Lifetime: Readies New Shows, Touts Niche Audience Reach

To inject some oxygen into its sagging ratings, Lifetime is going back to basics--trying to create more compelling programming. En route, the female-targeted network says it is raising its development budget by 31%, although it declined to cite any hard figures.

A would-be foundation launches this summer with a Sunday three-hour drama block--"Army Wives," about spouses left behind in wartime; "Side Order of Life," about a magazine photographer in the midst of life-changing event; and "State of Mind," about a therapist who struggles with her own issues. The announcement came during an upfront event Tuesday before a packed house in New York.

However, in advance of the upfront, advertisers appear primed to press for evidence that their spots are not only run, but resonate. To that end, Lifetime said it will launch "live hosted interactive gaming interstitials," allowing "viewers to engage with advertisers on a deeper level." Lifetime will continue to diversify its revenue streams with a re-launch of in June. New mobile and VOD initiatives are also teed up.



Still, the focus Tuesday was the proposed new shows. Lifetime entertainment president Susanne Daniels touted niche programming and said with its female target, Lifetime reaches "the largest niche there is," with women making up 51% of the population. (The catch: if a large portion of the audience is 50-plus, that may or may not be a positive.)

The success of "Army Wives" with Kim Delaney ("NYPD Blue") and "Side Order" with Jason Priestley ("Beverly Hills, 90210") partly hinges on the pair resuscitating their careers. ("Wives" also has Catherine Bell, who had a long run on "JAG"). "State of Mind" is from the executive producers of TNT's smash "The Closer," a show that Lifetime's Daniels memorably praised in a Wall Street Journal article.

On the development slate and likely scheduled during the broadcast September-May season are dramas "Burnt Toast," which is adapted from "Desperate Housewife" Teri Hatcher's memoir; and "Mile High," which continues the run of programs with British roots. It focuses on the cabin crew at a fledgling airline.

In the reality genre, coming series include "How to Look Good Naked" (another show with British roots) where Carson Kressley of "Queer Eye" helps women of all shapes and sizes look good unclothed, and "Going for Broke," where four debt-laden women compete to have their debt eradicated. The latter is produced by Reveille, a hot production house headed by Ben Silverman, which has a first-look deal with NBC. Lifetime says it made its arrangement on the show before the NBC deal was made.

The Lifetime network (the company also operates Lifetime Movie Network) has hit some bumps in the road recently. Prime-time ratings in its target female 18-to-49 demo are down 9% this broadcast season to an average 425,000.

Its prime-time median age has also climbed over the same period (September through April 8) to 52.2--up from 51.6 at the same point a season ago. Lifetime, however, says the tide is turning, and the median age this month has dropped to 49 from 52 in April 2006. Still, 49 is at the ceiling of its 18-to-49 sweet spot.

Revenues have taken a hit, too, according to TNS Media Intelligence, which shows ad revenues in 2006 declining by 7% to $769 million. To illustrate how difficult it is to get exact figures on network revenues, Lifetime cited figures from Kagan showing that its 2006 ad revenues were $537 million, which are projected to grow to $582 million in 2007.

Network officials were also stung by a cover story in Broadcasting & Cable that charged: "Lifetime is a network in peril." Among the reasons it noted were "fundamental programming misfires and weak marketing." The trade magazine also characterized CEO Betty Cohen as distant and "often MIA around the office." (Cohen appeared confident and ebullient at the event Tuesday, and said the network has momentum on all fronts.)

At the same time, the B&C article said Lifetime's ad sales business remains strong under the leadership of Lynn Picard. On Tuesday, the highly regarded Picard told the roomful of advertisers that working together and linking with the Lifetime equity give the network a leg up in the coming upfront. "It's critical to partner with a brand that's a proven winner, and Lifetime is that brand," she said.

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