AETN Seeing Progress With Project Lifetime

Raven expects record year after integrating network

A year after it was absorbed by Arts & Entertainment Television Networks, Lifetime seems to be showing a bit more life. Scheduling changes have boosted ratings, new programming is being developed and the network rode a hot market to a successful upfront.

Abbe Raven, CEO of AETN, says that the distraction of combining the networks is now over. “Groups that have gone through mergers tend to stall a bit creatively,” she says. “But we’re having our best year ever,” with ratings up 7%, more than other network groups.

Lifetime, the longtime leader in programming for women, faltered under CEOs Betty Cohen and Andrea Wong, who tried to freshen up the network’s dowdy image.

Last September, Hearst Corp. and The Walt Disney Co. folded Lifetime into AETN, which they own along with NBC Universal. That put the channel under Raven. She named Nancy Dubuc Lifetime’s new president. A programmer, Dubuc had helped Raven turn around A&E and make History into a powerhouse.

When early word of the deal got out, job security became a concern of many well-paid Lifetime senior staffers. When the merger closed, changes were made in marketing and publicity. Other departments were consolidated with those in AETN’s other networks.

SNL Kagan estimates that non-programming costs were reduced by $9.1 million at Lifetime in 2009. The result was that while ratings dropped, the network’s profit margin rose to 38.9% from 37.1%.

“We think the real benefit to this [combination] is not in the short-term cost savings,” says Scott Sassa, president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. The merger created a company that better serves advertisers and distributors and can more effectively cross-promote programming. “Abbe has made a lot of progress. You’re starting to see it come around,” Sassa says.

While the company is now “more efficient,” according to Raven, she says AETN is investing in programming: “We feel very strongly that the way to success is through terrific strong original programming.” Production is underway for three Lifetime drama pilots: Against the Wall, Exit 19 and an untitled Josh Berman project starring Sherry Stringfield and Jamie-Lynn Sigler. Lifetime also has six non-scripted shows in the works and is considering original programming for daytime as well.

After moving its original movies to Monday and by creating a 90-minute version of Project Runway, Lifetime’s women 18-49 ratings are up 3% and up 7% among women 25-54 in the third quarter, marking the first increases in two years.

Media buyers see progress. “I don’t think it’s any secret Lifetime has lost a little steam and needs a reboot,” says Francois Lee, VP at media buyer MediaVest. “I think they have the right people in it. I think they have the right thought process, so with a little time, hopefully they’ll be back on track. Even now, they’re definitely up there as one of the key networks if you’re trying to reach a highly targeted female audience.”

AETN, which does business in 150 countries, will push Lifetime as an international brand, and will generate revenues by selling DVDs of Lifetime’s original movies.

When making the deal that combined the companies, NBCU planned to sell its stake in the enlarged AETN. That probably won’t happen until after NBCU is acquired by Comcast. The way things are going, NBCU might be getting more than it bargained for.

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