Nick Davatzes explains ‘History’ to Wilton Kiwanis Club

Nick Davatzes was given a job to do. The year was 1983. The son of Greek immigrants, he had moved through working at Xerox to Warner Amex, where MTV was created.

The current Wiltonian was faced with merging two failed operations: the ARTS network, owned by Hearst and ABC, and the Entertainment Channel, owned by NBC.

Out of the ashes came the Arts and Entertainment Network, more commonly known as A&E.

Then he made history. Or, more specifically, the History Channel.

Mr. Davatzes shared this and other stories with members of the Kiwanis Club during his talk “The History Channel: The Unvarnished Truth” on Wednesday, April 17, at Wilton Presbyterian Church.

He told the audience A&E alone would not survive in the multi-channel environment that was evolving in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He told of meetings in 1994 in which board members and investors discussed three channels.

“We needed to develop a five-year plan for three different networks,” he said. One of them was called the Nautical Channel. One was called the Golf and Tennis Channel. The other was the History Channel.”

The Golf and Tennis and Nautical channels both ran into difficulties coming together for various reasons.

“Lo and behold, the History Channel survived, because we had been doing some historical documentaries on A&E,” he said, alluding to the need to have what he described as a “core library” due to the cost of production.

Launched on Jan. 1, 1995, the channel is available in 150 countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Egypt.

Known now only as “History,” it originally focused on programs solely dedicated to historical events, with much of its programming surrounding World War II and biographical documentaries. Latter day shows have included Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Pawn Stars, while moving many of the documentaries to History 2 and the Military Channel, among others.

“We found out that men who turn 40 all became history lovers,” he said. “Men love sports and news. We marketed on sports channels and we bought spots at the New York Knicks, Rangers and Yankees.”

Talking about those meetings in 1994, he said, “It is the unvarnished truth. It wasn’t our first choice, but it turned out to be our best choice.

“We had the right timing, and we had the right relationship with the distributors. It was a lot of hard work. We didn’t plan this success, but it turned out.”

Mr. Davatzes is no longer in charge of A&E Networks, though he has retained the title of CEO emeritus.

“I have no power,” he said with a wry smile. “I keep telling that to the employees. I only have some influence.”

In introducing a video presentation of current programming, he added, “One of the things we learned along the way is that you have to be willing to deal with change.”

Among the current shows is the enormously successful series The Bible, which he said is the most-watched television series the channel has shown. He suspects the DVD of the series might be among the most successful ever.

The video offerings were placed on two large screens, professionally presented by the channels’ engineers.

Among the current crop of programming, which he described as less expensive to produce, he said his favorite program is American Restoration.

“It is the way America was, when we were manufacturing and you could fix anything,” he said.

He spoke with pride of how the History Channel has been used as an educational tool, highlighting Cable in the Classroom, where teachers may download a show for one year, commercial-free.

He also left the room with some stories that produced a few laughs.

“I got a lot of credit I didn’t deserve, but I took it anyway,” he said.

“When I asked for Ms. Dorothea’s hand in marriage, my father-in-law said, ‘I don’t like you, but I know you will take good care of her.’ Fast forward about 25 years after that, he said, ‘You were the right one.’”

Mr. Davatzes said that at one time he considered moving the operation of A&E to Stamford from New York City, but ultimately, with his wife’s prodding, decided to leave the headquarters where they are. He works at the networks’ technical operations, which are based in Stamford.

“I always answered the phone,” he said. “One time, a voice said, ‘This is George.’ I knew many Georges.”

Indeed, the 41st president of the United States was on the line, asking for the number to call to order DVDs. Despite offering to send him as many DVDs as he wanted, Mr. Bush insisted on paying for them.

Another story involved a telephone call at his home “from God,” according to his wife.

“This is Chuck Heston,” said the caller. “I understand you’re canceling my series, Histories of the Bible.”

“I don’t know about that, but I’m happy to find out,” Mr. Davatzes said. “He was right about that.”

His final story was about a phone call from former first lady Nancy Reagan. She was calling to pay a compliment regarding a documentary of her late husband and to inquire about a photo that was used in the show. She called it “our favorite” but she didn’t have a copy.

“I said, ‘Mrs. Reagan? We will find it and we will send it out.’”