When Arts & Entertainment debuted as a cable television service in 1984, it was not evident that large numbers of people would pay for a steady diet of ballets, symphonies and recycled BBC programs.
Nickolas Davatzes, A&E’s first CEO, who died on August 21 at the age of 79, was so unsure of the channel’s survival prospects that he didn’t bother to decorate his office with the usual photos of family. “After 60 days here, I told my wife I didn’t think this thing had a 20% chance,” Davatzes told The New York Times later.
Yet Mr. Davatzes succeeded in creating lasting brands for what started out as a hodge-podge. The 1980s programs included a biography of Herbert Hoover, a staging of a short story by Ann Beattie, a performance by stand-up comic Buzz Belmondo and a tribute to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Australia.
Mr Davatzes arranged for US commentaries to precede or follow UK broadcasts so that there was an A&E stamp on them. He also collaborated with foreign partners to produce new shows.
The network found that military topics attracted more male viewers, and documentaries about history and famous people were popular. These led to offshoots including the History Channel, which originally featured black-and-white images of WWII naval battles or early jazz musicians before moving on to more racy dishes, like a series on the history of sex.
Jane Austen’s fine art and remakes wouldn’t have paid the bills on their own. “When A&E was playing operas, we used to joke that you could have attracted more viewers if you sent the tapes in the mail,” Brooke Bailey Johnson, former A&E CEO, told Wall Street. Journal in 2001.
In search of younger viewers, the network adopted reruns of “Law & Order,” the reality TV show, and toned down versions of “The Sopranos,” the popular HBO drama.
In November 2003, a History Channel show “The Guilty Men” alleged that Lyndon Baines Johnson was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Johnson family and others protested furiously. Several months later, the History Channel apologized to the Johnson family and agreed to air a follow-up program challenging the claims made on the original show.
Mr. Davatzes would occasionally bounce a basketball as he circled the head office. It was his way of breaking the ice for casual conversations with his staff.
The company, now known as A + E Networks, is a joint venture of Hearst Communications Inc. and Walt Disney Co.
A + E Networks says its programs reach more than 335 million homes worldwide in 41 languages.
Mr. Davatzes, who retired in 2005, got his start in the early days of cable television and stayed in the field long enough to see it transformed by digital technology and the Internet. “It’s like rolling the dice right now,” he said of changes in the industry in 1998. “I was like, ‘I don’t know where this ship is going, but I am. ‘put it there. I don’t want to be able to find out that they discovered America and I’m not there because I’m still in Greece herding my sheep.
Perhaps this was an indirect reference to his father, George Davatzes, who was born in Greece, emigrated to the United States when he was young and co-owned a store in Manhattan making fur coats. His mother, Alexandra Kordes Davatzes, also of Greek descent, was helping at the fur store.
The eldest of two children, Nick Davatzes was born on March 14, 1942. As a teenager, he learned to nail animal skins to coat patterns in his father’s shop.
The family lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York and later in Queens. In high school, Nick Davatzes loved the social sciences, especially history, and won a college art scholarship. “My father suggested that I refuse, which was wise,” he told The Times. “I really wasn’t good enough.”
At St. John’s University in Queens, he earned a BA in Economics and an MA in Sociology. He volunteered to serve in the Marines and was stationed in the United States. In 1968 he married Dorothea Hayes, a schoolteacher he had met in St. John’s.
He found a job selling copiers for Xerox Corp.
“I had a good reason to go to Xerox,” he said. “I was tired of being poor. He then became an executive in Xerox’s Learning Systems business, which offered training programs. After a brief stint at another company that provided information services and educational materials, he joined Warner Amex Cable Communications Inc., where he was a personnel manager and then headed cable companies.
When Warner attempted to transfer him to Houston, Mr. Davatzes resisted. “My wife and I had decided early on that we weren’t going to move our children, no matter what that meant for my career,” he said. Instead, he stayed in the New York area and joined A&E, born from the merger of two struggling chains, as managing director in December 1983 to prepare for its launch.
Mr. Davatzes died at his home in Wilton, Connecticut. He was on treatment for Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his wife, Dorothea Hayes Davatzes, two sons, four grandchildren and a sister. Another son, Christopher, died of leukemia in 1974.
President George W. Bush presented Davatzes with the National Humanities Medal in 2006.
A colleague recalled Mr. Davatzes walking down the A&E hallway at the start and heard a phone ringing at an empty office. He answered it. “Always pick up the phone,” he told his staff. “It could be a customer.”
Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]
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