Broadcast's Departing Soaps, Oprah Give Women's Cable Nets an Opening

Cable networks targeted at women are counting the days until the upfront begins. Upstarts in the category are hitting pay dirt with new shows like WEtv's Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? and Oxygen's Tori & Dean. The ad market for women's programming on cable is strong, with no signs of a letup. And broadcast networks are helping cable's cause by jettisoning programs that women have loved for generations.

Earlier this month, ABC canceled the soaps All My Children and One Life to Live, which followed CBS' killing off last fall of As the World Turns. And talk show diva Oprah Winfrey is departing broadcast syndication after more than two decades of ratings dominance. Not surprisingly, the female-targeted cable networks believe they have an opportunity to grab a greater share of ad dollars in the 2011 upfront, as the supply of gross rating points in the demo on broadcast continues to dwindle.
"The upcoming cancellation of those soaps are going to take a lot of ratings points out of the market," says Dave Cassaro, president, cable advertising sales, NBCUniversal, which owns Oxygen (along with other networks including USA, Bravo and SyFy). That translates to a lot of ad money, particularly in the package goods category being freed up and "looking for new homes," he says.

The good news for media buyers is that upstarts and established players alike in the sector are investing heavily in new programming in bids to kindle growth. Rainbow's WEtv, for example, was up about 15% in rating in the first quarter, with contributions from new originals including Joan & Melissa and acquired off-network programs like Charmed. "We're definitely increasing our development in WEtv," says Scott Collins, executive VP for ad sales, AMC, WEtv and Wedding Central. And the tightening of gross rating points supply on the broadcast side of the business is "clearly an additional opportunity for dollars," Collins adds.

Oxygen, in addition to acquiring off-network rights to Fox's hit primetime series, Glee, is also developing a companion original show called The Glee Project.

Another new competitor in the women's genre debuted earlier this year: OWN, the joint-venture network from Oprah Winfrey and Discovery. Ratings have been tepid so far, but as Gary Carr, senior VP and executive director of national broadcast for TargetCast, notes: "Oxygen started very slow, with a lot of boring talking-head stuff. Then it started putting on shows like Bad Girls Club and became sort of a pop-culture channel for younger women. Now it's found its niche."

Niches are important in women's programming, and Collins says WEtv thinks it has come upon a keeper. "We've just rebranded the network with the tagline "Life as WE Know It," he says, adding, "with a brand lens of family."

Meanwhile, buyers say, the 27-year old Lifetime seems a bit fatigued. "It's showing some signs of age," says Don Seaman, VP/director of communications analysis at MPG. The network "definitely needs to bulk up on development," Seaman adds.

Lifetime executives say they are on the case. "We're pretty bullish that we can pick up and resume growth," says Mel

Berning, executive VP of national ad sales for Arts & Entertainment Television Networks, which acquired Lifetime in 2009.

Berning says that the company is giving Lifetime a makeover not dissimilar from the ones it previously gave flagship network A&E and History. "It still is recognized as a powerful brand for women," Berning says of LIfetime. Efforts are underway, he adds, to attract not just more viewers, but a "more energetic, enthusiastic and engaged audience."

Bulking up on program development is the first step Lifetime is taking to reinvigorate its offering. "We're doubling up on dramas from two to four," Berning says. More and better reality shows are also being planned, and the same goes for movies. "We're restocking the cupboard," he says. After that, the on-air look will be addressed, as well as promotional elements like taglines and logos. "The first priority is getting the programming engine going, and that is where we are right now," Berning says.

While there's work to be done, Berning says ad sales remain healthy at the network, with scatter rates of 20-25% above last year's upfront. "All the signs point to a stronger economy, and we think the upfront will be very strong-even better than last year's, which was pretty good," Berning says.