A&E TV Networks Chief Abbe Raven: Why Consumers Crave Original Programming (Q&A)

Abbe Raven

"It's an interesting form of flattery," she says of the dozen-plus "Pawn Stars" copycats.

You'll have to excuse Abbe Raven for gushing.

Thus far this summer, her portfolio of cable networks includes four out of the top five basic cable shows in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. Among them: History's Pawn Stars and A&E's Storage Wars, which lure 3.1 million and 2.7 million viewers, respectively, in the demo. Both networks rank among the top 10 cable nets among the younger viewers as well.

As chief executive officer of A&E Television Networks, Raven also oversees networks like Bio, History en Espanol and the Lifetime Movie Network. With an eye towards ancillary opportunities, she's also focused on their international expansion, DVD sales and social media extensions.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Raven, a one-time school teacher, to discuss the growth, the challenges and the plan to add lots more original programming to the network group.

The Hollywood Reporter: In an era of increasing options, your networks continue to grow their viewership. What's working?

Abbe Raven: Right, and consumers are more demanding than ever. What's happened is we've been able to put a real emphasis on our original programming. Consumers want and crave originality; they're not going to broadcast reruns the way they did years ago. They really want freshness and originality, and our networks have been able to provide that. We don't take one hit and run it 25 times a week. We've seen our competitors do that, where they do five versions of the same show. Frankly, we get a lot of credit from our viewers because we don't do that.

THR: You need only look at the many Pawn Stars spawns to see that this is an industry fueled by copycat fare...

Raven: That's right. Part of me is saying can you come up with something original, please? The first one out of the gate is the one that really sets the tone and succeeds. We look at all of the copycats of Pawn Stars --there's a dozen or more-- and they do a fraction of the ratings that we do. They don't even come close and I think that's because viewers know the difference. We look at the copycats and say, 'It's an interesting form of flattery.' We say we're not going to do that on our own air because we have more pride than that and we know that we can be more creative. 

THR: As you noted, broadcast reruns are no longer the sort of destination viewing that they once were care of proliferating options, and yet cable has traditionally relied on off-net repeats. How have these changing viewer habits impacted your strategy?

Raven: You've hit on something that shows the vulnerability of other network groups, which is that they're reliant on broadcast reruns. There just aren't too many big hits coming down the pipe and certainly not many that are repeatable. We haven't allowed ourselves to get into that position where we become solely reliant, even majority reliant, which is why when you compare the amount of original programming that we have on our networks to any other network group we are far ahead. So I'd say we have a very different philosophy about repeats and I think we've positioned ourselves for the future in way others have not.

THR: [History and Lifetime general manager] Nancy Dubuc has spoken publicly about the challenges that off-net series like Grey's Anatomy have caused at Lifetime...

Raven: Correct. Now, that's not to say that on occasion good off net can help you... About 10 years ago, A&E network was heavily reliant on Law & Order [reruns]. It was actually around the time that I was there to take over A&E and it was a very clear example of putting yourself in a vulnerable position because we lost the series and didn't have enough original programming to compensate. We vowed then that we would never allow ourselves to be in that position again. It's not to say that you couldn't take one very strong franchise and use it. We bought The Sopranos at the time and it was a great launching pad for original programming. But it was one series; not having a lineup of all off net programming. And by creating original programming we've been able to launch our networks around the world and have a large library that we're able to use in a number of different media. 

THR: Lifetime is going through a reinvention of sorts under Nancy. Give us a status report.

Raven: I would give high marks to the Lifetime team for really getting out there and developing new programming. We've greenlit about 175 new hours in a very short period of time. But I'm a big believer in slow and steady wins the race, and we're going to continue to roll out our triple threat strategy or drama, movies and reality series. I'm very bullish.

THR: What is the biggest challenge facing you right now? That thing that keeps you up at night as a cable executive? 

Raven: I think it's really where is the media world going? How are consumer behaviors going to change in the next few years? People are still going to Best Buy to buy large screen televisions, so there is hope. But with the proliferation of other devices, how do we make sure that our consumers know what our brands are? It's really about wrestling with the future. 

THR: When you look at the growing cadre of streaming outlets, like Netflix, are they friend or foe?

Raven: We look at all of those vehicles that are supplemental to our business and try to figure out how it could help us -- how do we look at this as an opportunity to continue to promote what we do.

THR: So they're not a threat?

Raven: I think we approach these things as an opportunity, and try to get the most out of them. But that's a challenge, there's no questions about it. And all of us as programmers are looking at this.

THR: Going forward, where are the major opportunities for growth?

Raven: We're always looking for what's next. It's always around the corner and you just don't know what it's going to be, and I find that exhilarating -- that something pops in the culture that resonates the way Pawn Stars has resonated for History viewers, or Storage Wars for A&E viewers, or Coming Home for Lifetime viewers. The way we operate here is that we give our creative team a lot of latitude. We have a lot of stability in our management and what that allows people to do is to really be creative. On a practical point, it will also be about growing the Lifetime brand around the world. 

We have 10 networks. There's Crime & Investigation, History International, Bio, Lifetime Movie Network, History en Espanol - all of our brands are very strong. I think one of the things that we're looking at and working very hard at is really pushing not only consumers but also our partners to recognize the value of those other networks. They perform very well -- we're not just a three trick pony. So one of the efforts for the growth of our company is our investment in marketing and original programming in those networks as well.  

THR: So we'll start to see more original programming on these networks? 

Raven:Yes, and I guarantee you will see those networks take center stage in the next year.  

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com

Twitter: @LaceyVRose