Raven rises after modest start

Showman of the Year 2012: A+E Networks

Cox Communications CEO Patrick Esser remembers sitting near Abbe Raven at a dinner in 2005.

She had just been named CEO of A+E Networks and he was about to take the reins at Cox. Both had spent their careers at one company, starting from the bottom: Raven as a receptionist and Esser as a cable installer.

“We had an interesting moment. The person who ran A+E was retiring and the person who ran Cox was retiring,” Cox recalls. “Abbe and I had this really honest moment together. We knew we were on a parallel journey. She has been outstanding and has created a legacy.”

“I’ve been part of many divisions within this company and had many jobs,” Raven says. “I’ve run History Channel, A&E and the production group. I’ve been part of the fabric of this company. Naturally I feel very close to it and understand its day-to-day operations.”

A proud product of the public school system, Raven grew up in Queens and was a theater major at the U. of Buffalo. After graduation, she became a stage manager at an Off Broadway theater.

She eventually went back to school, earning a masters in theater and film from Hunter College in 1977 and then spent five years teaching high school English and drama. It all proved part of her career foundation for what was to come.

“I’m a big believer in teams,” she says. “Theater is a team sport. It all helped me become a CEO, to work well with people and find what it takes to be a leader.”

Raven continues to mentor girls from her high school, where she goes back once each year to be “principal for a day.”

In 1981, Raven applied for a job at new network Daytime, where she started as a secretary and rose fast to production manger. In 1984, the Daytime and Arts network split into Lifetime and A&E, where Raven stayed as director of production.

In 1995, she was called upon to launch History Channel and grew it quickly with historically based nonfiction programming, while also injecting some entertainment with series such as “History’s Mysteries,” “History Alive” and “Modern Marvels.”

In 2002, Raven returned to a flagging A&E and added “Airline” and “Gotti,” as well as “CSI: Miami,” “The Sopranos” and original movies. The turnaround was fast and dramatic.

She was named prexy in 2004, the same year the cabler nabbed 24 Emmy noms. In 2005 she became CEO when A+E Networks founder and chief executive Nickolas Davatzes retired.

She’s convinced the unusual trajectory has helped her succeed. Colleagues praise her personal and business skills, including strong team building, accessibility, creativity, business acumen, loyalty, willingness to take risks and modesty, an attribute rarely found at the pinnacle of the media biz.

In her programming and production roles, Raven forged strong links with the creative community, which remains eager to bring her projects. In an era of escalating tension between content and video providers, she has excelled at keeping the peace.

“I have heard it directly from them, and I think if you were to say Abbe Raven to the CEOs of cable operators, their first word would be ‘partner,’ ” says History and Lifetime topper Nancy Dubuc.

Esser agrees and says Raven’s unorthodox approach has paid dividends.

“They put a show about a pawn shop on History. I said to her, ‘Abbe, that’s not history,’ and she said, ‘History comes through that door every day. It can’t all happen in a classroom.”

Raven brought Dubuc on board in 1999 after a decade in independent television production. Dubuc considers her a mentor.

“She has a real way of knowing what I can do before I know what I can do,” Dubuc says. “She’s a trusted adviser and is incredibly loyal. She has integrity and gives credit to others. She pushes her management team and empowers us.”

Dubuc remembers bringing Raven a video of “Airline” back when “we were beginning the A&E revival, after six months of banging our heads against the wall. I walked in and said, ‘I just saw something that I loved.’ She popped it in and watched it.”

“Then there was ‘Growing up Gotti,’ which was a 180-degree departure coming off ‘Law & Order’ and period dramas,” Dubuc adds. “She appreciates intuition and gives us the protection to take risks.”

On the recent hit miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” Dubuc recalls telling Raven, “If we’re going to be all things history, we have to do historical drama. So that meant she had to find a way to support us creatively and financially. She listens to her team and she agrees, there’s no going back.”

All in all, it’s been quite a ride.

“I love the creative and the strategic process, and to look at where we’re going to be 12 moths from now,” she says. “We are touching peoples lives. We are having an impact on popular culture.”

Her biggest challenge: “Figuring out how to stay on top and maintaining our success.”