Nickolas Davatzes, who was instrumental in founding the A&E and History Channel cable television networks, which now reach 335 million homes worldwide, died on August 21 at his home in Wilton, Connecticut. He was 79 years old.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, her son George said.
Mr. Davatzes (pronounced dah-VAT-sis) was President and CEO of A&E, originally the Arts & Entertainment Network, which he led from 1983 to 2005 as a joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Disney -ABC Television Group. He launched the History Channel in 1995 and has remained a strong advocate for education and public affairs programs, promoting within the industry and in appearances before Congress.
By the mid-1980s, A&E had become the only cultural cable service funded by advertisers, largely by buying programs and creating a bankable audience by negotiating distribution rights with local cable systems.
“After 60 days here, I told my wife I didn’t think this thing had a 20% chance because every time I turned around there was another obstacle,” Davatzes told the New York Times in 1989. “I used to say we were like a bumblebee – we weren’t supposed to fly.
But they did. A&E became profitable in three years by offering an eclectic menu of daily programs which, as The Times put it, “could include a biography of Herbert Hoover, a program on the besieged bison, a dramatization of a short story by Ann. Beattie and a ride from stand-up comic Buzz Belmondo.
“We don’t want to duplicate ‘The A-Team’ or ‘Laverne & Shirley’,” Davatzes told The Times in 1985. “There is a young generation that has never seen uplifting entertainment on television. They saw a rock star destroy a guitar every 16 minutes, but they never saw classical music.
“By network standards,” he continued, “our audience will always be limited. But that’s the function of cable – to present enough alternatives that individuals can be their own programmers.
Under the umbrella of A&E, the network encompassed a wide range of entertainment and non-fiction programming. He created a singular identity with scripted shows (“100, rue du Center, “A Nero Wolfe Mystery“) and collaborations, such as her hugely popular BBC co-production of” Pride and Prejudice, “a mini-series based on Jane Austen’s novel starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
Mr. Davatzes received the National Medal for Human Sciences from President George W. Bush in 2006. The French government made him a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1989. He was inducted into Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 1999.
After his death Frank A. Bennack Jr., executive vice president of Hearst, called him “the father of the History Channel”.
Nickolas Davatzes was born on March 14, 1942 in Manhattan to George Davatzes, a Greek immigrant, and Alexandra (Kordes) Davatzes, whose parents were Greek. Both of her parents worked in the fur trade.
After graduating from Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1962 and a master’s degree in sociology in 1964, both from St. John’s University, where he met his future wife, Dorothea Hayes.
Besides his son George, he is survived by his wife; another son, Dr. Nicholas Davatzes; one sister, Carol Davatzes Ferrandino; and four grandchildren. Another son, Christopher, died before him.
After serving in the Marines, Mr. Davatzes joined the Xerox Corporation in 1965 and switched to information technology at Intext Communications Systems in 1978. A friend introduced him to an executive at the fledgling cable company Warner Amex, who recruited him over lunch and had him sign a contract drawn on a restaurant napkin. He went to work there in 1980, alongside cable television pioneers such as Richard Aurelio and Larry Wangberg.
Arts & Entertainment Network took shape in 1983, when Mr. Davatzes helped put the finishing touches on a merger between two struggling cable systems: Entertainment Network, owned by RCA and the Rockefeller family, and ARTS Network, owned by Hearst and ABC. .
Its initial strategy was twofold: to concentrate on making the network accessible to viewers, and not to be diverted by the production of original programs, but to concentrate on the acquisition of existing programs.
“If you’re into programming, we know that 85 percent of every new show that airs typically fails,” Davatzes said in a 2001 interview with The center of the cable, an educational branch of the cable industry.
“Our overall approach is to create a healthy business model,” he said in 1985. “I like to tell the people who work for us that we don’t eat at ’21’.”