storage Wars” or “Duck Dynasty” on A&E, or “Army Wives” and “The Client List” on Lifetime, hits have been in no shortage for A+E Networks.

All three nets are performing at record highs.

For the recently concluded summer, History was up 10% in the 25-54 demo as well as total viewers from a year ago, averaging 1.1 million and 2.3 million viewers in primetime, respectively.

Through the second quarter, History is the No. 1 cable network in 25-54.

A&E channel was up across the board as well, seeing year-to-year improvements in total viewers and all major demos. By the end of 2012, the cabler will have shown nine years of consecutive growth.

Lifetime has also made vast improvements: It was up 14% in the 18-49 demo and a whopping 26% in 18-34.

“The only way to grow our business is to increase audience year over year,” says Scott Sassa, head of Hearst Entertainment, whose parent is half owner of Gotham-based A+E Networks. “Having Abbe and Nancy (Dubuc, History and Lifetime president) together creates the right combination to make hit shows and figure out new business lines to grow the brand.”

“People criticized us when we took big risks,’ Raven says, looking back at 2001 when A&E had lost “Law & Order” reruns and its cupboard was bare. Net started taking big risks, acquiring the offnet rights to “The Sopranos” and developing its own shows.

“I love a good challenge,” Raven says. “How do we seek to transform (the networks) to be more relevant to today’s audiences? We did it at A&E, used the same playbook at History and now at Lifetime.”

Raven has had a stellar career creating and rebranding networks — one of the toughest challenges a TV exec can face. She was at A&E from the start in 1984 and helped build it into a major player. Eventually she moved to sister network History Channel (long before it lost the Channel moniker) in 1995 when it launched and then jumped back to retool A&E in 2002.

The recipe, she says, is both concrete — an original programming blend of reality and fiction — and abstract, which is defined as the continued reimagination of the brand.

“When I was asked to take over A&E it was dependent on ‘Law & Order,’ ” she says. “The median age had gone up to 60-plus and it did not have any original development. The approach I took was, ‘Let’s look at the essence of A&E, at its core parts — drama and nonfiction.’ The No. 1 lesson we learned is that we had to control our own destiny. Not acquisitions of formats that others created.

“How do we create our own library, structure and content? And in very short order we were able to turn the network around. The media age dropped and it jumped to a top-tier network.”

The makeover at History was next.

“A lot of the things they learned at A&E helped, like with original programming,” Sassa says. “They’re really good at execution and at broad appeal; taking the view that history happens every day. It sounds hard to imagine now, but History channel before ‘Pawn Stars’ was black-and-white Hitler movies. Now it’s in 98 million homes.” (Offshoot H2 carries the black-and-white World War II fare.)

One advantage Raven sees is A+E Networks’ status as a private company. It’s co-owned by Hearst and Walt Disney, which recently agreed to buy out third owner Comcast’s NBCUniversal for a hefty $3 billion.

“We take big risks. A+E is a creative company, not focused on delivering a stock price every quarter. Because of that, we make good decisions based on what the consumer wants. Not about what analysts think of our programming,” Raven says.

A+E Networks “has great long-term relationships with our owners,” she says. “I assume it will be easier (having two owners vs. three), but don’t expect any particular change. Hearst and Disney have been with us since the beginning and are great supporters of our brands.”

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney’s media networks and prexy of Disney-ABC Television Group, credits Raven, Dubuc, A&E prexy-g.m. Bob DiBitetto and their teams with an ability to consistently tell great stories with unique characters that resonate. “(It) separates them from the crowd,” she says.

Sassa says he speaks to Raven daily but isn’t involved in day-to-day operations.

“Abbe and Nancy hardly need my help,” he says. “I am involved more because I am in New York.”

Raven also has a close relationship with video operators, which will certainly serve A+E Networks well as hostilities between programmers and distributors appear to be escalating over carriage fees. Just this summer, AMC was knocked off Dish and Viacom’s cable nets went dark on DirecTV.

“I think some of those things were unfortunate. We happen to have an excellent relationship with our distributors. We have never had a public dispute and I don’t think we will,” she says.

A+E Networks has active community outreach with schools and other groups in cablers’ own back yards. It has hosted events with Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Dish and DirecTV.

“We’ve been with them from the very beginning. We grew our businesses together. We understand the issues,” she says.

Outside the U.S., A+E Networks is growing with channels reaching 300 million households in 150 countries. In July, it finalized a handful of licensing agreements with broadcasters across Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

“We are an international company like everyone, but a lot of people are talking about international growth because their domestic growth is not that great,” Raven says.

With A&E and History roaring, the focus is now on Lifetime.

“It has been a challenge,” Sassa says of the femme-skewing cabler. “Ratings are starting to turn around. It takes about four years. Nancy has done a great job of a slightly different positioning for Lifetime. In 2000, there was only one women’s channel. Now there are four. With a brand like that, it’s taking it from your mother’s Lifetime to your Lifetime.”

And that circles back to the chatter about Lohan, who was the subject of plently of online chatter after winning the role.

“We got a lot of publicity,” Sassa says.

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