"Television for Women": No One's Laughing Now

Under Carole Black, Lifetime has become No. 1 in prime time

Forget wrestling or 24-hour news. The most popular cable-television network in prime time this year serves up sentimental portrayals of women struggling with such issues as infidelity or illness while they're busy being doctors, police, midwives, or politicians. Welcome to Lifetime Television, a 17-year-old network once ridiculed for its saccharine scripts and women-in-peril themes. Thanks to some smart original programming and a more upbeat tone, viewers can't seem to get enough of it. TV advertising analyst Jack Myers describes the network's new identity as less "women in jeopardy, and much more women achieving against the odds." Moreover, advertisers clamor to buy time on the Hearst Corp./Walt Disney Co. joint venture, which reaches 84 million homes, even as rivals beg for sponsors. Says Chris Geraci, a senior media buyer for OMD USA: "It's generating a lot of buzz."

That's bound to please the incoming brass at Hearst, which recently appointed Victor F. Ganzi to replace longtime CEO Frank A. Bennack Jr. next spring. Lifetime is a bright spot for the media giant, which--like its peers--has watched advertising fall this year at key properties ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to Harper's Bazaar. And with everything from sagging attendance at theme parks to sinking ratings at ABC, Disney needs the boost, too. Lifetime took in some $481 million in ad revenues in the first nine months of 2001, a jump of almost 12% over the same period last year, according to CMR, which tracks ad industry trends, while most rivals have seen flat or declining sales. With a strong roster of original drama series, such as Strong Medicine and The Division, its top-rated shows, as well as homegrown movies on such subjects as delinquent children, Lifetime's revenue should reach about $715 million this year, vs. $550 million in 2000.

The network's secret weapon: Carole Black, a savvy, relentlessly upbeat Midwesterner who as president and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services has pushed her team and her brand to new heights. Since Black, 58, moved from an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles to Lifetime in New York 2 1/2 years ago, she has tripled the network's programming budget, to about $300 million for 2002, and doubled marketing dollars, to $82 million this year. She has also revved up projects dealing with such issues as breast-cancer awareness.

MORE RIVALS. Some women might marvel that anyone would want to spend an evening watching midwives or yet another Golden Girls rerun. Not only do women--and men--face more choices in the expanding cable universe, but Oxygen Media and WE: Women's Entertainment are among several other networks chasing female viewers. "As the channels increase, you are going to see fragmentation no matter how strong your franchise is," says Derek Baine, a senior analyst at Kagan World Media. Of course, scale is different on cable: A top-rated show might pull in 3 million viewers, whereas a broadcast network hit can garner an audience of 30 million.

Even so, Black seems to have touched a nerve with plenty of American women, and she's pouring big bucks into original programs to keep that edge. One plus is a crackerjack executive team, which drew talent from Disney and from the ad side of that male bastion, ESPN. And instead of pumping vintage reruns, she has focused her marketing dollars on new movies and shows. By the start of 2001, Lifetime had nudged aside TBS Superstation Inc. and USA Network Inc. to become the highest-rated prime-time cable network. (Nickelodeon has the highest ratings for the overall day.)

Of course, creating shows for women can be tough. Some prefer Sex and the City or even Monday Night Football to Lifetime's "you-go-girl" fare. Black says her audience wants "something that feels real to them." That means no goddess warriors, no hypersexed women in four-inch-high Manolo Blahniks, and no more movies like Jackie's Back, a Lifetime original about a fictional pop diva trying to make a comeback. It fizzled--too much bite for Lifetime viewers, Black believes. Rivals say Lifetime's super-earnest take on life doesn't resonate with younger urban professionals--or a lot of other groups, either. Oxygen and WE each have less than half the reach of Lifetime, but they're gaining distribution. "We're just getting started," insists Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne. Even so, analysts say Oxygen targets a narrower niche with its hip, service-oriented programs, while WE, the rebranded Romance Classics, dishes out lighter escapist fare.

STRONG TIES. Still, Lifetime consistently ranks at the top with a cross-section of women over 18--though analysts say it may appeal more to older women and moms. No wonder Black feels the world is ready for more Lifetime: She recently added reality channel Lifetime Real Women to Lifetime TV and Lifetime Movie Network. The danger is that a new network could stretch resources and splinter the audience.

Try telling that to Black, a former advertising and Procter & Gamble Co. executive who was recruited by the president of ABC Cable Networks Group & Disney Channel Worldwide, Anne M. Sweeney. "Nothing was broken," recalls Sweeney, "but Carole saw the chance to have a much deeper and stronger relationship with viewers." Black says what drew her to Lifetime was "a desire to make girls and women feel wonderful about themselves." Such goals may sound a little precious, but Lifetime appears to be pulling it off so far. With growing competition, staying on top could be tough. Then again, Black and her team know all about achieving against the odds.

By Diane Brady in New York

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