Net Embraces Women as Core

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

For the first half of its 20-year life span, the Lifetime cable network seemed almost shy about who its target was. Despite being conceived as a haven for female viewers, despite a wall-to-wall lineup of woman-centered programming and a signature slate of original and acquired movies about aggrieved heroines overcoming all manner of peril, the network’s marketing avoided making a bold play for its core audience.
Not until January 1995 did the network begin to promote itself as “Television for Women.”
“The tagline is so obvious, in hindsight,” said Meredith Wagner, Lifetime’s senior VP of promotions, who’s been with the network since 1988. Previous taglines, such as “Women Are Watching,” were apt but didn’t carry a tone of belonging or imperative, an urgent reason for its key audience, women ages 18 to 49, to tune in. “We realized that we’d been approaching our marketing very gingerly,” Ms. Wagner said. “We didn’t want to seem that we were excluding or alienating men, or reaching out only to women. But `Television for Women’-those words made it very clear what we stood for. Within a year we saw something like a 50 percent jump in ratings, so we knew we were onto something.”
Of course, Lifetime’s success in reaching women isn’t due merely to an apt slogan. The programming had to be right, and female viewers, having been drawn to a place on the dial designed to be their home base, expected something more than entertainment.
That’s where the network’s public information campaigns to raise awareness of cancer and domestic violence entered the picture.
“We want to entertain, inform and support women in ways that are relevant to their lives,” said Lifetime CEO Carole Black. “If we raise an important issue in a movie or in an original series, we know from talking to our viewers that they will want more information. Women care very deeply about the issues that affect their lives if they can know about them. They also want to know what they can do about them.”
While MTV may have gained more street credibility for its star-studded “Rock the Vote” campaigns, Lifetime has been promoting voter awareness for nearly a decade and recently offered training seminars for novice political candidates. In 1993 the network teamed with the Ms. Foundation to launch the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day. In September 2003 Lifetime TV won a Governors Award from the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences for its campaign to end violence against women.
But ratings, not public service, impress advertisers.
Lifetime had ranked sixth behind basic cable rivals USA and TNT until 2001, when it suddenly leapt into first place in prime time, holding the position for two years. Advertisers responded, driving Lifetime’s ad revenue in 2002 above $700 million.
Though it has since slipped to second place in the ratings behind TNT, Lifetime far outranks both Oxygen and WE, and its Sunday night original dramas pull ratings as high as 3.4. A recent Monday night original movie drew a 5.0.
Lifetime’s main channel is now in 85 million households, while its two spinoffs, Lifetime Movie Network (launched in June 1998) and Lifetime Real Women (launched August 2001), offer complementary programming. LMN is in 35 million households, and as its name suggests, shows movies, network original and acquired, all day and night. The newer, reality-based offshoot, inspired by the success of the biography series Lifetime’s “Intimate Portrait” and some of its fact-based movies, often directs viewers back to the original channel.
Dr. Ruth Is a Hit
Lifetime’s laser focus is in marked contrast to its awkward beginning.
ABC, Viacom and The Hearst Corp. began the network in February 1984 as a merger of the Daytime and Cable Health networks. Television historian Tim Brooks, who is also the executive VP of research at Lifetime, recalls that Lifetime’s Sunday programming in its first few years featured “doctors doing surgery and other bloody things” and “a lot of talk shows.”
“Lifetime, in the mid-1980s, was really a second- or third-tier network,” Mr. Brooks said. “The audience was not very broad, and cable in general did not have the distribution it has now.”
TBS, the first basic-cable network to gain nationwide distribution, routinely drew ratings of 4.0, compared with 0.5 for Lifetime. “In its first year or so, Lifetime was still struggling,” Mr. Brooks said.
The network found its first breakout star, said Mr. Brooks, in Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who was known in New York for her radio and television shows and became nationally known when she got a show on Lifetime in 1984. Despite Dr. Ruth’s popularity as an author and sexuality expert, the network had no other hit shows, Mr. Brooks said.
Things changed when the network began creating its own original series and movies and acquiring syndicated comedies and game shows.
The forerunners of the femme-centered melodramas that critics think of as Lifetime movies were actually movies-of-the-week acquired from other networks. “Some of our executives had the good sense to buy up movies developed and made at CBS and NBC and elsewhere which had been sitting around, neglected and not being re-aired,” Mr. Brooks said. “When the Big 3 networks were throwing them away, Lifetime got a good deal and reaped the profits.”
Lifetime’s bargain-hunting acquisitions department hit a jackpot of critical acclaim in 1989 when it zeroed in on a canceled NBC series, “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” a cult hit starring Blair Brown. The network acquired 19 already completed episodes for $14 million and continued production of the series through 1991. The show and the lead actress earned Emmy nominations during its final season on Lifetime.
At the time, no cable network had ever dared to take over a broadcast series. “Great buzz factor,” is how Ms. Wagner remembers the “Molly Dodd” deal. “Critics loved the show, loved the character and loved Blair Brown, and for us to air `Molly Dodd’-it kind of made us cool,” Ms. Wagner said.
Though Lifetime made some attempts early on to develop original series, few of them lasted beyond one season. In-house movie production, however, began in 1990 and quickly became a network mainstay. The first Lifetime original movie was “Memories of Murder,” a thriller that contained many of the formulaic elements that female fans loved but (mostly male) critics hated: An amnesia-stricken woman (Nancy Allen) tangled with a sexy hit woman (Vanity) before remembering she had a husband, a child and the brains to outwit her nemesis.
Women in Peril
The network soon hit its stride with telepics such as “Stolen Babies” (1993) starring Mary Tyler Moore; “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” (1995) starring Sela Ward; and “Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story” (1998) with Ann-Margret. All were based on true stories and all earned their lead actresses critical acclaim and various industry awards.
Ms. Black disagrees with critics, who sometimes snipe at Lifetime’s image as a purveyor of “victim stories” with women suffering helplessly. “Our viewers don’t see them that way,” she said, “and I don’t either. Look at a movie like `Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story,’ an Emmy nominee [in 2003]. It’s about a young woman overcoming the odds.”
In-House Development
According to Ms. Black, Lifetime has been trying to balance its slate of acquired series with those it has developed in-house. Throughout the ’90s, reruns of situation comedies (“Golden Girls,” “Designing Women,” “Mad About You,” “Caroline in the City”) and dramas (“L.A. Law,” “Chicago Hope,” “China Beach”) filled out the schedule, but they didn’t necessarily blend well with new programming.
“Part of entertaining is to have original programming in balance with popular acquired programming,” Ms. Black said. “So we made a decision to create signature shows. It’s important to get the right acquired series. They have to work well with the originals, to make for a strong brand.”
To that end, Lifetime has signed deals to carry reruns of “Lavern
e & Shirley,” which aired on ABC from 1976-83, and NBC’s “Frasier,” whose 11-year run comes to an end this spring.
As for Lifetime’s original series track record, Ms. Black said basic cable must try harder to reach audiences because it has fewer shows in development.
“We tend in cable to start a series and then nurture it and build it along,” she said. “That’s obviously attractive to talent.”
One of Ms. Black’s favorite projects was “Any Day Now,” in production from 1998-2002. The drama set in Alabama starred Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint as two lifelong friends, one white, one black. It was perhaps the quintessential Lifetime show, celebrating the complications and joys of female friendship.
“`Any Day Now’ dealt with racial issues very honestly, which has not really been done before,” Ms. Black said. “This was the show creators’ [Deborah Joy LeVine and Nancy Miller] project of passion, and I think that’s why it hit the right note with viewers. These women were different in every possible way, yet they remained friends their entire lives. For women, friends are like family.”
Subsequent originals, such the Sunday night dramas, may be more obvious genre shows, revolving around a police precinct (“The Division”) or a hospital clinic (“Strong Medicine”), but the fact that the central characters are mostly female makes a difference.
“A lot of what you see on Lifetime reflects the fact that women don’t believe everything can be solved beautifully in an hour,” Ms. Black said. “Women lead messy, complicated lives. They like it when we show characters that are strong, that are good at what they are doing but who have complicated lives. Sometimes they feel inadequate, sometimes they feel angry, but at the base of it they are loving, caring people.
“That is how our series come across-heartfelt, honest, realistic, like a good friend,” Ms. Black said.
But look out for a bit more honesty and realism over the next year or so. Lifetime’s first miniseries, a Hallmark production, will tackle the international crime of sex trafficking and how it hits home. The filmmakers and network executives have already visited lawmakers in Washington to talk about legislation on that issue.
“Violence against women and girls affects one in three women globally,” Ms. Black said. “That means right here, too, in our hometowns. And our viewers feel this. It is a desecration of the greatest asset we have. If we can help to stop this so that women could live full, rich lives, it would be incredible. It would be great.”
Ms. Black said Lifetime is not the least bit leery of making a foray into miniseries, a genre that some have pronounced dead or too expensive for modern television networks.
“Two nights-that is a miniseries,” she said. “And we have actually been able to repeat our two-part movies fairly well on weekends. Besides, I’ve been in television long enough to know that the moment that everyone says something in entertainment is dead, that’s the moment you should join in and do it.”
Formulaic? Not a chance.