Lifetime Will Battle Back

Plans to spend $800M on programs over two years

After many months of growth, Lifetime Television's Nielsen ratings have been sliding since November. Even so, at its upfront presentation last week in New York, upbeat network executives touted a fresh slate of programming aimed at reversing those recent stumbles.

Lifetime plans to add two original dramas to its schedule in August and open up a second night of original programming on Saturdays. (The women's network already has two successful dramas, The Division
and Strong Medicine, ensconced on Sunday nights.) Entertainment chief Barbara Fisher, who joined Lifetime nearly a year ago, has four promising new pilots to choose from; they are the first series she has developed for the channel.

The pilots play up what Fisher has described as lighter drama. Nick & Shelley
features a divorced couple who are still detective partners. Wild Card stars Joely Fisher as a former blackjack dealer trying to raise her sister's kids and investigate frauds. Follow the Leeds
stars Sharon Lawrence as a woman who runs a private-investigation business with her mom (Marsha Mason) and sister (Maria Pitillo). And in 1-800 Missing
former ER
star Gloria Rueben teams with a teenage psychic to solve cases.

"Even with the most loyal viewers and the strongest brand," Fisher pointed out, "you still have to keep letting the audience know you have new, fresh voices."

She has the backing of President and CEO Carole Black, who says Lifetime will spend $800 million on programming over the next two years. "Never before have we had a bigger or better slate of new programming," Black said. In fact, by the 2003-04 season, almost 60% of its prime time lineup will be original.

The new programming comes at a critical time for Lifetime. Its first-quarter ratings were off 23% to a 1.7. While that's still a strong cable rating, it's not the sky-high averages that were nearly routine a year ago.

"There is more competition than they've ever had before," said media buyer Howard Nass. "This is not going to be an easy upfront for them."

In time for the upfront, Lifetime is creating a "Lifetime Partnerships" team to coordinate multiplatform deals among Lifetime's various TV, print and online extensions, with Lifetime vet Elise McVeigh heading the department. Television for Women also plans to offer more cross-selling opportunities with its corporate parents Hearst and Walt Disney Co., according to Executive Vice President of Sales Lynn Picard.