San Francisco Chronicle

Nickolas Davatzes — co-created A&E, History Channel

- By Sam Roberts Sam Roberts is a New York Times writer.

Nickolas Davatzes, who was instrument­al in creating cable television networks A&E and the History Channel, which now reach into 335 million households around the world, died Aug. 21 at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 79.

The cause was complicati­ons of Parkinson’s disease, his son George said.

Davatzes (pronounced dah-VAT-sis) was president and CEO of A&E, originally the Arts & Entertainm­ent Network, which he ran from 1983 to 2005 as a joint venture of the Hearst Corp. (which owns The Chronicle) and the Disney-ABC Television Group. He introduced the History Channel in 1995 and remained an aggressive advocate, both within the industry and as a spokespers­on before Congress, for educationa­l and public affairs programmin­g.

By the mid-1980s, A&E had emerged — mostly through buying programmin­g and building a bankable viewer audience by negotiatin­g distributi­on rights with local cable systems — as the sole surviving advertiser-supported cultural cable service.

“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 that we were like a bumblebee — we weren’t supposed to fly.”

But they did. A&E became profitable within three years by offering an eclectic menu of daily programmin­g that, as the Times put it, “might include a biographic­al portrait of Herbert Hoover, a program about the embattled buffalo, a dramatizat­ion of an Ann Beattie short story and a turn from the 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 younger generation that has never seen any thoughtpro­voking entertainm­ent on television. They’ve seen a rock star destroying a guitar every 16 minutes, but they’ve never seen classical music.

“By network standards,” he said, “our viewership will always be limited. But that is the function of cable — to present enough alternativ­es so that individual­s can be their own programmer­s.”

Under the A&E umbrella, the network encompasse­d a broad mix of entertainm­ent and nonfiction programmin­g. It created a singular identity with scripted shows (“100 Centre Street,” “A Nero Wolfe Mystery”) and collaborat­ions like its wildly popular co-production with the BBC of “Pride and Prejudice,” a miniseries based on the Jane Austen novel starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

The network continued to expand its scope to include documentar­y series such as “Biography”; “Hoarders,” which might be classified as an anthropolo­gical study of compulsive stockpilin­g; and the History Channel’s encycloped­ic scrutiny of Adolf Hitler.

Davatzes was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in 2006. The French government made him a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1989. He was inducted into the Broadcasti­ng & Cable Hall of Fame in 1999.

After his death, Frank A. Bennack Jr., executive vice chairman of Hearst, called him “the father of the History Channel.”

Nickolas Davatzes was born March 14, 1942, in New York City to George Davatzes, a Greek immigrant, and Alexandra (Kordes) Davatzes, whose parents were from Greece. Both his parents worked in the fur trade.

After graduating from Bryant High School in Queens, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1962 and a master’s in sociology in 1964, both from St. John’s University, where he met his future wife, Dorothea Hayes.

In addition to his son and wife, he is survived by another son, Dr. Nicholas Davatzes; a sister, Carol Davatzes Ferrandino; and four grandchild­ren. Another son, Christophe­r, died before him.

After serving in the Marines, Davatzes joined the Xerox Corp. in 1965 and shifted to informatio­n technology at Intext Communicat­ions Systems in 1978. A friend introduced him to an executive at the fledgling Warner Amex cable company, 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 like Richard Aurelio and Larry Wangberg.

The Arts & Entertainm­ent Network took shape in 1983, when he helped put the finishing touches on a merger between two struggling cable systems: the Entertainm­ent Network, owned by RCA and the Rockefelle­r family, and the ARTS Network, owned by Hearst and ABC.

His strategy in the beginning was twofold: to focus on making the network more available to viewers and not to be diverted by producing original programs, instead focusing on acquiring existing ones.

“If you’re in programmin­g, we know that 85% of every new show that goes on the air usually fails,” he said in a 2001 interview with The Cable Center, an educationa­l arm of the cable industry.

“Our overall approach is to create a sane economic model,” Davatzes said in 1985.

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