History In the Making
An early love for theater set the stage for Abbe Raven, '74, to help direct the History Channel.
Since its inception in January 1995, the History Channel has grown to a viewership of more than 50 million homes. That kind of rapid development is a landmark in the cable TV industry. Many have gotten hooked on the network, claiming it's the only TV they watch.
As senior vice president of programming at the History Channel, Abbe Raven, B.A. '74, is astounded at the reception. She has been with the network since its birth and, prior to that, she worked with the parent company - Arts & Entertainment (A&E) Television Networks - from its beginnings in 1982.
"We tried to channel the interest that we saw people had in reading historical novels and nonfiction, people visiting historic sites—we found there really was an audience out there looking for this kind of programming," she observed during a recent interview. "I think I would attribute part of our success to the fact that we knew from the very beginning that we could not allow this to be a dry subject. It had to be entertaining as well as informative. Our mission is to make the past come alive. We try to tap into people's own personal, family and cultural experiences and make the programming relate to their past. We try to give people a better experience [with history] than they may have had in school."
Raven's own school experience was anything but dry. Her love for the stage began in high school in her native Queens, New York, prompting her to explore a theater major in college. After an exhaustive search through Ivy League schools and state universities, she chose to attend the University at Buffalo.
"I was impressed with what was going on in UB's theater department and, because I was also heavily involved in politics, the dynamism and political environment there appealed to me as well," she relates. She credits UB with giving her the chance to take managerial reins beginning in her freshman year, when Saul Elkin quickly saw her potential and asked her to stage-manage two one-act plays. Raven subsequently became part of David Chambers's ensemble theater group the Faustus Project, an experience she feels was instrumental in her future endeavors. It was with Chambers's encouragement that she directed her first play, which was chosen as one of the New York State student productions to tour the SUNY system.
"It was theater, but it really taught me to think: It gave me the opportunity to see why you make certain decisions, when it's appropriate to change your strategy and what your rationale is for it. Clearly, I came out of UB with extensive professional experience as a manager of people. That, without question, has helped me in terms of what I do now."
The theater department at the time, Raven recalls, was very small and intimate. Faculty members like Elkin, Chambers and Gordon Rogoff encouraged students to build on their strengths. "I think they saw that I would be served well by going more down the managerial/directorial route," she says. "Now, I look back and there were a number of us from that period who all went on to the behind-the-scenes world of the entertainment business and have done quite well."
She also drew inspiration from the political atmosphere on campus during the early 1970s. "One of the reasons that [UB] was appealing to me was because it was a political hotbed at the time. I had a real political inclination from my family, from when I was growing up in the 1960s. Clearly it was a time of great change and unrest and I was intrigued by that. [UB] inspired that kind of political discussion. It was a challenging time—getting you to think about what you believed in, and what made you take a stand. I certainly have never changed from that, from being unafraid to take a stand."
Upon graduation, Raven became a successful stage manager in a series of off-Broadway and regional theater productions. Then, a rare opportunity to participate in the birth of a cable TV network (A&E) arose. She soon was elevated to the senior vice presidency, in charge of all production, postproduction and studio facilities for A&E, winning a number of CableACE award nominations in the process.
And the rest became History.
Raven now supervises what is seen on the History Channel; she also commissions and develops a variety of projects. The network's prime-time schedule comprises 75 percent original programming. Her theatrical background at UB, she emphasizes, played a major role in forging her vision and organizational acumen.
"I gained a good deal of experience that contributed to getting me where I am today," she says. "We really worked as a team at UB. It was a sharing of ideas and supporting each other. I think that kind of environment gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to believe that I had the creativity and strength to be a success. It also gave me the opportunity to work very closely with people and realize that it's not a one-man show. Television, without question, is a collaborative art."
She is convinced that if she had gone to college elsewhere, her life would have been very different. First and foremost, she met her life-mate, Marty Tackel (B.A. '73), at the university. Married 17 years, they live in Westchester County and have a 13-year-old son, David. Tackel, who also has a Ph.D. in theater, has built a very successful law practice. As for David: "He claims to want to be a stand-up comic, but our guess is that he may have a bent toward being a producer—if not, a lawyer," Raven says.
In 1997, she and Tackel organized a theater department reunion in New York honoring Saul Elkin. Attending the reunion were lighting and set designers, movie producers and others who were influenced by the department during those years.
"[UB] really made me feel as though I could be anything I wanted to be when I got out of college," she declares.
As for her future ambitions, Raven is committed to making the History Channel "one of the important institutions in the nation." She wants to continue fostering the development of the network as a service for Americans to learn about the world and where we come from.
And, although the History Channel is an entertainment vehicle, Raven has steered a portion of it to schools, providing teachers with programming for the classroom.
The network is also the television sponsor of National History Day, a program that encourages students to work on history projects all year long, with an eye toward a national competition each June. Raven is on the executive board of the project "because I feel so strongly about supporting kids who have an interest in history. One of the biggest thrills is to go [to the competition] and meet the kids and see how genuinely excited they are about what they're learning in history class."
That's coming full circle to the classroom environment where Abbe Raven's history-making career took root.
Jim Bisco is a Buffalo-based writer.