Lifetime’s CEO, Carole Black, got a relatively late start in the television business, but she uses what she learned from her background in advertising and promotion to help turn around Lifetime’s image, programming and ratings.
Routinely named as one of the most influential women in entertainment, Ms. Black joined Lifetime in 1999 as president and CEO to oversee its TV, publishing and online divisions. Under her leadership, the Lifetime network has increased its original series and movie production, expanded distribution of the Lifetime Movie Network and in 2001 launched a third channel, Lifetime True Stories.
In recognition of its public-service campaign to stop violence against women and girls, Lifetime received a 2003 Governors Award Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
“Our mission at Lifetime is to entertain, to inform and to support women,” said Ms. Black. “I’m very proud when we can tie in with nonprofits and government agencies and direct people to assistance, to get help.”
While she was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, the Cincinnati native landed her first job, at Procter & Gamble as an entry-level brand manager. The company was famous, then as now, for its personal care products and sponsorship of daytime dramas.
“At that time Procter & Gamble was the world’s largest advertiser, and we obviously bought a lot of TV spots,” Ms. Black said. “But I never imagined that I would end up in television. Never even considered it.”
By the mid-’80s, when she was an account supervisor and later senior VP at DDB Needham in Chicago, Ms. Black was somewhat closer to her current career. Some of her larger accounts, such as Sears, required her to do set visits for television commercials. Some were glamorous, others decidedly not.
“I remember being on a shoot for a commercial for baby clothes,” Ms. Black said. “There were babies crawling everywhere. Wailing. Crying. Crawling away again. It was chaos. They had a baby wrangler to round them up, all these sets of twins, because babies can only work for a short time before you have to bring in another. This was all new to me. For a long time after that I couldn’t watch a commercial with babies without thinking, `I wonder how long it took the baby wrangler to manage that one.”’
She doesn’t credit that exposure to kids as the inspiration for her next gig, but Ms. Black did land at The Walt Disney Co. as a VP of worldwide marketing in 1986. (“Yes,” she said, laughing, “it was nice to come into TV with that kind of title.”) Nicer still were the results of her tenure there: Disney’s domestic video sales went from sixth place to first by 1988. When Ms. Black moved to Disney’s TV marketing division, she worked on the lucrative syndication deal of ABC’s “Home Improvement.”
Ms. Black doesn’t dwell on the fact that at her next job, as president and general manager of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, she was one of the few women in a major market and the first in Los Angeles, to run a TV station. The job, she said, was not about who she was but what she did. “When I got there, we were a low No. 2, really trailing, and we knew we had to improve,” she said.
“The way for a local station to win is to win the news broadcasts, but you also have to be present in the community. We had strong male viewership, but we had to reach out to women.”
Ms. Black described her strategy, which ought to sound familiar to those who’ve been watching Lifetime’s growth over the past few years. “We did community work. We got out our people there every weekend-every AIDS walk, every Heart Association walk, every fair. We worked on a scholarship project with Marian Wright Edelman called `Beating the Odds,’ telling the story of one teenager every week and getting them scholarships to college.
“When you become a presence in the community, doing good, people remember. And when the big stories happen-the weather, the floods, the traffic-your station becomes the clearinghouse. People turn to you for breaking news.”
Ms. Black’s plan worked. The station climbed from No. 2 to a dominant No. 1 in less than two years.
Ms. Black, 60, a divorced mother of one grown son, lives in Los Angeles.
For Lifetime, her strategy has been similar to what she helped to do at the local NBC affiliate. “Women turn to us for entertainment, but they also want to take the next step,” she said. “They care about issues that touch their lives. They should be able to find on our shows, at the end of the movie, on our Web site, in the magazine, how to take the next step, how to help.”
Ms. Black doesn’t take credit for movies and series that she didn’t develop, but she does have some favorites. “Any Day Now,” one of Lifetime’s long-running original series, which is no longer in production but runs daily on the network, strikes a chord with her because it’s one of the few shows on television to “deal honestly with racial issues as well as with lifelong friendships between women,” she said. Another of her favorites was the recent Lifetime original movie, “Gracie’s Choice” starring Anne Heche, which the network will submit for Emmy consideration, she said.
“I’m fortunate that I am able to combine my vocation with my avocation,” Ms. Black said. “I have always been a great proponent of women and girls getting to be everything they can be in life, and I have had the greatest opportunity in the world at Lifetime, to help empower them to be their full, authentic selves. I don’t think it’s an opportunity many people have in business.”