It could be the plot of a movie running on Lifetime: A high-powered female executive moves up the corporate ladder, periodically taking time off for family and herself. She finally lands her dream job, running a TV network that not only entertains women but also is an effective advocate for women’s causes.
Then in the final reel, despite becoming one of the most influential women in business, our heroine leaves that job, heading to Italy to learn the language and take art classes.
But this is the real-life story of Lifetime Entertainment Services President and CEO Carole Black, who last week said she will leave what she called “the best job in the business” to do things she’s always wanted to do, such as learn Italian and travel the California coast.
Ms. Black will stay on until her contract expires in March, and The Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp., which jointly own Lifetime, will have to find a replacement.
Ms. Black declined to speculate on who would fill her shoes. “There’s a very talented roster of people internally, and I’m sure there are a lot of people in the business that would love to have this job,” she said.
She didn’t express an opinion as to whether a woman should run the company-nor did Lifetime board member John Conomikes, a director of Hearst. “It’s not mandatory” that the Lifetime channel be headed by a woman. “We’re looking for the best individual,” said Mr. Conomikes, who along with Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of media networks at Disney, will head the search for a new Lifetime CEO.
Similarly, Ms. Sweeney said it wasn’t necessary to be a woman to run Lifetime. “We’re an equal opportunity employer,” she said, adding that there were no candidates yet for the job and that discussions about how to conduct the search have not been held. But she said a good candidate would have a “strong commitment to the Lifetime brand, experience in television,” and be “someone who understands programming.”
Mr. Conomikes said Ms. Black had long talked about moving back to her home in California and told him and other board members she decided to leave a couple of weeks ago. “We’d love to have her back,” he said. “She’s done a terrific job for us.”
Lifetime, once the highest-rated cable network in prime time, had fallen off in past few years. And while very profitable, it had fallen below earnings targets that Mr. Conomikes said were very aggressive.
But Ms. Black said that ratings have bounced back and that an ambitious plan to spend $400 million on original programming was paying off. Lifetime was the No. 4 cable network in ratings year-to-date, and in October was tied for No. 1 among women 18 to 49 and up 14 percent among women 18 to 49.
Ms. Black also aggressively expanded the Lifetime brand, with new cable channels, radio programming and even a short-lived magazine. Lifetime Movie Network proved to be especially popular and ranks as the No. 2-rated cable network among women.
Ms. Black also spearheaded Lifetime’s advocacy for women’s issues, raising money and awareness for breast cancer research, the YWCA and the National Organization for Women. Lifetime also led an effort to enact legislation that will help put thousands of rapists behind bars.
“I’ve loved being able to use the power of our viewers’ lives,” she said. “I’ve never before had my avocation and my vocation so perfectly matched, and that’s why I’ve stayed as long as I have and why it was a hard decision.”
Ms. Black said she previously left positions with Procter & Gamble to spend time with family, and quit The Walt Disney Co. to travel the world. When she left KNBC-TV in Los Angeles to join Lifetime, she took a month off. “I know it’s against people’s nature” to leave a good job. “But it’s not against mine. I think people that have followed my career have realized I have a little pattern of doing that.”
Ms. Black said she will spend a month in Italy, travel in California, take Pilates classes, read books and go to matinees. But she’ll also be watching Lifetime.
“I know some of the new programming coming up, so I’ll definitely be watching,” she said.