Making Lifetime's Website Come Alive
How a former sports executive found out what women want
By Wayne Friedman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/28/2008 8:00:00 PM
On the surface, a logical career TV executive track might not include going from a high-profile Olympics digital programming position to one at a women's cable network looking for an Internet identity.
But about 2½ years ago, Dan Suratt, now executive VP of digital media and business development at Lifetime, did just that, with lots of business sense regarding similarities between core audiences of both types of programming—and with lots of success.
“Content is content,” Suratt says. “Everyone thinks Olympics are sports [with heavy male viewership]. But in the Olympics, women's viewership outdoes male viewership.” Females make up 52% of the total Olympic audience with 48% coming from men, he says.
At Lifetime, the cable network that targets women, the digital TV question became obvious when Suratt first arrived: “What is Lifetime's place on the Internet?” he recalls asking. “That took us the first year to figure out.”
Given its older-women target on its traditional TV platform, it wasn't easy. Mistakes were made along the way, such as responding to focus group data. “It told us what they [said] rather than what they really thought,” Suratt says. “Things like, “Gee, I'd love to know about health and money and fitness and career.”
But when Lifetime put up those informational areas on its site, they were greeted with a big yawn. “When we threw those sections on, no one was interested,” he says.
Then the company found its bearings building on a much easier theme: entertainment and escape, for women of any age. For example, Lifetime's average age on the Internet is almost 10 years younger—somewhere in the mid-30s—than on its traditional TV outlet.
Case in point: One of the most popular escapist activities on the company's MyLifetime.com site is the “Dress Up Challenge,” in which users can dress up an avatar of their choosing. According to Suratt, 75% of the audience for that feature is 30 years old or younger.
Suratt has a lot to crow about since assuming the top digital spot at Lifetime. He has expanded Lifetime's original Web content to 12 original series, and Mylifetime.com now gets 30 million monthly page views. Among women 25-54, Lifetime Game is a top 25 online destination among casual gaming sites.
During his tenure, Suratt has made key partnerships with Glam Media, YouTube, iTunes, Yahoo, Real Arcade, Revolution Health, About.com and Hearst Digital, all of which have driven traffic for Lifetime.
“We have sites contributing to our growth,” he says. “In August, we were at 5 million [monthly uniques]. That's a million and a half bigger than we were a year ago. You start getting into a ballpark where this is a meaningful number.” Looking at just its own sites, Lifetime has some 3.4 million uniques, a 143% increase from a year ago.
Suratt, 37, describes himself as pretty competitive when it comes to his work. But he finds it perhaps a little tough venting about business at home. That's because Suratt, a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., is married to Cameron Blanchard, senior VP of communications at Bravo Media and Oxygen Media. Oxygen is the young-skewing women's cable network that happens to be a head-to-head competitor of Lifetime.
In that regard, home conversation isn't industry-speak. “We tend to talk about the weather and the [New York] Yankees,” he says. He and his family reside in Brooklyn Heights. “We just returned from a weekend in Maine, and thankfully our BlackBerrys didn't work too well [there].”
Suratt met his future wife at an NBA game; fresh out of college, he began work for the league as a broadcast associate from 1993 to 1995. “I graduated college and thought I would go into investment banking,” he says. But TV sports pulled him in another direction. Through his strong relationship with the TV production team and the players, Suratt segued into bigger production jobs at NBC for its NBA and Olympics programming.
But Suratt wanted a bigger business role at the company. NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol said that getting an M.B.A. might do the trick. “I don't know if he thought I would ever do it, but I did,” Suratt says. After he got his degree in 2001, he moved into a business development position, and his star value rocketed from there.
He worked at NBC from 1995 to 2006, including stints as a producer for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney and the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. During the 2002 Winter Games, he managed and booked musical performers such as The Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Sheryl Crow and 'N Sync.
In his later years with NBC, Suratt earned his digital stripes as VP of business and new-media development at NBC Olympics, especially at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. “Among Dan's many strengths was his ability to form critical strategic partnerships,” says Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “For the 2006 Games, Dan drove valuable distribution partnerships with both Google and ESPN that both drove significant traffic to NBCOlympics.com.” He also struck deals with Google, About.com, DirecTV, EchoStar and TV Guide Channel.
Suratt is looking to work the same digital magic at Lifetime. Recently he structured a deal to broaden Lifetime's digital effort into social networking with its first digital acquisition, San Francisco-based ParentsClick Network.
He says that working at Lifetime has been a great experience, especially with Andrea Wong, president/CEO of Lifetime Networks. “The great thing about Dan and me is that we talk a lot strategically of where we should be going and what makes sense,” Wong says. “I really believe in giving him, as well as the other department heads, autonomy to really grow and take ownership of their areas and go. He has done exactly that.”
“With very few exceptions, [Andrea] has said to me, 'Go and do it,”' Suratt says. “A lot of things are crap shoots. When you have a boss who is supportive, it makes it a lot easier to come into the office.”
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