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After Life On Top, Lifetime Faces Challenge

Women's network pins hopes on big push in spring, summer 3/09/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The women of Lifetime Television had gotten used to the good life as the top-rated cable network. Last year, President and CEO Carole Black awarded staffers a day off for every month Lifetime claimed the No. 1 spot. There were celebrations with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Slip of a Lifetime
For two years, Lifetime led all cable networks but has lost its lead to TNT
Month Rating* Change
*Households, prime time
Source: Nielsen Media Research
Jan 2002 2.3 NA
Jan 2003 1.8 -22%
Feb 2002 2.1 NA
Feb 2003 1.7 -19%

These days, the corks are silent, and strawberries are out of season. After two years of growth and almost routine No. 1 ratings, Lifetime is on the slide. Two months into 2003, Nielsen household ratings and key demo numbers are off around 20% each.

Yet Lifetime executives remain confident. They point to hot broadcast reality shows like Joe Millionaire
and The Bachelorette
as sapping their audience. Their loyal women, they contend, will return to Lifetime.

"You play with a new friend, and then you come back to a trusted friend," said Black, who took Lifetime's reins in 1999 and marched to the top of cable in just two years.

"This is not that jarring or alerting. It is really difficult and challenging to be No. 1, " said Laura Caraccioli, vice president and director of Starcom Entertainment.

Certainly, Joe Millionaire
and The Bachelorette
attracted scads of female viewers, but, combined, the shows filled just two prime time hours a week. Lifetime, which offers 21 hours a week of evening fare, saw its prime time marks ratings drop 19% in February. And that's after a 22% dip in January. TNT has taken over the top spot.

Black downplays the January and February losses as minor stumbles and promised, "Our biggest push will come this spring and summer."

In April, Lifetime launches Monday- night reality show What Should You Do?, which advises women how to get out of tricky situations. Merge, a lifestyle redecorating show for newlyweds hosted by actress Lisa Rinna, arrives this summer. Lifetime plans to add at least one new original drama this summer, and upcoming original movies boast bigger-name actors like American Beauty's Thora Birch, who will star in Lifetime's Homeless to Harvard, and Diane Keaton, who will star in a project tentatively titled Breaking Through.

Barbara Fisher, Lifetime's executive vice president of entertainment, said losing the top spot has the network intensely focused on development.

"We have to constantly reinvigorate ourselves. We're not the only ones targeting women," she said.

Lifetime often gets knocked for depicting women as victims (even if they always overcome their obstacles). But, with the four new drama pilots currently in development, Fisher says she's looking to inject "more fun, a little more romance and a little more laughter" into Lifetime. She's armed with a $337 million programming budget, according to Kagan World Media estimates.

One of the new shows will get picked up, but Fisher hopes to persuade the network's board to buy at least one more. Another drama could anchor a second night of originals.

Fisher, who arrived at Lifetime last May, replaced Dawn Ostroff, who left for UPN five months before. Some industry executives venture that the lag between entertainment chiefs has slowed Lifetime's development machine—and, ultimately, its ratings.

But Lifetime's originals are not the problem. Its Sunday-night dramas are workhorses: Strong Medicine
is averaging a 2.8 rating so far this year, and The Division
is pulling in a 2.6.

Lifetime's rerun movies, historically its biggest attraction, seem to be softening. Rather than investing in blockbuster theatricals that lift nets like USA Network, TBS and TNT, Lifetime has gone with cheaper fare. But its acquired movies were off 25% in viewers in February, according to research from Turner Broadcasting. And even though Lifetime's original movies notch stellar ratings (an average 3.8 in 2002 compared with a 2.8 in 2000), they premiere at a rate of one per month.

Part of the future, Fisher said, is easing off Lifetime's dependence on acquired fare. She wants to be more selective with acquired movies and step up the number of originals. And she's slowly replacing faltering Unsolved Mysteries
with reality shows, like the upcoming What Should You Do?
and Final Justice,
hosted by Erin Brockovich.

Even with Lifetime's losses, it remains a top cable buy for many media buyers.

"They are still such a great brand for reaching women—on par with the broadcast networks," said media buyer Carat USA's director of national broadcast Andrew Donchin.

"What got us [to No. 1] was a complete attention to our brand and who we are. We're going to stick to our knitting," said Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks.

With the upfront selling season on the horizon, though, Lifetime's recent missteps could be costly. In last year's upfront, the network slashed its pricing about 10%. If ratings remain soft, the network could have trouble commanding cost-per- thousand (CPM) increases or could be forced to discount pricing to sell the inventory.

Black said she would become concerned if the losses continued for six months. But, clearly, no one at Lifetime likes to be second-best, especially Black. In a recent e-mail to motivate staffers, she wrote: "I know that all of you will work very hard to make certain that we end the year in the No. 1 position! (After all, we could all use that extra vacation time!)"