Lifetime Television doesn't just have loyal viewers. Its audience sees the network as a fighter for the rights of women. It's as much a power in Washington as the network is a force in the cable business.
Lifetime Television's overtly activist role sets it apart from most other cable networks. It has an unusually intense and powerful off-air public-service commitment to informing its audience—in this case, women—and acting as their advocate among the influence-peddlers in the halls of power.
Among the initiatives this year in its Our Lifetime Commitment series of public-awareness and advocacy campaigns, the network will continue to expand its Stop Breast Cancer for Life and Stop Violence Against Women projects and get out the vote in its Every Woman Counts campaign. Lifetime is working on-air, online, in communities and in Washington, with more than 200 nonprofit organizations, corporations and government officials.
Executive Vice President Meredith Wagner, who has spearheaded Lifetime's public-interest campaigns from the beginning, and CEO Carole Black, who has supported them for the past five years, say this role has been deeply entwined with the network's on-screen identity for years but has been "ratcheted up" of late, as Black says.
"Most nonprofits are about changing behavior and educating people," says Wagner, "and we're able to put their message on television, not just in PSAs and documentaries but even in our dramas."
She explains that the network brought the Strong Medicine writers to Washington to meet with 20 health-care advocates, who provided "tremendous material" through conversations that played out in various storylines. On Any Day Now, this sort of strategy led to a story about an African-American woman developing heart disease, which enabled the show (and the network's Web site) to inform women about this overlooked killer. (For instance, women experience different heart-attack symptoms than those of men.)
The nonprofits have also turned to Lifetime to help pressure politicians. And Lifetime has the clout to bring together different organizations and politicians of all stripes, Wagner says. "The weight of Lifetime counts in Washington; we work with nonprofits that, without Lifetime, couldn't get attention."
"Television is the most powerful medium of all," adds Black, who hired people like former White House staffer Mary Dixon to help move the political machinery. "We go into 88 million homes so the politicians will listen. And we have developed a reputation for doing things in a very responsible and nonpartisan way."
The network now has an annual Stop the Violence Week each March in Washington that has prompted most nonprofits to build their conferences around it. Last year, it brought these groups into the White House, where they had previously been unable to gain access. As a result, Wagner says, one pilot program in San Diego got the money it needed to expand.
She says Lifetime first delved into public affairs in the late 1980s with a documentary about women with AIDS called Dying for Love. It was the first time the network made outreach efforts to affiliates and communities to provide a hotline and other resources.
After getting "tremendous feedback," the network continued with documentary-related initiatives into the early 1990s. Dealing with children and divorce led to a campaign called Your Family Matters, which developed into the first big campaign to help improve child-care funding on a nationwide level. The network went to nonprofits to get educated and gathered both scientific and anecdotal research from their audience, which showed women "were incredibly frustrated and felt the government was not paying attention."
Eventually, the network even brought some of the women Lifetime talked to down to Washington to have their stories heard by Congress. "We were validated by the fact that the women were asking us to please do this," Wagner says, "and Congress was listening."
In the past few years, the Internet has become extraordinarily vital to efforts to inform and organize women.
Black says women, who may not feel comfortable challenging a doctor or speaking up at a meeting, "like to get information from the Internet. Our site has become a destination."
And Wagner says that the campaign to build governmental support to halt "drive-through mastectomies" (where women are sent home mere hours after surgery) has taken off.
Eight years ago, the network thought it was phenomenal when it collected 15,000 signatures in its first try at a grassroots effort; in the last two years, it has collected 7 million signatures via the Internet.
This year, the Every Women Counts campaign may take center stage because of the election. Unlike most such campaigns, Lifetime has an additional mission beyond getting out the vote. It is also running PSAs and setting up training programs to encourage women to run for office and coaching them on how to do it.
The breast-cancer campaign may be the network's longest-running and most successful public-service effort, but its anti-violence campaign is just as important to the women that run and watch the network.
So this year, Lifetime has aired PSAs, a new documentary called Until the Violence Stops, an Intimate Portrait
on musician and violence survivor Missy Elliott, and original dramas dealing with the issue. This is in addition to its week of events in Washington, where it is pushing the Debbie Smith Act, a law that would help remove the logjam of incomplete DNA tests that could help send rapists and other violent felons to jail.
Wagner says it took years to get affiliates to be willing to let breast cancer "out of the closet." Now, Black adds, the anti-violence campaign "has moved faster. People trust Lifetime to handle these issues now."