When JoAnn Alfano joined Lifetime Networks in September 2008, she wasn't looking for a new job, but could not have landed in a more perfect spot. As executive VP of entertainment for Lifetime Networks, she spearheads programming, scheduling and acquisitions for Lifetime Television and Lifetime Movie Network—the two highest-rated women's channels—as well as Lifetime Real Women.
The job taps everything she's learned in an Emmy-winning career that includes stints as network and studio executive, publicist, and developer and executive producer of 30 Rock. Plus, it appears she has a soft spot for the tearjerkers that are part of Lifetime's legacy: “I'm the easiest crier in the world,” she says.
Suzanne Daniels, Lifetime's former entertainment president, nominated her for the job when Alfano was president of her own production company, TV Tray. Alfano had a first-look deal with NBC Universal and was not seeking a career change, but she began to think the world was changing after the 2007-2008 writers' strike.
“As much as I love producing, I thought the opportunities to have the kind of deals I had would be fewer and far between in the future,” she says. “This job turned my head because I thought it was something that I could really connect with. [It's] all the things that I've done in different points of my career, wrapped into one.”
A career in the entertainment industry has always been in this New York native's blood. “I kind of grew up with a TV Guide in my hand,” she says. “I've loved television for as long as I can remember.”
Her first job out of college was as a publicist for a sports and entertainment company in New York. She continued in the field as a publicist for Saturday Night Live and The Cosby Show.
In 1992, Alfano became director of current comedy for NBC Studios and rose through the ranks at the network, holding positions such as VP of primetime series, senior VP of drama development and then senior VP of comedy development. In these roles, she oversaw the development of Will & Grace, Homicide: Life on the Street and Scrubs.
She went on to become president of Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video Television in 2003, where she developed 30 Rock with its star, Tina Fey. Alfano executive-produced the first couple of seasons, for which she earned an Emmy in 2007.
“I still think 30 Rock is the most entertaining comedy,” she says. “I don't work on it anymore, so it's delightful to sit back and watch episodes.”
When she's not watching 30 Rock or American Idol—she admits to being an Idol fanatic—Alfano is busy making her mark on Lifetime, where she is targeting female viewers in the 18-49 demographic. “[I want] to introduce programming that feels contemporary, relevant and relatable,” she says.
One of her first moves was acquiring the off-network rights to CBS' comedy How I Met Your Mother. She also points to a couple of originals that reflect her voice: Drop Dead Diva, a comedic drama series introduced at the network's April upfront presentation that is slated to premiere in July; and recent ratings-gobbling miniseries Maneater.
President and CEO of Lifetime Networks Andrea Wong has confidence in Alfano's judgment. “She is one of the savviest and most creative executives I've had the good fortune to know, and she has an amazing sense of what works for our audience,” Wong says.
With the legal battle over Project Runway finished (Lifetime acquired the series and started fighting Bravo for it in court before Alfano joined the network), Alfano plans to use it to help launch new shows. “To use these beachheads, whether in the unscripted space or drama or movies, to introduce new viewers to the network and introduce new series, that's definitely our goal,” she says.
Lifetime has also had success with movies based on novels, a strategy she says will continue. Northern Lights, from author Nora Roberts, was Lifetime's most-watched movie this year with 4.5 million viewers. “These built-in titles really resonate with our audience,” Alfano says. “Developing movies based on books has been something that has been really positive for us.”
Another thing audiences have come to know are the infamous Lifetime movie titles, adored for their provocative, campy value. Alfano reveals her favorites: Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and My Stepson, My Lover. “To me, they're just fun,” she adds. “And boy, did people watch them.”