Working on the railroad

Abbe Raven, CEO, A&E Television Networks

Interview by Devin Leonard

(Fortune Magazine) -- A lot of ideas come to me on the train ride into Manhattan every morning from Westchester. It's become a laboratory for me to talk about ideas with people who don't have a vested interest in the media business.

I have a group called the Train Girls. One of them is a real estate executive, one's a researcher, and another is a lawyer. We have a designated car we go to. There's a woman from the New York City D.A.'s office who gives me the lowdown on what everybody is watching in her office. One of the women will say, "Somebody came in and said, 'My kids were watching Dog the Bounty Hunter [one of A&E's top shows].'" It gives me more of a sense of whom that show's attracting. It's what they call "kitchen research," but I'm a believer in that.

WATCH AND LEARN My mother encouraged me to walk up to people and ask them questions. But sometimes it's better just to stop, listen, and observe. The train is filled with people consuming media in different ways. People are talking to their offices on their cellphones. Every other person is on a PDA or BlackBerry. A year and a half ago, people were carrying their laptops. They're not carrying them now. Devices are getting more portable. We have to go where they are going. I learn a lot from watching the young people. They're on their cellphones more. They're text-messaging each other. You say to one of them, "What time is it?" and they open their phone. They're not wearing watches. That's a major generational shift. That says to me we have to [get our content] on their phones too.

TELL A GOOD STORY I started out in theater. It was a great training ground for me on two fronts. One, you learn to appreciate the importance of teamwork. I learned what it took to turn a show around in 24 hours. People would stay up all night and paint and build sets--every piece of a production was just as important. It's like being trained on the factory floor. I also learned about storytelling. It's all about communicating to an audience and telling a story in a dramatic fashion. The construct of a TV show or a network is very similar to a theatrical experience. At the end of the day, no matter what the platform is, it is about great storytelling.

WALK THE HALLS I'm a big hall walker. I walk around the office and talk to people on all different levels. Upstairs at the office we have what we call the Digital Lounge. Everybody in the company, from the guys in the mailroom to programmers, has access to it at some point during their day. We want everybody at the company to have a sense of how our products can be disseminated, including what they look like on high definition. The Digital Lounge recreates the living-room environment, so you know what it's like for the consumer. And since everybody who works here is also a consumer, we get great ideas from everybody.

ACT LIKE THE CONSUMER It's not enough for me to watch other people. It's important for me to actually use these new devices. Early on, I wanted to see what our product looks like on an iPod. I spent six hours on a plane watching our shows on an iPod to understand the experience. I've watched our shows on my iPod on the train and almost missed my stop  Top of page