A Lifetime of Activism

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Long regarded as a soft-focus channel for tearful melodramas, Lifetime has taken on activist causes with increasing dedication and fervor in recent years, perhaps more visibly than any other basic cable network.

The network, which received the prestigious Governor’s Award for public service during the 2003 Creative Emmy Awards, has campaigns to combat violence against women and raise awareness of breast cancer and child care issues.

Though the campaigns are in line with Lifetime’s brand identity, the tight developmental relationship between their programmers and women’s organizations, along with the promotional scope of the campaigns, is unusual.

“These campaigns are about the entire company-from programming to marketing to our legal department,” said Meredith Wagner, Lifetime’s executive VP of public affairs and corporate communications. “The mission of Lifetime is to entertain, inform and support women, so for us it makes so much sense.”

For instance, previous Governor’s Award-winner MTV seeks to educate teens about sexual heath issues in its series “Fight For Your Rights: Protect Yourself.” But you won’t find language as blunt as Lifetime’s admonishment to women to put rapists in jail on MTV’s Web site. Other components of Lifetime’s campaign have included successfully lobbying Washington to increase funding for rape kit DNA analysis, developing sexual assault education kits for teachers and televising programming to the topic of stopping violence against women.

Though Lifetime has promoted women’s issues for many years, its public service campaigns received a boost when President and CEO Carole Black joined in 1999.

“She really researched the area in terms of employees and funding and got everybody excited,” Ms. Wagner said.

Two years ago, Lifetime contacted Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and offered a multiyear partnership. Having worked with networks before on movies or special episodes, Mr. Berkowitz said he was skeptical Lifetime could follow through.

“They’ve stuck with it and have really redefined the public service partnership,” he said.

Plots for Lifetime’s episodes and original movies are often developed in conjunction with crisis organizations. One story line for “The Division” was inspired by a National Center for Injury Prevention and Control report that said a high percentage of disabled women have reported being victims of sexual violence.

“We’re not ripping these stories from the headlines; we’re taking them before they get in the headlines,” Ms. Wagner said.

The evolution of Lifetime’s public persona is almost like that of a heroine from one of its original movies-from lighthearted and carefree to strong and aggressive. But what about ratings?

“We don’t do [public interest campaigns] for the ratings; we do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Ms. Wagner said. “But last February, when we did special themed anti-violence episodes of `Strong Medicine’ and `The Division,’ we had one of the highest Sunday nights we’ve ever had.”

Also, the net’s current anti-violence campaign has aligned nicely with Lifetime’s programming needs. Next year, the campaign will emphasize men and women working together.

Still, Ms. Wagner admitted some of Lifetime’s issue-oriented programming fails to draw an audience.

“It’s still a great thing to do,” she said.