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Q&A: Lifetime’s Andrea Wong

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Lifetime President and CEO Andrea Wong, who was charged with righting the course of the then-floundering cable network for women in April, has made significant strides in the five months since her arrival.
Besides the network’s sound performance in the upfront ad sales market, she can boast a new hit series, “Army Wives”; the launch of two other new shows, “A Side Order of Life” and “State of Mind”; and the hiring of the veteran marketing team of Bob Bibb and Lewis Goldstein as co-chief marketing officers, filling a vacant key position.
Ms. Wong said that when she arrived at Lifetime, her first priority was getting the new shows off the ground, a task made more daunting by the open top marketing position, which was vacated earlier in the year. But in her quest to make Lifetime younger and smarter, Ms Wong has yet more positions to fill. She recently sat down for an interview with TelevisionWeek Senior Editor Jon Lafayette; what follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
TelevisionWeek: Did you come in with a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day plan?
Andrea Wong: I did not come in with timeline plans. I just took a look around and it was sort of clear what I needed to start out with to start moving forward.
TVWeek: What was high on the agenda?
Ms. Wong: I had no head of marketing, so that was very high on the agenda.
TVWeek: And you had a show to launch?
Ms. Wong: Yes. Three shows to launch. So to me that was the immediate plan, was find a head of marketing and ensure that we give these dramas the strongest launch they can possibly have.
TVWeek: You wound up working with Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein?
Ms. Wong: Yes. Well, I brought them in as Susanne [Daniels] recommended and knew them because she had worked with them at The WB. I felt like it was important to bring in someone at least on a temporary basis who could hit the ground running — because we had four or five weeks before “Army Wives” was launching — communicate easily with Susanne and get those three shows launched effectively. And Bob and Lew were terrific. They were interested in a consulting opportunity — initially they were only interested in a consulting opportunity — and they came in and they did a great job for us.
TVWeek: Was there a marketing plan at all existing when you got here for those shows?
Ms. Wong: Yes. It was in flux, though. And there was disagreement about the creative direction. It was tough. There was a lot that needed to be sorted out.
TVWeek: I guess you were pleased with the performance of “Army Wives.” Were the high ratings a surprise?
Ms. Wong: It was the most wonderful thing to happen.
TVWeek: And a lucky thing for you to step into?
Ms. Wong: It was fortunate timing. It’s the most successful show in Lifetime history and that was a fantastic and wonderful thing to happen.
TVWeek: Did that success of “Army Wives” give you the freedom to work on the infrastructure instead of dealing with emergencies?
Ms. Wong: It gave the whole organization a great lift and a great optimism about where we were going. It was just the wind against our backs that we needed to propel us forward.
TVWeek: And what were the other priorities that you were able to attend to?
Ms. Wong: The priorities were really digging deep into the organization and looking at what was working and what was not working, and where the opportunities were and where the vulnerabilities were and then starting to push in those areas. Not to mention just educate myself on the entire company and on the business. So there were a lot of things going on. And as you know there are some roles to fill. For example, Tim [Brooks, Lifetime’s research chief] is retiring and that’s something to focus on. Really locking in the right head of marketing was important, so I interviewed a lot of people and spent a lot making sure that we made the right choices in that area.
TVWeek: Initially you were working with Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein on a temporary basis. What happened?
Ms. Wong: What happened was they told us they wanted to only be consultants. They had lots of other projects going on. So, thinking that they weren’t really an option, I had to go out and interview lots of other people. Over the course of time, they had such a good time and enjoyed the people of Lifetime so much and the experience so much, they came to me and said, actually, we would be interested in staff. And I said great.
TVWeek: How close were you to hiring someone else?
Ms. Wong: I had narrowed it down to a handful of candidates.
TVWeek: So the timing worked out again.
Ms. Wong: Yes. It was great. It all sort of came together perfectly. They’re exactly what we need at Lifetime to invigorate the brand and launch all these shows Susanne’s in the process of delivering to us. And I think they’re fantastic, not to mention the fact that they have a built-in chemistry with Susanne.
TVWeek: Are there other positions you need to fill, like ad sales?
Ms. Wong: The good news with that role is we did so well in the upfront that it gives us breathing room to find the right person for that job as well. So I really wanted to solve my marketing problem first, make the moves that we needed to make in that area, start interviewing more research candidates, and then sales comes up after that, simply because I have the time.
TVWeek: People are talking about Geri Wang, senior VP of prime-time sales for the ABC Television Network, as being the new sales head.
Ms. Wong: Well, she’s a great friend of mine. But she’s employed by ABC.
TVWeek: So were you.
Ms. Wong: Yes, I was. And it would have to be OK for them before I could really speak to her with any seriousness about the job.
TVWeek: So there has been no serious discussion with her.
Ms. Wong: Honestly, I can’t poach those people unless everyone in that company is comfortable. Nobody’s indicated that to me yet. They may at some point, but they haven’t today.
TVWeek: Where are you in terms of the research position?
Ms. Wong: We’re getting close. Very close.
TVWeek: Research is changing, with multiplatform and new metrics. Everything that everybody knew about measuring TV is going to be different next season.
Ms. Wong: Sure. There are challenges on every front. I’m excited because I think I’m getting very close.
TVWeek: You’ve got momentum with “Army Wives.” Have you made a decision about renewing the other Sunday shows?
Ms. Wong: Not yet. It’s too early to tell. The great news is those three shows together on Sunday night have made Sunday night a destination at Lifetime. The night is up 10 percent versus where we were last year, it has really improved our demos, shown a level of quality and pushed up the bar for Lifetime, which is great.
TVWeek: What do you do to maintain that momentum after the summer ends?
Ms. Wong: I think there’s a number of things I can speak to regarding Bob and Lew on the marketing front. I think they’re going to push the momentum on the marketing side in terms of continually improving our on-air look, our on-air promotion, both on Lifetime and LMN going forward. Susanne has the resources and the creative freedom to really go and do what she does best, she and her team, which is to develop great shows.
And so now with a marketing team in place, and after we hire a new scheduling person who schedules strategically, we can market as aggressively as we possibly can with a very integrated approach, I think those are key to the momentum.
And then on the digital side, which I also think is critically important, we are about to relaunch our Web site, which is very robust and really interesting, with lots of things for women, so it’s not just about promoting our shows. Actually, that’s the smallest part of the site in my mind. We have health and wellness information, we have recipes, we have shopping opportunities, we have community. One of the biggest drivers to our site over the last couple of months has been breast cancer awareness. We have casual games, astrology, a number of different things that a woman could want, and it’s a great destination for women online.
TVWeek: I’m trying to figure out where you find all those categories. It’s almost like a women’s magazine.
Ms. Wong: That’s what we really want to be, a major destination for women online.
TVWeek: So you want to compete with the iVillages of the world?
Ms. Wong: Yes. Ultimately, we want to be everywhere a woman could want us to be, providing the information and the entertainment they want.
TVWeek: Would you rather see yourselves as competing with NBC than with Oxygen?
Ms. Wong: Oxygen has a fifth of the ratings of us.
TVWeek: Oxygen could be part of NBC.
Ms. Wong: Correct. Who knows. We’ll wait and see.
TVWeek: On programming, you’ve had success with scripted; now in the TV season you’re going to have unscripted primarily on the network.
Ms. Wong: Yes. And movies. So we have “The Gathering” in October along with the launch of two unscripted series. “Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead” is coming back for a second season, along with “America’s Psychic Challenge.” And then in January we have “How to Look Good Naked,” and that will be paired with a couple of other reality shows. And of course we’ll have original movies throughout the year on an ongoing basis.
TVWeek: Are you thinking about using scripted shows outside of the summer?
Ms. Wong: We’re trying to figure out exactly when to bring back the second season of “Army Wives.” It’s entirely possible we’ll bring that back in the broadcast season. That gives us the opportunity to launch a new show.
TVWeek: Have you had a chance to take a broad look at the network?
Ms. Wong: Susanne and I talk about it all the time, I talk about it with Meredith [Wagner, head of communications and public affairs], everybody in the company. The great news for me is Lifetime is an incredibly strong brand. When I walked into this company, the brand strength was very strong, women have a real affinity and positive feeling toward Lifetime. What I want to do is take the brand, bring an increased relevance to today’s women to the brand, bring an energy and a vibrancy to it and an optimism to it.
TVWeek: “Energy” and “vibrancy” — is that another way of saying younger?
Ms. Wong: Broader I would say, and that goes to relevance also. I want to make it relevant to more women. And energy is really about energy. Yes, that appeals to young people. It’s currency.
TVWeek: Do you do that with the programming, with the marketing?
Ms. Wong: It’s everything. It’s certainly with programming, and “Army Wives” is a classic example of where we want Lifetime to go because it embodies all of those things. I think “How to Look Good Naked” is another one that combines every single one of those characteristics. And it’s a perfect example of that. You’ll see it reflected in our movies, so for example we’re going to do more book-club style movies. We’ll do more Nora Roberts movies. You’ll see it aggressively reflected in our programming, Bob and Lew are going to bring that energy and that point of view to our marketing and to our wrapping. Meredith and I have talked a lot about advocacy. Advocacy is incredibly important to our brand and we have Every Women Counts [advocacy campaign] coming up in 2008, which is critical and so important to the Lifetime brand as we step out there and ensure that women are heard in this presidential election.
TVWeek: Are you going to host your own political debate?
Ms. Wong: We’re talking about what the right programming opportunities are. We’re looking at doing something in that area, we’re looking at doing the story of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, as a miniseries. That was before women had the right to vote. There’s a whole lot of things to be done there. So it’s through our programming, through our marketing and through our advocacy and of course through our digital as well.
TVWeek: Is there a new marketing campaign for the network in the future?
Ms. Wong: Since Bob and Lew have been in their job for like three days, yes, but they have a lot of work to do.
TVWeek: You’re starting to hire your own people here. What kind of people are you looking for and how do you want the network to change?
Ms. Wong: I want to instill into this culture an aggressiveness and a competitiveness, as well as an ability to really work well together, so strong teamwork and collaboration and a strategic approach. We’re questioning everything.
TVWeek: Have you come up with a mission statement or a strategy sentence?
Ms. Wong: I don’t know that I’ve come up with a strategic sentence. I talk about the brand, about bringing that relevancy and energy and optimism to the brand. We talk a lot about it being everywhere a woman would want it to be, whether it’s TV, online or mobile.
TVWeek: When you say you want to be more aggressive, are you saying there was a complacency here after a long stretch of success?
Ms. Wong: I wouldn’t say it was complacent before. We just want to be more competitive. Whenever you come into something with fresh eyes, you want to question everything; you want everybody around you to question everything. It’s the only way you can make things better.
TVWeek: Did you have a Lifetime moment, where you first felt like you belonged here?
Ms. Wong: Yes. I sat down with all my direct reports, and then I went and I shook people’s hands throughout the building and said hello to everyone on this floor, on the 17th floor and 32. I went down to [the Technical Operations Center at] 111 Eighth [Ave.] and I felt so welcome. People were so warm to me, they were so generous and welcoming, that I felt great. They were like, “When are you starting?” And I said, ‘Tomorrow.’
TVWeek: Had you been planning to start the next day?
Ms. Wong: I didn’t have a plan. It was just clear that it made sense. I think I had to go back to L.A. to tell my boss I was leaving. But after that, I said I would be here on Monday.
TVWeek: This is cable. Have you found any big differences working in cable?
Ms. Wong: That’s an area that I have a lot to learn [about] because my entire TV career has been on the broadcast side, so distribution is something that I’ve had to learn very quickly and I’ve been out trying to develop relationships. They all have different perspectives, and being new I can ask stupid questions. With Lifetime I think there’s an incredible opportunity that exists because we have the ability to hyper-focus on women in a way that other networks who are trying to attract women cannot, because our brand is so associated with women and that’s really exciting.
TVWeek: Lifetime had disputes with EchoStar and DirecTV before you arrived. Are those ironed out?

Ms. Wong: I think we’re all moving forward with a very positive relationship.
TVWeek: DirecTV’s lawsuit was settled soon after you arrived.
Ms. Wong: That was good timing.
TVWeek: You went to school as an engineer. Don’t we need more engineers than television executives?
Ms. Wong: You have to do what you love. I’m glad that I studied electrical engineering, though, because I was sitting with someone from my team the other day, and I said the greatest thing I got out of that education was I have absolutely no fear about solving problems because I will never solve harder problems than I did on a daily basis when I was at MIT.
TVWeek: Why are some of the network’s operations moving to Los Angeles?
Ms. Wong: We announced [Aug. 27] that Bob and Lew are going to move some of marketing out there, and that is really about, in my mind, trying to fix some of the problems, some of the issues that existed when I got here, which is a lack of communication between marketing and programming.
Marketing and programming, in virtually every other network, sit right next to each other hand in hand, and that’s the way they need to work here to be effective.
Those two things are ultimately going to drive the ratings and the success of Lifetime, and they need to work as effectively as possible; I felt strongly that some part of marketing needed to be next to programming. And the same thing is true for scheduling. Scheduling reports to Susanne, and Susanne’s always wanted to do it, and that makes a tremendous amount of sense.
Again, at every other network the head of scheduling sits next to the president of entertainment. I can’t imagine [ABC’s] Steve McPherson not talking to Jeff Bader on a regular basis every day. And Susanne needs to be able to do that.
TVWeek: Any other parts of the company moving to L.A.?
Ms. Wong: No.
TVWeek: Are you going to be spending most of your time in New York or L.A.?
Ms. Wong: I’m trying to figure it out. I need to be wherever the company needs me. Like I said, I was in Atlanta one day, in Philadelphia in July and I’ll be wherever I need to be to make this company as successful as possible.
TVWeek: Did anything else surprise you about the new job.
Ms. Wong: I’ve got a great board. They’re very supportive; they speak with one voice.
TVWeek: Are there opportunities to work with Hearst and Disney?
Ms. Wong: Yes. Disney produces “Army Wives” and they’re probably producing another pilot for us next year. We’re in negotiations. And you can always call them up and share information and give each other advice because I know the other cable network heads inside of Disney. Rich Ross is a great friend of mine; Paul Lee is a great friend. And then getting to know all of the Hearst editors has been fun.
TVWeek: How have you had time to meet the Hearst editors?
Ms. Wong: Cathy Black [president of the Hearst magazine group] had a breakfast for me the first month that I started with all the Hearst editors and it was so great. There are so many opportunities to do things. Dan [Suratt, head of Lifetime’s Web efforts], is doing a lot with them on the digital side. Meredith is doing a lot with them with Every Woman Counts. They’ve been incredibly supportive.
TVWeek: Any other ways of working with ABC?
Ms. Wong: We have a barter promotion. So this morning on “Good Morning America,” there was a Princess Diana movie promo on, and you’ll see “Pushing Daisies” promos on Lifetime. So we definitely cross-market and I think there will be other opportunities.
TVWeek: Lifetime’s revenues reportedly went down in 2006. That’s not something any board would be happy with.
Ms. Wong: I can’t talk about financial results, but I would like to grow our bottom line. I’m not sure it’s about being No. 1. It’s certainly nice to have bragging rights, but the bottom line is how much money you make.
I want to drive the business, drive the profitability, and also grow it. For example, invest in digital. We need to do that in order to ensure the long-term growth of the company.

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    Please visit the website (http://bettyconfidential.com/cbc/specialfeature.html) to see the criteria for finalist selections and vote for her if you feel she’s an inspiration to you! Voting takes place until March 28, 2008, and winners will be announced on the site and via press release April 2.
    Thank you!

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