Art of Succession at A&E

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After 21 years leading A&E Television Networks, Nickolas Davatzes is stepping down as head of the company April 1. Abbe Raven — currently the head of A&E Network and previously an architect of the rise of sister service The History Channel — will succeed Davatzes, becoming the second president and CEO in AETN history.

A&E TURNAROUND

Davatzes, 63, the longest-tenured leader in the history of cable, will become CEO emeritus, serving as an adviser from the company’s offices in Stamford, Conn.

The ascension of Raven, 52, follows a rebound period for A&E, which has continued to improved its station in the Nielsen Media Research ratings and has significantly lowered its median age to 50 with a move toward nonscripted series like Airline, Growing Up Gotti, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Cold Case Files.

The network has also been quite active in the syndication market, picking up the cable rights to CSI: Miami, 24 and The Sopranos, which together will form a significant portion of the service’s primetime lineup in 2006.

Davatzes said he will attend the National Show in San Francisco early next month. From there, he will spend some time with his newborn grandson, who shares his March 14 birthday. “My wife told me that we haven’t had a two-week vacation in 20 years,” he said. “We want to take some time to do things.”

Rumors had swirled in recent weeks about Davatzes’s retirement plans, but spokespersons for AETN’s owners denied that anything was imminent.

Davatzes said he had actually begun contemplating his departure “about a year ago, after the company’s 20th anniversary.”

Some have suggested that the timing of his exit news has delayed plans to announce a successor to Lifetime Entertainment Services CEO Carole Black.

“I don’t know anything about that. That’s an entirely different ownership structure,” he said.

AETN is a joint venture of The Hearst Corp. (37.5%), Disney-ABC Television Group (37.5%) and General Electric’s NBC Universal (25%). Lifetime is a 50/50 venture between Disney and Hearst.

As for his new role with AETN, Davatzes said, “I will clearly do whatever Abbe needs me to do,” adding that he will remain engaged in the industry through “some things in Washington and diversity issues, reflecting the changing face of America.”

VALUE CREATION AND INTEGRITY

While noting the value creation for the company’s owners — he pegged AETN as a billion dollar entity — what made him proudest during his tenure is that “we always did things the right way by our customers. We have high ethical standards. It’s not an accident that we increased value for our investors,” Davatzes said.

“Nick Davatzes shaped not one but two of the most successful cable channels in history,” said Bob Wright, vice chairman and executive officer of General Electric Co. and chairman and CEO of NBC Universal in a statement. “When Nick launched A&E Network and The History Channel he established the model for the rest of the industry to emulate.

“I’m not sure whether anyone in the business has worked harder than Nick, but I do know that AETN is doubly lucky to have Abbe Raven as his successor. Abbe is a highly skilled programmer and an outstanding choice to lead A&E Television Networks to new levels of success.”

Raven began her cable career in 1982 in production for Daytime and Arts, which later evolved into Lifetime Television and AETN. Climbing the ladder since A&E bowed in 1984, Raven later switched to The History Channel, where she served as executive vice president and general manager.

Switching roles with Dan Davids, she returned to help revive a then sagging A&E as the service’s executive vice president and general manager in 2002, before she was elevated to president last September.

Raven, who’ll be honored with a Vanguard Award for “Distinguished Leadership” April 4 at the National Show in San Francisco, said finding a replacement for her current position is not an immediate priority.

“We will look at things over time,” she said, before later conceding that there “most likely will be” a successor.

Through March 10, A&E has registered a 20% increase compared to the prior-year span among its core adults 25 to 54 target, averaging 571,000 of those viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research data. It’s also ahead 32% among adults 18 to 49 (504,000) and 64% with adults 18 to 34 (193,000).

On the History side of the ledger, primetime ratings have grown 10% to a 1.1 household mark through March 14, with total viewership improving 8% to a 1.19 million average. History officials said the service has rung up 11 consecutive rounds of quarter-to-quarter growth, the most among top 20 cable networks.

In addition to A&E and History, Raven will have overall responsibilities for The Biography Channel, History Channel International, Military History Channel History Channel en Español and the fledgling Crime & Investigation Channel. She will also oversee the company’s consumer-products unit and international division.

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