Lifetime Taps Series to Broaden Appeal

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Since Susanne Daniels joined Lifetime in August 2005, The WB’s former entertainment president has been reaching out to proven writer-producer hitmakers to add edge to the heartfelt Lifetime brand and broaden the network’s appeal.
The effort is taking root in the form of a bolstered slate of series from big prime-time names.
“Whether it’s been with the reality shows ‘Cheerleader Nation’ and ‘Gay, Straight or Taken,’ or the half-hour comedy ‘Lovespring International,’ we’ve attempted, little by little, to change our image, upgrade it, make it feel more contemporary and have a sense of progress,” said Ms. Daniels, president of entertainment at Lifetime Entertainment Services.
This summer, Lifetime kicks off major changes with a new block of original prime-time Sunday series: “Side Order of Life,” “State of Mind” and “Army Wives.” The latter show is scheduled to premiere June 4, the others in July.
By summer’s end, ratings will measure whether Ms. Daniels’ strategy is a success, but she’s projecting confidence. “These shows are a first step in establishing a contemporary Lifetime brand and making people see that Lifetime has more to offer than the Lifetime movies it’s always been known for.”
One of Ms. Daniels’ first actions at Lifetime was to track down the brains behind some of her favorite shows and get into business with them. While at The WB, she earned a reputation for luring writer-producers including Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”) and J.J. Abrams (“Felicity”), whose now-classic series shaped that fledgling network.
“My very first call on my first day here at Lifetime was to Greer Shephard and Michael Robin, because I was a big fan of both ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘The Closer.’ I took them out to lunch and said, ‘What’s the one that got away?'” Ms. Daniels said. “I remember they looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah. We have one. It’s a script we developed several years ago for NBC — ‘State of Mind.'”
They sent Ms. Daniels their script about a therapist dealing with not just her peculiar patients, but her own crumbling marriage. Ms. Daniels—the daughter of a psychologist—loved it.
“I have no ego when it comes to these things,” Ms. Daniels said. “‘Dawson’s Creek’ was a busted script from Fox that I saw and loved when I was at The WB. I thought ‘State of Mind’ was a great script and understood why they were so passionate about it, and I was so happy we were able to get Lili Taylor to play the lead.”
“Army Wives” executive producer Mark Gordon, who’s also an executive producer on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” said Ms. Daniels made it clear early on that Lifetime “wanted to do more series.”
“Army Wives” was originally developed at ABC, he said. “For whatever reasons, they didn’t feel it was right for them. ABC is half-owner in Lifetime, so we took it over there, to their sister company, so to speak, and they fell in love with it,” he said.
“Side Order of Life” met a similar fate.
“It got really close at ABC, but ultimately did not get made,” says Margaret Nagle, the show’s creator-executive producer. The timing was ideal, ABC passed on it about the same time Ms. Daniels joined Lifetime.
“My agent, Sue Naegle, in her foresight, knew Lifetime and Susanne had this mandate to create exciting new TV series, and thought this script that was on the shelf at ABC could be something Susanne would really take a shine to.” She did.
“Army Wives” is an ensemble drama starring Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell.
“It’s very contemporary and deals with the problems wives—and husbands—have when their spouses are overseas in a war,” Mr. Gordon said. “It also deals with the community of these people in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before. It’s funny and it’s moving. Like any good drama, it has comedy and drama in it, but it’s very emotional.”
“Side Order of Life,” starring relative newcomer Marisa Coughlan, is a quirky dramedy evoking memories of former Lifetime series “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.”
“When I thought about what I wanted to write about, I thought, ‘Who’s the Ally McBeal for the new millennium? Where’s Molly Dodd? Where’s my Mary Richards?'” Ms. Nagle said. “I wanted to follow somebody, a girl who’s full of hope, that incredible optimism despite everything. Hope is something we can never get enough of.”
Narrowing it down to these three series was a challenge for Ms. Daniels.
“As much as I want to bring new viewers into Lifetime, I certainly don’t want to alienate our core viewers,” she said.
“Army Wives” is an attempt to please core viewers, whereas “Side Order of Life” and “State of Mind” might attract fresh audiences, she said.
Lifetime offers producers free rein creatively, which makes cable’s tighter budgets easier to deal with.
“They’re great partners,” Mr. Gordon said of Lifetime executives. “They have good ideas. They listen. That’s all you can really hope for in a network situation—mutual respect and mutual appreciation.”
“I feel really lucky to be at the beginning of something,” Ms. Nagle said. “It’s an incredible opportunity Lifetime is giving us, and the other shows as well. Maybe we’re guinea pigs, but that’s not such a bad thing to be.”


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