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The Perils of Lifetime

With viewership down, the failure of several new shows and its first revenue dip in 23 years, can the women's network get back on track? 3/31/2007 02:00:00 PM Eastern

This month marks Betty Cohen's second anniversary as president/CEO of Lifetime. But the mood at the leading cable network for women is anything but celebratory. Like the embattled heroine in one of its signature movies, Lifetime is a network in peril.

Once the most-watched cable network—among both women and men—Lifetime has fallen behind, with viewership in its core demo of women 18-49 dropping as much as 17%. New programs aimed at younger viewers have floundered, while a rebranding campaign has sputtered. And last year, after an embarrassing carriage dispute with EchoStar's Dish Network, the company sustained the first revenue dip in its 23-year history, slipping 2% to $793.5 million, according to estimates by Kagan Research.

To be sure, Lifetime's flagship channel, in about 92 million homes, remains a formidable brand, and its ratings and distribution top those of the women-focused Oxygen and WE networks. But insiders and others in the industry see a network adrift, with morale low throughout Lifetime's ranks. Many attribute the company's woes to fundamental programming misfires and weak marketing. And many question Cohen's leadership.

But, as in those irresistible Lifetime movies, there is hope for redemption. At its upfront presentation on April 24, the network will unveil three dramas slated for the summer and projects in development (see page 18). In June, it will relaunch its Website, lifetimetv.com. It's all part of a strategy to establish Lifetime as the “No. 1 women's electronic-media brand,” says Cohen, who characterizes the past two years as a time for “laying the groundwork.”

The coming months will be crucial for both Lifetime and Cohen, 50, who has only one year left on her contract, according to sources. Says one Lifetime insider, “There's going to be either a lot of champagne or a lot of blood.”

A brief moment at No. 1

When Lifetime, a jointly owned venture of Hearst Corp. and The Walt Disney Co., tapped Cohen to be president/CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services in April 2005, the network had already fallen from its pinnacle under Cohen's predecessor, Carole Black. (Black left when her contract expired that March to travel and serve on corporate and charitable boards.)

In 2002, Lifetime became the top cable network across all demos. Although many qualify that achievement, noting the loss of wrestling programming on USA Network and lackluster originals on TNT, Lifetime legitimately broke new ground with original dramas Any Day Now, The Division and Strong Medicine.

But with wrestling back on USA and the growth of original programming elsewhere on cable, Lifetime has since fallen to No. 8 in total viewers and now trails USA and TBS in its target demo of women 18-49. Relying heavily on one-off movies and reruns of acquired series like The WB's Reba and CBS' Still Standing, the network was down 17% in the demo during prime in 2006. It is up 2% this year.

Lifetime and its sister Lifetime Movie Network (LMN) still outdraw the other women's networks by far, averaging 443,000 and 128,000, respectively, among women 18-49 in primetime last year. Oxygen and WE, meanwhile, averaged 89,000 and 61,000, respectively. But while those networks' median ages have inched downward, Lifetime's has crept up, from 48.5 in 2000 to 52 last year. (It currently stands at 51.9.)

“The days when Lifetime was No. 1 were a brief moment in time,” says Cohen, who was senior VP/general manager of TNT before launching Cartoon Network. “It was a great moment, but there were a lot of other factors, and the marketplace was different. Would I like to be No. 1? Yes. But I define success as being the leader in women 18-49. These things don't happen overnight.”

Indeed, when Cohen arrived, Lifetime hadn't greenlighted a series since 2003. After entertainment chief Dawn Ostroff (now president of The CW) left in 2002, her successor, Barbara Fisher, lasted only two years, leaving Lifetime Executive VP/General Manager Rick Haskins to oversee programming. (Haskins left in 2005 after being passed over to succeed Black.)

Among Cohen's first moves was hiring Susanne Daniels, a former entertainment chief of The WB, as entertainment president for Lifetime Entertainment Services. Widely praised in creative circles, Daniels, 41, started her TV career as Lorne Michaels' assistant at Saturday Night Live before going on to stints at ABC and Fox.

Daniels ushered in her own team and swiftly fielded new programs in genres fresh to the network. Movie adaptations of Nora Roberts' novels and a biopic of American Idol's Fantasia Barrino—departures from Lifetime's familiar endangered-woman formula—performed strongly and drew young viewers. New series, however, did not.

Cheerleader Nation, a reality show about rah-rah girls and their moms, drew a median age of 34.4 but averaged only about a million viewers. So did Gay, Straight or Taken, another young-skewing reality show. Lovespring International, an improv comedy about a dating agency that ran at 11 p.m.—an unusually late time slot for a Lifetime original—fared worse, with some 868,000 viewers.

Crime procedural Angela's Eyes was rushed to series without a pilot and averaged 1.7 million viewers. By comparison, TNT's Kyra Sedgwick-starring cop drama The Closer—a show that would seem a natural fit for Lifetime—broke records, averaging more than 6 million over its two seasons.

Only Lisa Williams, a reality show about a female psychic, has been renewed.

“I don't feel that, looking back, those were failures,” Daniels says. “They started to bring in new and younger viewers to Lifetime, and that was all part of the plan.”

She contends that the shows suffered from being launched individually as opposed to being packaged in programming blocks, which the network plans to do this summer with the first trio of scripted shows she has nurtured from start to finish.

Off-net hits Medium, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, all acquired under Daniels, perform adequately now but should fare better once they're stripped, Daniels says.

Marketing misfires

Successfully launching shows, of course, requires robust and sustained marketing—exactly what many in the industry say has been lacking at Lifetime.

Cohen arrived at the network with a track record of building brands at TNT and Cartoon, and she soon launched a rebranding campaign that replaced the long-standing “Television for Women” tagline with the more self-referential “My Story is on Lifetime.” (Whether the new slogan has resonated with viewers is unclear; but, at press time, the programming grid on Time Warner Cable in New York still bore the old tagline.)

Cohen's decision to hire Martha Pease as executive VP of marketing, however, was ill-fated. Pease, a McCann Erickson executive whose experience was marketing consumer products, not TV networks, clashed with many in the company. According to Lifetime insiders, nearly a quarter of her staff of about 70 people left before she herself departed last month.

Ratings woes and internal drama aside, Lifetime's brand hasn't suffered much with advertisers. The company's sales division (led by the well-regarded Executive VP/General Manager Lynn Picard) has remained largely intact. Although some media buyers gripe that the network has been coasting too long on brand equity alone, most say that clients looking for a targeted buy of female viewers still demand Lifetime.

“Even though their numbers are down, they have that strong brand,” says Andy Donchin, director for national broadcast at media buyer Carat. “They've stayed dedicated to their core and their brand, and they keep trying to build on top of that.”

And Lifetime's public-affairs advocacy on women's issues like breast cancer and domestic violence remains central to its brand. Cohen touts efforts to integrate Lifetime's advocacy and campaigning into programming, as with its original movie Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.

But the Lifetime brand risked being tarnished by an embarrassing episode early last year when Dish Network dropped Lifetime and LMN for a month in a carriage dispute and replaced the latter with Oxygen. Although carriage was ultimately restored to Dish's 12 million subscribers, Lifetime had to compensate advertisers for the lost month, and the deal weakened the network's position as an agent for Heast-Argyle in securing retransmission consent for the station group.

“Invisible Betty”

Inside Lifetime, the sense of drift has led some to compare Cohen unfavorably with her predecessor.

Known for taking frequent shopping trips and sharing a Frederic Fekkai stylist with members of her senior executive team, Black embodied the spirit of charasmatic femininity that Lifetime aimed to project.

Although former staffers noted her penchant for micromanaging, they also recall her prancing through the offices like a cheerleader, sending exclamation point-heavy e-mails to note successes, and serving champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries when Lifetime became the top network.

“We set a clear goal to be No. 1 in the hearts and minds of women,” said Black in an e-mail response to a question about her tenure. “But the real key to our success was the talent and dedication of the extraordinary Lifetime team who understood the vision, embraced it and made it reality.”

By contrast, Cohen's more wholesomely cheery demeanor and preference for earth-toned pantsuits call to mind a grade-school teacher. Current and former staffers complain that “Invisible Betty” is often MIA around the office and say her practice of soliciting various perspectives and allowing division heads to weigh in democratically on each other's projects leads to “wheel-spinning.”

Cohen, a frequent panelist at industry events, concedes that “it's hard to be everywhere at once.

“It's unfortunate that people feel that way, because I really value them,” she adds. “When I do spend time with them, they're a source of inspiration and enormous fun.”

As for her management style, Cohen sees it as “a bit more inclusive” than her predecessor. “I welcome people's ideas, but I'm also prepared to make the harder decisions,” she says. “Do I seek a lot of people's input and weigh carefully the tradeoffs? I believe that's what I'm paid to do.”

As they look ahead to the summer, both Cohen and Daniels have high hopes that Lifetime's new programming slate will jump-start a turnaround.

“I'm sure everybody wished our first efforts last year did better,” Cohen admits. “But we have a solid team, and people are really focused and excited about the summer.”

Daniels touts the top Hollywood talent beyond the trio of new shows. Greer Shephard and Michael Robin, of The Closer and FX's Nip/Tuck, are behind State of Mind, a comedic drama in which Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under) plays a therapist whose personal life is on the rocks. Side Order of Life, an Ally McBeal-esque dramedy starring Marisa Coughlan (Boston Legal) as a photojournalist who ends her engagement when she learns her best friend is dying of cancer, comes from Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who produced the Oscar-winning film AmericanBeauty.

Army Wives, from Grey's Anatomy Executive Producer Mark Gordon, follows the lives of five women in different social strata on an Army base. Although Wives could appeal to a broad audience, it may run afoul of public outrage over the war in Iraq.

A wager on digital

Beyond programming, Cohen is betting that her investment in digital development—an area long overlooked at Lifetime, she admits—will begin to pay off. Last June, she made her third major hire by luring NBCOlympics.com veteran Dan Suratt to be Lifetime's inaugural executive VP of digital and business development.

Since then, unique views of Lifetimetv.com have more than doubled the December 2005 average, to some 2.26 million last month, according to independent research from comScore. And page views are up from 13 million to 28 million.

The network has also begun attracting younger viewers by putting shows like Lisa Williams and Lovespring on iTunes, creating a series of casual games and forging mobile deals with Sprint and Verizon. Suratt has spearheaded the planned relaunch of Lifetimetv.com, which will focus on community and include streaming shows and Webisodes (see page 18).

As she looks to the pivotal months ahead, Cohen acknowledges the difficulty of the past two years. “I'm not going to sit here and tell you everything was perfect all the time and I've done everything right in the first two years, because that would be such a dishonest report card,” she says. “But you do things, and you move on.

“I have a lot of great admiration and respect for everybody at Lifetime and how they've rallied,” she adds. “Change can be hard, and now we're headed toward something so exciting we can all just taste it.”

_____________________________________________________________________________SIDEBAR: Betting on Summer and Beyond

Lifetime is looking to get a jump on summer this year. The women’s network will premiere Army Wives, the first of three scripted shows for the season, in early June.

The network is betting big on Wives (ABC TV Studio), along with Side Order of Life and State of Mind, in its effort to draw new and younger viewers. It is also developing high-quality fare for next year with a programming budget that Kagan Research puts at $353.8 million.

Wives

, which follows the lives of five women on an Army base and co-stars Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell, premieres Sunday, June 3 at 10 p.m. ET, following And She Was, a new original movie starring Kirstie Alley.

On July 15, Side Order and State of Mind (both from Warner Horizon) will premiere, at 8 and 9 p.m., respectively, joining Wives in a three-hour Sunday block. Lifetime President/CEO Betty Cohen and Entertainment President
Susanne Daniels tout the importance of such programming blocks in attracting—and keeping—viewers.

"What we’ve learned is the need for a critical mass if you’re going to bring in a younger audience," Cohen says. "People were coming to Lifetime and changing their perceptions, but we didn’t have enough critical mass to say, ‘Here, if you like this show, may we also recommend this other one?’"

Beyond the summer, projects that are in the script-development stage include hour-long dramas Mile High and Bailey Weggins and dramedy Hit and Miss. Mile, from ABC Television Studio, is an adaptation of the BBC series of the same name. The show, which Daniels characterizes as a "sexy adult ensemble," centers on staffers at a new airline whose high-flying work lives contrast with their stalled personal lives. Jill Condon (Friends, Grounded for Life) and novelist Juli Huss serve as writers/executive producers. Jane Hewland, executive producer of the BBC series, is a producer.

"They’re trying to do what A&E has done, which is bring down the demo," says ABC Television Studio chief Mark Pedowitz. "That’s not easy, because they [don’t want to] alienate the core audience."

Pedowitz is aiming for the sort of femme fare like the studio’s Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, both of which Lifetime acquired. That includes casting appealing younger actors and "making the pacing work with a younger audience who grew up with MTV."

Also in development from ABC TV Studio and TV/film musical producers Craig Zadan and Neal Meron (Chicago) is Hit and Miss, adramedy based on the life of singer-songwriter Dianne Warren.

Bailey Weggins

, fromLionsgate, is an adaptation of a book series by Cosmo editor Kate White. In the show, which Daniels describes as Sex and the City meets Monk, a divorced TV reporter solves weekly crime mysteries. Rick Copp (The Brady Bunch Movie)is writer/executive producer. Lawrence Bender (An Inconvenient Truth)and Kevin Brown (Roswell) executive-produce.

Fox TV Studios is working on a pilot of Judgment Day, a reality competition in which 10 contestants picked from an all-female audience submit to questions and challenges and the remaining audience members vote on who is the most interesting or popular. Lifetime greenlighted the hour pilot from Simon Andreae.

Says Daniels, "It’s really about how people look at women and their instant reactions to people."

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SIDEBAR:

Women's web

Lifetime has big plans for its Website, Lifetimetv.com. A June relaunch is intended to offer women a community for all things female, not just Lifetime programming. With Lifetime's “My Story” branding, the site is intended to be a place for women to share stories, with tagged topics, articles and discussion forums on such subjects as health and lifestyle.

Having already put its shows and movies on iTunes, Lifetime will begin streaming them on its own site. It will also offer original Webisodes.

Lifetime's site has seen year-to-year jumps of 38% in unique visitors, to 2.26 million in February, and 91% in total page views, to 28 million, according to ComScore. This suggests the site both attracts and retains users.

“The idea is to make it a horizontal nab,” says Lifetime digital chief Dan Suratt. “You may go in through the side door, but you keep on moving across.”

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SIDEBAR: Female-Focused Plans

As Lifetime readies new series, other cable networks are stepping up plans for new female-focused originals. USA Network, TNT and Hallmark Channel, among others, have already announced new projects starring and appealing to women.

At its upfront presentation last week, USA unveiled two female-targeted shows, Spying in High Heels and American Girl. Spying, from producer Larry Shuman and Executive Producer/writer Sara Endsley, chronicles a fashion-crazed young woman and her out-of-work actress friend who open a detective agency in a hair salon. Girl, from Executive Producer Toni Graphia (Battlestar Galactica), tells the story of a Wal-Mart greeter who is emboldened after surviving an in-store robbery at gunpoint. This summer, USA will premiere limited series The Starter Wife, based on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer and starring Debra Messing.

At its upfront show earlier in the season, TNT revealed plans for Mrs. America, a drama about a woman balancing home and career. In addition to the third season of The Closer, with Kyra Sedgwick, the network’s summer premieres include Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter as a tormented detective.

Hallmark Channel, which also held its upfront last week, announced plans to premiere 25 original movies during the remainder of the year, more than ever before. They include Love’s Unending Legacy, about a woman who takes in two orphans after her husband dies; A Stranger’s Heart, about a hard-charging journalist who finds love after a heart transplant; and Claire, about a psychic widowed mother who fights a killer on the loose in her community.

Also last week, the women-targeted Oxygen network, whose median age last year was 44.3 to Lifetime’s 52, picked up a second season of its reality show The Bad Girls Club for a late-2007 premiere.

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