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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Who's been "hoarding" all the ratings on cable lately? Networks like A&E and History, which finished the first quarter of 2010 as the sixth and seventh highest-rated networks among adults 18 to 49 in prime time, respectively -- their most-watched quarters ever -- thanks to shows such as "Hoarders," "Intervention" and "Pawn Stars," three of cable's top 10 most-watched original series.
The woman behind both of those networks, A&E Television Networks CEO Abbe Raven, hopes to add shows such as "Project Runway," "Drop Dead Diva" and a coming slate of reality programming to that list, now that AETN is heading into its first upfront following its merger with Lifetime. Ms. Raven has high hopes that Lifetime can reclaim its former status as one of cable's highest-rated networks, in addition to maintaining its status as the top cable destination for women despite increased competition from niche cablers such as Oxygen, WE and Oprah Winfrey's coming OWN.
"Lifetime remains so committed to its core audience and it has been a top-tier brand for years. It was No. 1 for many years on television, and it has that potential to be that one again," she said, pointing to recent ratings successes like "The Pregnancy Pact," which became Lifetime's fourth highest-rated original movie of all time in January.
A 25-year veteran of the company, Ms. Raven got her start as a programmer for History Channel's first original lineup and later became president of A&E, rebranding the arts and entertainment network to focus on the broader reality and original scripted programming that has brought it many of its biggest hits to date.
The Lifetime merger, completed last summer, represents Ms. Raven's biggest venture since becoming CEO in 2005 -- albeit one that brought the elimination of 100 jobs with it after similar departments from both companies were combined and consolidated. "It was really not due to the performance of the company," she said. "It would be expected in any merger and consolidation to find synergies more than anything else."
The merger also led to the upcoming departure of Lifetime CEO Andrea Wong, who will leave the network at the end of April after three years. The network is expected to announce a new chief executive later this month, but don't look for any answers from Ms. Raven about rumors that History President Nancy Dubuc may be taking the reins.
Instead, Ms. Raven is focusing on creating some synergies for advertisers going into this year's upfront.
"What I'm very excited about is if you look at the top-tier cable brands, we have three of them, so that portfolio really makes us one-stop shopping in terms of reach for advertisers looking for adults, men and women," Ms. Raven said.
Ad Age caught up with the cable chief on the eve of A&E Networks' biggest combined upfront season yet to discuss her thoughts on branding, keeping reality programming relevant and digital distribution.
Ad Age: A&E and History are finishing their best quarters ever as top 10 prime-time networks in all key demos. To what do you attribute that success?
Ms. Raven: What has happened is each of the networks and network groups have really found hits, and also been very strategic in developing original programming. That has really been the key to our success. We think of ourselves as an entertainment content company, the kind of development, and work on quality programming has paid off. We are a company that doesn't have sports or wrestling or big kickers, we don't have big movie packages or big-ticket Hollywood movies, so it's really about good, solid, quality programming.
Ad Age: A&E and History both started out as more niche-based networks before broadening their apertures to include more general-entertainment programming. How are you making sure that viewers are associating hit shows like A&E's "Intervention" and "Hoarders" and History's "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men" with the right networks, particularly as networks like TLC are shamelessly ripping them off?
Ms. Raven: We absolutely believe there's an A&E way of telling a story, a History way of telling a story and a Lifetime way of telling a story. And we are seeing from the consumer research we do if someone saw a program like "Intervention," they know it's an A&E program and not like the copycats on other networks because it has a distinct style, the support of the organizations behind it and it's an Emmy award-winning series very much couched in the A&E voice. History has its own voice as does Lifetime. I think what is very rewarding is that we consistently go back to our consumers to make sure we're on the money on it and get fabulous feedback on it.
Ad Age: Celebrity-based reality seems to be a genre that is starting to lose some steam across cable as more networks like MTV, E! and Bravo are incubating their own talent. Why are you still committed to the genre with shows like "Kirstie Alley's Big Life" and "Steven Seagal: Lawman"?
Ms. Raven: We're interested in stories of celebrities' real lives, as opposed to coming up with something very contrived. "Gene Simmons' Family Jewels" just recently started its fifth season, and I believe might've just beaten "The Osbournes" as the longest-running example of this celebrity real-life show. When you look at shows like Gene Simmons, Criss Angel, Kirstie Alley and some of the things we have in development like terrific shows coming up with Bob Saget and Tony Danza, it's important for us to tell the real stories behind these personalities. It was really an outgrowth of "Biography," which was a genre A&E created and then spun off into its own network, Bio, as a more compelling way of telling these stories.
Ad Age: A&E Networks is one of the last cable network groups that hasn't had much of a presence on Hulu or any full-length streaming sites online. What's your current philosophy on digital distribution and the value of cable content on the TV screen?
Ms. Raven: Our philosophy has been to look at those opportunities as promotional opportunities, to really go back to our core business, which is the television business. What we have done is really focused on growing digital through other original content. In the digital space we're very focused on looking at how we grow our digital audience with other kinds of content. On history.com it's about content related to historical events, and we have a relationship with the Library of Congress that speaks to that. With Lifetime we have web networks like Mothers Click, Roi World, Dress-Up Challenge, things that are related to our programming. We see this as a growing part of our business.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the number of jobs eliminated from A&E Networks' merger with Lifetime in November 2009 and the name of the Lifetime web network Roi World.