For Ruth Otte, Discovery Channel's president and chief operating officer, life at the top is sweet and getting better.

From her offices atop Discovery Channel's 12-story building east of Washington, Otte can see more than 180 degrees around her, north and south along the Capitol Beltway, west to the District and Virginia.

But her view of the world, and what Discovery can do, is much wider.

"We look at our name as though it's a promise," she said.

Otte, named 1987 Woman of the Year by Women in Cable, and one of 10 "stars" honored last September by the organization, began her climb to the top of the cable industry with her college junior-year-abroad program in Spain. To the student from Ohio, the world suddenly grew much more interesting.

Today, a week before its fifth anniversary, fast-growing, award-winning Discovery has branched out to a million viewers in Europe. As with its American audience, Discovery programs for selective, upscale viewers who enjoy learning. Its goal: to expand those viewers' worlds.

"The world is shrinking," said Otte. "We can watch these incredible dramas unfolding. I think people are really beginning to appreciate that we're on this small place together and we should understand each other and we need to respect their views. We have different histories and different perspectives, but common human concerns."

Ruth Otte's concern with respect and understanding, different perspectives and common concerns, in many ways came out of her early encounters in a male-dominated business environment. When she left the long-established firm of Coca-Cola for cable television, she found a young industry open to women.

"From the beginning in our business, there were just so many of us," Otte said. "There weren't years and years of male tradition."

But Otte hasn't forgotten the business world of the early '70s, and her remarks recall those of working women decades earlier:

"In the beginning I remember being frustrated a lot," Otte said. "A lot of 'Hey, honey,' the assumption that you take the notes in the meeting, you get the coffee; he gets the raise because he has a family and you're single. I made less than all my coworkers at Coke -- and I knew exactly what they were making. The guys were always saying, 'You're our best worker.' But you never get the raise.

"It gives me delight that women today don't even think about what they can't do. That's a lot of change in a short time."

Ruth Otte grew up ambitious and goal-oriented, the eldest of five daughters born in eight years.

"I'm the straight-A student, the classic oldest child," she reflected. "The Midwestern work ethic is so deep a part of me I've given up trying to change it. My family heritage is: 'Hard work is life's joy and accomplishment is achievement; set a goal and meet it.'"

Otte's father, an electrician, died when she was 12; when she was 16, her mother, Mary, married a 39-year-old bachelor, Joseph Sobera. Two years later they produced a son, but because the Otte girls were beginning college, her mother went to work in a physician's office. The young women all worked and earned scholarships to help pay the bills, she said, and today all her sisters balance both families and jobs.

Otte went to Bowling Green University, majoring in history and education, and spent her junior year in Spain. She enjoyed the experience so much that, after graduating magna cum laude and then teaching Spanish for year at a high school near Cleveland, she returned to Spain with "about $100 in my pocket," she recalled.

She also planned to resume her romance with an Ecuadoran who also had been studying architecture in Madrid.

"I loved it there, and I planned to teach in Spain. But when I got there I found that the Catholic church ran the schools, with the exception of teaching English to businessmen and so forth. I couldn't find anything on the {American military} bases there or the embassy school. There were so many American young ladies over there wanting to find that kind of stuff ..."

But Otte appeared to be destined for another career: business.

"I just absolutely lucked into a position with ITT's subsidiary, Standard Electric, in Madrid and I started out as an assistant to the corporate controller. After about six months he invited me to go to school to learn accounting. I'd never considered business. My stepdad never talked much about his job -- he had worked for Firestone for years. Growing up in the '60s, business was not the 'personal place' we were looking for ...

"It was just unbelievable. I had no idea that those people working together to coordinate their actions toward some end would be so interesting."

Otte worked six days a week, she recalled, in a large finance and accounting department of some 500 people, the only woman in a nonsecretarial position. "The Spanish women accepted that because I was an American," she said. "They didn't resent it, my getting other opportunities than in a traditional clerical role, even though there was a rise in {feminist} consciousness there at the time."

Her Ecuadoran beau was less accepting. "He was so completely Latin, he just couldn't understand how I could be putting in these hours. He figured I had to be having an affair -- it was the only way he could figure it out. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but that's how different our orientations were."

She didn't regret the year she spent teaching -- "I think teaching is excellent training in speaking, taking care, organizing your lesson plans" -- but she found that she belonged in the business world. She returned to Cleveland in 1974 and worked for the Eaton Corporation, "trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life." She also began her MBA studies at Cleveland State.

Cleveland, she decided, was "dreary," so when friends invited her to Atlanta, she went. She pursued her graduate degree at Georgia State and worked for Fuqua Industries, then for Coca-Cola's marketing and marketing research departments.

"I was really into proving myself there," she said. "It was the era of the managerial woman and 'Dress for Success.' It was a pretty conservative place and I was just determined to build a reputation there as a competent professional. I took myself incredibly seriously and learned a lot."

But a colleague, Jeff Baron, had left Coca-Cola in 1980 -- "we all thought he was crazy" -- to work for a new joint venture from Warner Bros. and American Express, known as Warner-Amex, which was starting two cable television operations -- The Movie Channel and a children's service, Nickelodeon.

"Jeff went to run the southeast region for them, and he started telling me it's a great industry. He told me I would be nuts not to do this. He was more frustrated with the more slow-moving, large corporation headquarters environment {at Coca-Cola} than I was. Of course, I had wanted it to be more action-oriented, but still I thought I had a great future there.

"But he convinced me. He said it was an 'infant industry. They're going to reward performance; you're going to be measured on results. Your sex and your color and your race -- none of that's going to matter. You've got to get into an entrepreneurial environment.' And that was true. I think I was destined to end up in some form of sales, but I had been building my own self-confidence, starting in marketing research and then marketing and was just considering doing something more."

Otte became sales and marketing director of Warner-Amex's nine-state southeast region in 1980, working for Nickelodeon and for The Movie Channel until it was sold to Viacom, then moving to Warner-Amex's Music Television (MTV) and its spinoff, Video Hits One (VH-1). (Viacom now owns all four.)

"I was one of five regional directors. We brought some $7 million to $8 million of revenue out of our region and had a tremendous number of marketing and promotional activities. It was like my first opportunity to run a little company. We took our reputation very seriously among the cable companies in our area."

In 1985 she became vice president of marketing for MTV Networks, reporting to the head of programming, an opportunity that took her to the national level and to New York City. Ambitious though she was, Ruth Otte was still a conservative woman with traditional Midwestern roots. But her new job was as an executive of a service targeted at the rock-oriented youth culture.

The MTV/VH-1 staff put her through what she called "Rock 'n' Roll 101. It's like, 'Ruth, we've got to get you hip here.' Their whole attitude is fun and slightly illegitimate and irreverent and hip and very popular culture ... It was just not only an attitude in which I could perform from a business standpoint, it was also personally good for me. It was fun."

Only a year later, Discovery, another young organization, had hired her away.

Now president and chief operating officer of Discovery, she can compare the two. "We're a different kind of place here," she said. "We attract a different kind of people. There are some adorable people here, really bright, worldly, absolutely committed to putting programs of this kind of quality on television.

"But we're a more reverent type of place {than MTV and VH-1}. We're appreciative of the cultures and the changes in the world, other lands and their traditions. We have a lot of fun but it's a whole different persona, a different soul, and we work very hard to reflect that soul on the air and in all of our print materials."

Otte settled in at Discovery's offices along the Maryland Beltway, bought a townhouse in Alexandria and joined an organization for young company presidents. During a leadership course, she met a Boston real estate developer, Ed Huling, whom she intends to marry.

And all along, Otte's professional reputation was building. In December 1987, she was named Woman of the Year by Women in Cable. Last September, she was one of 10 women honored by Women in Cable, an organization that Otte said offers management training and "opportunities for learning, growth, feedback, mentoring and coaching."

Others were Geraldine Laybourne (Nickelodeon), Shelley Duvall (Think Entertainment), Bridget Potter (HBO), Kay Koplovitz (USA), Pat Thompson (Pat Thompson Co.), June Travis (Rifkin & Associates), Gayle Greer (cable company ATC), Maggie Wilderotter (CableData) and Carolyn Chambers (Chambers Communications).

Otte also developed a network of supportive female friends who include Laybourne, head of MTV/VH-1's sister station, Nickelodeon; and Harriet Seitler and Leslye Schaefer, heads of marketing at MTV and VH-1. For them, Otte said, management in cable has been a good experience, unencumbered with an old-boy power establishment.

When Ruth Otte arrived at Discovery in October 1986, the service had been on the air less than 1 1/2 years and reached 7 million homes. There were 27 staff members "and one Apple computer," she said, up from the original 18 when the cable service opened in mid-June 1985 with 156,000 subscribers. Today TDC's Landover offices have 190 full-time employees plus about 40 part-timers and freelancers and a dozen college interns. And there are lots of computer terminals.

In just 29 months after its startup, Discovery began to record a profit and in less than three years, the service was hooked up to 34 percent of the nation's TV households. Last month, the A.C. Nielsen Company reported that Discovery was reaching 54.7 percent -- 50.4 million -- of U.S. homes, the first cable network to have hit 50 million subscribers before its fifth anniversary. Paul Kagan Associates, a firm that tracks cable programming, projects that Discovery will become the fourth largest cable network (after CNN, TNT and TBS) and reach 99 percent of cable TV households by 1992.

Things are moving fast in the cable business, Otte said. "I hope and really believe we've done some things well. But the fact is that the industry has deregulated. There's a remote control now in every home, which sets us on the same plane with everybody else. A lot of people have discovered us just going up and down the aisles."

Under Otte's direction, Discovery now has sales offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Working with United Artists, Discovery/Europe in London offers programming for a million viewers in Britain, Holland and Scandinavia. Otte calls the offerings "a foundation core group" of Discovery programs, supplemented by programs that Discovery's 30-person European staff believes are appropriate for their audience. They also arrange to subtitle and dub, if necessary.

"We have been really amazed at how well {European} viewers appreciate the service," said Otte. "We think we have an opportunity to take Discovery to many more places on the globe, so we are getting much more aggressive about moving to other countries. We know Eastern Europe is starved for television. We feel a lot more confident that we have a universal niche."

In the United States, Discovery opens its weekdays at 9 a.m. with material keyed to classroom teachers and airs until 3 a.m. But as early as next year, Otte said, the service may program around the clock.

With this in mind, Discovery plans to relocate around the Beltway to Bethesda, where it will be closer to its producing facility, Capitol Video in Georgetown. The move will save staffers commuting time and besides, said Otte, "We really want to join the television community."

Also starting this fall, Discovery plans to increase its original material to 50 percent of its programming. One such series is "Invention," premiering Oct. 2, being made in with the imprimatur of Smithsonian Institution curators. Lucky Severson of NBC will host.

Otte said Discovery tries to offer "a huge special event" each month. A favorite has been its "Shark Week" offerings -- "We can't give people enough shark shows," she said, smiling.

Discovery also has taken its audience to the bottom of the Red Sea, in a joint project with the BBC's Natural History Unit; to Kenya's Masai Mara, via satellite; and to other parts of Africa for its "Ivory Wars" special.

In 1987, it carried Soviet television programs for one week, nine hours a day, in what it called "Russia Live From the Inside." For its 66 hours of Soviet programming that year, Discovery won one of cable's highest honors, the Golden ACE. In 1988, Discovery aired the Soviet news program "Vremya" ("Time") one hour daily during the Moscow Summit.

Last December, besides holiday programming, Discovery carried a live, three-hour-long benefit concert for earthquake victims in Armenia and San Francisco, hosted by Dudley Moore. The concert was also carried in the Soviet Union on Gostelradio the next day.

This spring, Discovery has begun a push toward programs addressing environmental matters. In March, the service began Luc Cuyvers' eight-part series on the state of the oceans, "The Blue Revolution," made with funding by Discovery and French, Canadian, British and Japanese partners; and ran Michael Tobias' "Black Tide," documenting the potential for worldwide devastation of oceans due to oil spills.

April brought "Sea of Slaughter," looking at deaths of marine species; Michael McKinnon's three-part "Arabia: Sand, Sea & Sky," and an Earth Day special, "Where Have All the Dolphins Gone?," which won top honors at the first U.S. Environmental Film Festival in Colorado Springs.

As chief operating officer of Discovery, Ruth Otte works with producers all over the world to gather programs. "We buy rights to about half of what we air from the U.S. and about half from other countries," she said. "I think that's some of the appeal: Most of what we put on has never been on American television before. We do every kind of deal you can imagine, sometimes buying documentaries that are already made, sometimes funding original material."

About one-third of Discovery's programming, Otte estimated, is "environment and nature and appreciating nature. These are things we feel are kind of like our beat. We have a large number of series in production right now.

"Certain kinds of things we'd be crazy to produce ourselves because there's a lot of high-quality documentaries ready, a lot of producers, a world-wide demand for documentaries and long-established patterns of buying and selling."

TDC has begun marketing its programs on videocassette and is readying the first dozen of 100 videodiscs that will comprise its Discovery Interactive Library, first developed for classroom teachers and now for students working on computers.

A big hit among teachers has been "Assignment Discovery," which premiered in the fall. The network's opening hour, suitable for taping by teachers for classroom use, was the answer to what Otte said was many requests.

"They'd just been bugging us for it," said Otte. "We got so many calls, especially from science and history teachers, requesting 'China and Change,' 'Beyond 2000,' 'America Coast to Coast,' 'Journey to Japan' and 'Testament,' our 12-part series on the history of the Bible."

A 1989 survey conducted by the Public Broadcasting Service of 417 school districts in 44 states and Washington, D.C., showed that 48.9 percent of teachers in classrooms equipped with television and in school districts using satellite dishes used PBS programming (14.2 hours a month) and 33.6 percent used Discovery (12.5 hours a month).

The PBS survey also asked teachers about the type of programming they use most in their classes. Almost 78 percent wanted more live special events and nearly 70 percent wanted more taped high school instructional programming. Enter "Assignment Discovery," offering two 20-to-25-minute segments daily from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. that teachers can tape and use in their classrooms for up to one year. Discovery also provides teaching kits.

Last month, after nine months on the air, another survey by Bruskin Associates showed that "Assignment Discovery" has become the most widely used cable television tool by 438,000 teachers of grades one through 12.

"We're incorporated as Cable Educational Network {which owns and operates TDC}," she explained, "so we had that goal from the beginning. We want to show that learning can be entertaining and rewarding and broadening."

For Otte, the circle has come round. With a background in education -- she taught high school for a year -- and marketing, both for Coca-Cola and then for Warner-Amex's cable music-video services MTV and VH-1, and with an interest in world travel, Otte appears to have found her niche.

"This is really like coming home," said Otte. "This is what I always dreamed I could do -- to be good people doing good business, something to help Americans to better appreciate our world, appreciate our human and natural resources. It's absolutely a joy to be here."

Like youth-oriented MTV and VH-1, the cable channels in New York City for which she worked, Discovery has a young staff. Otte, at 41, was at one point Discovery's oldest employee. Chairman and founder John S. Hendricks is only 38. Staffers average about 27, she estimated.

"They may be only 27, but they've got an unbelievable amount to contribute," said Otte. "Age is irrelevant; experience is worth something. There is such a richness in having different perspectives.

"This is such a vibrant, creative place, a young group. I learned a lot about creativity when I worked at MTV and VH-1. There's just no limit to what bright, creative people can come up with. There's a real energy and exuberance and passion. It's like a vibrancy -- it's very seductive."

There is also richness in the mix -- at Discovery, half the senior staff and 60 percent of the employees are female.

"We have, I think, a nice corporate culture because we have such a match of both men and women. We believe we can have a business based on trust and mutual respect. That's what we've done and it's worked. I just can't believe that you'd have to be a sleaze-bag to get ahead. I just couldn't accept it, ever. Luckily we've found a game we can play where we don't feel we have to do that," she said.

"I believe I've made a contribution to a lot of men and women by being a good manager and a good coworker and a good colleague, us learning from each other. I've always felt that my job here was, in a way, a responsibility to show that a woman could do this and take care of other men and women along the way."

For a number of aspiring women with television and executive authority among their career goals, cable television -- a new industry with relatively few deeply entrenched male executives -- has proven to be a place of uncommon opportunity. Today, Ruth Otte, above, president and chief operating officer of the locally based Discovery Channel, describes how she found her niche in cable. Next week: Other women tell their cable success stories and offer their view of the field.