Published September 26, 2018
Find what you love, then find the avenues to pursue it, Abbe Raven, acting chairman of A+E Networks, told an enthusiastic UB audience on Tuesday.
“Be genuine and be prepared if things don’t work out immediately. What skills can you parlay into what you want to do?” said Raven, a UB alumna and featured speaker for the 2018 Signature Series, a presidential program that highlights the university’s culture of creative excellence, ingenuity and imagination.
Raven, who earned a BA in theatre in 1974, has led the award-winning, multibillion-dollar global media company that encompasses A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, Lifetime Movies, VICELAND, FYI and A+E Studios, reaching 335 million households in 175 countries.
After welcoming the audience in the Screening Room in the Center for the Arts, President Satish Tripathi announced that Raven would receive a SUNY Doctor of Humane Letters.
“This honorary degree is awarded to individuals who represent the highest ideals of the University at Buffalo,” Tripathi said.
“Abbe has not only been key to the success of A+E Networks. Abbe has been instrumental in capturing the power of television to change lives.”
The degree was presented to Raven by Eunice Ashman Lewin, a member of the SUNY Board of Trustees.
Raven has also been honored with UB’s Distinguished Alumna and Lifetime Achievement awards.
She told the audience that being named stage manager for a play as a UB theatre major steered her life in a new direction.
“Dr. Saul Elkin not only changed my life while I was studying theatre at UB. He also changed theatre in Buffalo,” Raven said.
“I found the environment in the department then to be full of challenge and experimentation. I have so many strong memories of opportunities to create theatre, design staging, be innovative and learn the art of staging productions,” she said. “It gave us the feeling we could do anything.”
Raven told the audience she returned to New York City, seeking work in theatre. One day, she spotted a newspaper ad recruiting stage, acting and production talent for what eventually became A&E.
“It was held in, of all places, the women’s lingerie department at Macys. So I waited until the event was over, approached one of the executives, and was able to get his name,” she said. “I did everything I could to get a job interview — and I was persistent. I made so many phone calls to him.
“I did get an interview, but he turned me down. I badly wanted a job in theatre and stage production, but I had no experience,” she said. “Leaving, I told him I would do anything.
“And he said, ‘Come back tomorrow then. See that stack of scripts over there? They need to be copied.’
“I was back the next day, and that led to a job copying scripts, answering telephones — I did whatever needed to be done, being very happy to be there.”
Raven said among her duties was picking up videotapes delivered daily to the company’s offices in New York.
“Tapes came in from all over, and this was before digital networks, so they had to be delivered to the satellite facility in Bristol, Connecticut. This was programming content,” she said.
“One day, a videotape was coming in very, very late from Washington, D.C., creating a lot of concern about making the broadcast deadline.”
Raven told the audience: “Everybody was running around, asking ‘What are we going to do?’ No one could figure out what to do.
“I picked up the Yellow Pages (there was no internet), dialed up a helicopter company and asked if we got the tape to them in New York City, would they fly it to Bristol to make the deadline? They would.
“So the tape arrived on Amtrak, we got it to them and they flew it to the satellite center for the broadcast,” Raven said. “Nobody even knew who I was. But from then on, I became known as ‘helicopter girl.’”
In her onstage conversation with Robin G. Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Raven talked about going on to rise through the ranks of the fledgling cable network, eventually becoming head of production.
“You were there for the early days of cable television as we know it today,” Schulze said. “What was it like? How did we get here?”
“With the start of cable as a content option that people really wanted to watch, HBO was all most people knew about cable in those days,” said Raven.
“There began to be lots of competitors, but it weaned down. The most popular survived: those who had a brand and who understood branding.
“Even today, there are some things that have not changed much about television,” Raven said, “the astronomically high failure rate of proposed new programming being one of them.
“When an A&E show would fail, we would toast the person whose idea it was. A brave idea! Then we would ask ourselves: ‘What can we learn from this?’”
Raven went on to say that fear of failure, or the fear of taking risks, was often foremost in coming up with ideas for new programming.
“When I was VP for production, I was asked to start a history channel,” Raven told the audience. “Even so, nobody thought the idea would succeed. People said, ‘I hated history. I hated geography. Who will watch this?’
“The success of HISTORY served as a new model for cable television,” she explained. “We were the first to do ‘Pawn Stars’; within two years there were 12 copies of this show. And there are a lot more of those types of examples.”
Raven also discussed the birth of reality TV, citing producers’ fear of the effects a writers’ strike would have on programming and content.
“It was around 2000, and the idea came up for reality TV programs, which required little or no writing, offered faster production and lower costs than regular programming,” she said. “The strike didn’t happen, but reality TV stayed.”
Asked by Schulze about her strong commitment to educational programming, Raven responded that she has always had a love of education. “It is a privilege to be invited into people’s homes through our programming. And it can change lives. There is a power there that we saw with HISTORY.”
Raven cited the award-winning A&E program “Intervention,” which she termed a docuseries.
“When we had the idea for it, I was running A&E, and we knew it would be a very different kind of show. It was risky,” she said.
“After the first show ran, the very next morning we received a call from the treatment center. They said they were getting calls and people were knocking on the door. They were astonished and excited.
“I am very proud of that series, 10 years on. It has won Emmy awards,” she said. “We were willing to take a risk on programming that could help people and change their lives.”
At the close of the event, Raven went back to her message to the UB audience: “I am very grateful for all that UB has given me,” she said.