Women in Entertainment 2010 - Power 100 List
Abbe Raven sits in the principal’s office of the Humanities and the Arts High School in Queens, N.Y., surrounded by two dozen students. She’s come to the high school where she was once a student to participate in a “principal for a day” program sponsored by the nonprofit PENCIL.
The pupils today are some of the best and brightest of the school, which is housed in a 2,000-student monolith.
“What’s it like being a woman with power?” one asks quietly.
“You have to speak up,” says Raven, throwing her hands in the air, trying to spread her energy around the room.
When the bell rings, they come to life, chattering as they crowd around a table spread of baked goods.
Raven, who’s dressed in a black pantsuit, flashes an easy smile as she greets a girl with glasses.“I want to see more energy, more spark,” she says later. “Where are the more inquisitive minds?”
She first learned to think for herself as the daughter of a politicized mother who once chained herself to the governor’s house during a civil rights protest. “It was a loud family,” Raven recalls. “And I was the young, scrappy one.”
As one of the few white students at Humanities, Raven was politically active. One of her proudest moments was getting suspended for taking part in a “pants strike,” wearing pants in protest of the girls’ skirt uniform. The policy soon was changed.
She also had a passion for theater, which she studied at the University of Buffalo before getting a job as an off-Broadway stage manager. She returned to school, getting a master’s in theater and film at Hunter College, then taught high school drama and English for five years before segueing to the entertainment business with a job “Xeroxing scripts” at Daytime, a new network in the budding cable television industry.
She has been working essentially within the same corporate family for close to 30 years. After Daytime split into A&E and Lifetime, Raven worked her way from production manager to director and eventually became head of programming at A&E’s History Channel. She helped shepherd in such new shows as Dog the Bounty Hunter and Growing Up Gotti that established a younger and larger viewership.
The risk worked, and Raven was appointed president and CEO of A&E in 2005.
A year ago, she oversaw the merger of Lifetime with A&E and now trumpets double-digit growth in viewers and her company’s “best year ever.” Today, Raven heads the combined A&E Networks, overseeing 10 networks from Lifetime to History to A&E that together annually attract 300 million viewers worldwide and pull in about $3 billion in revenue. Raven calls herself “very competitive,” noting that she regularly checks Nielsen ratings and worries about which of her shows are in the top 10. But the executive says she’s motivated more by a protective instinct than bloodlust.
"My prior CEO instilled in me that employees are your priority."
When she designed her new office, she made sure the outside wall was made of glass to physically remind her staff that they had access to her.
“My prior CEO [Nick Davatzes] instilled in me that employees are your priority and each of them have families,” she says.
Raven champions the integrity of shows like Intervention, on which people who wrestle with addiction are confronted by family members.
“When the idea for Intervention came along, on a business spreadsheet, it seemed risky for advertisers and affiliates,” she says. “But my creative viewer side said, ‘This could be really emotional, and we could really change lives.’ ” The hit show won an Emmy last year.
Personal breakthroughs are equally important to Raven. On a trip to Costa Rica with her husband, attorney Martin Tackel, and their postcollege-age son, she “broke through a fear of heights” and did a zip line through the jungle canopy. “I was screaming my head off.”
Today at school, her last stop is another Q&A session, this time with a larger group in the school library. Raven is in for a surprise: The school has dug up her decades-old college reference letter. “She is highly intelligent. And deeply interested in knowledge and ideas,” a teacher reads. “Abbe has our strongest recommendation. This is a young woman who will make a positive contribution in this life.” Raven laughs, shaking her head in embarrassment.
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