With “American Idol” Fantasia Barrino singing “I Believe” and cheerleaders from Kentucky’s Dunbar High leaping around the stage, it was clear when Lifetime made a sales pitch to advertisers last week that things are changing at the network for women.
There wasn’t a “Golden Girl” in sight — or even a wrinkle on the faces of women speeding by in film clips.
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Lifetime is in the midst of a makeover, trying to shake off the rust and appeal to a younger audience. The grab-your-hankie movies are staying, but several reality series, a comedy about a dating service and a drama about a mindreading FBI agent are also on the way.
“I keep saying in my head, I wish I’d been here 10 years ago. There’s so much potential on so many levels,” said Susanne Daniels, the Lifetime entertainment president who is engineering many of the on-air changes.
Only four seasons ago, Lifetime was the top-rated basic-cable network with an average prime-time audience of 2.27 million people. USA, TBS and TNT have since rushed past Lifetime, which is averaging 1.64 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. More importantly to youth-obsessed advertisers, the median age of Lifetime’s prime-time audience has crept past 50, and viewership is down 15 percent this season among women aged 18-to-49.
The network hired former Cartoon Network executive Betty Cohen as its president last year, replacing Carole Black. Cohen then brought in Daniels, a former WB programmer.
The absence of an entertainment president for many months was apparent on the air, said Simon Applebaum, editor at large for CableWorld magazine. Until the debut of “Cheerleader Nation” earlier this month, Lifetime’s schedule had only one original series (“Missing”). The drama “Strong Medicine” ended its six-year run on Super Bowl Sunday.
Lifetime’s strength has long been its original movies, often lampooned as the TV equivalent of trashy beach novels. The emphasis will continue, with production being ramped up from under 60 to 80 movies a year, Daniels said. “Human Trafficking,” which received much attention last year, is an example of how Lifetime is trying to broaden the franchise.
But Daniels also saw the need to bring on new series as quickly as possible.
“Cheerleader Nation,” a 10-week reality series on a championship team from Lexington, proved highly relatable. Cheerleaders are icons; many people either were one, dated them or hated them. By also focusing on the cheerleaders’ equally intense stage moms, the series has something women of different ages can identify with, Daniels said.
That’s the whole idea for Lifetime: get younger but don’t alienate the audience that is already there.
“Lovespring,” the next new series due in June, is an improvisational comedy produced by Eric McCormack of “Will & Grace” focusing on the weirdos running a high-end dating service. “Angela’s Eyes” starts in July, starring Abigail Spencer of “All My Children” as an FBI agent whose mindreading skills complicate her social life.
Lifetime is also developing reality series with James Carville and Mary Matalin running campaigns for high school student body president; about the work of a Hollywood pet agency; about reuniting old enemies; and having eligible women try to guess if they are being wooed by a gay, straight or married man.
The network is also working on movies about Barrino’s life and karaoke queens, along with scripted series about a divorced 40-year-old passing herself off as 28 and a company that tries to “put the fun back into funerals.”
“You name the genre,” Daniels said, “I’m developing something in it.”
Lifetime will soon begin airing reruns of “Medium” and promises to be more aggressive in the syndication market. Conservatism here has hurt, too: TBS would disagree, but is there a better place for “Sex and the City”? Look for Lifetime to join a bidding war for “Desperate Housewives.”
Daniels wants to get the juices flowing at Lifetime, to let show producers know there’s a potential new destination for their work.
“The goal is a hit show,” she said. “You never know where it’s going to come from or what it’s going to be ... You have to try different things that sound like they could be appealing and fun and interesting. I don’t only want to go for the one-hour dramas that Lifetime has been known for ... I want to look for hits in all the right and wrong places.”
At a dinner party recently, a male friend came up to Daniels and whispered that he really liked Lifetime’s movie, “Murder in the Hamptons.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to whisper!” she told him.
It’s an attitude she’s trying to change. The network has replaced its logo from one in script to another in block letters, to look less feminine. Lifetime’s slogan is no longer “television for women,” it’s “find your own story.”
About three-quarters of Lifetime’s audience is women and no one expects that to change; but why do things to actively drive boyfriends and husbands away?
Lifetime still has a big distribution advantage over competitors Oxygen and WE. But with edgier material, those networks are making some inroads; Daniels isn’t concerned about who might be gaining on Lifetime.
“When I’m looking at the competition, I’m looking at USA, TNT and TBS,” she said. “I’m not really looking at Oxygen and WE.
Some of Lifetime’s moves appeared to impress ad buyers who watched last week’s sales presentation. “Lovespring” looked promising, said Kristy Ruiz of Mindshare. “They’re definitely trying to develop more of a mother-daughter kind of relationship,” added Larissa DeLeon of Initiative Media.
“They’re off the dime,” Applebaum said. “There’s no lack of point-person anymore. The era of Betty Cohen and Susanne Daniels is on, and it’s up to them to deliver the goods.”