History Will Judge WNBA on Lifetime

To the Editor:

It has been said, "Journalism is the first draft of history." If Linda Haugsted's interesting [July 8] story, "Sports Isn't Just for Sports Nets," will one day be part of the history of women's sports on television, please allow a witness to that history to provide some further context.

I was struck, by the caption of the photo of Women's National Basketball Association's Nicky McGrimmon that read, "The WNBA didn't fare well on Lifetime." At the conclusion of the first WNBA season in 1997, Lifetime Television registered a 0.5 household rating, while ESPN scored a 0.8. By the end of the third season in 1999, Lifetime had a 0.6 and ESPN a 0.7. So it was certainly keeping up with the pace on basic cable.

Was this below Lifetime's normal primetime average? Absolutely. Still, the ratings were in keeping with Lifetime's projections. The games aired on Friday nights in the summer — the second lowest level of HUTS [homes using television] during the week. Our hope is that by the end of the six-year contract, we can build to a 0.8.

Everyone in TV would like a high rating, but the then management team agreed that the WNBA was not just about ratings. The reasons to air the games were threefold: 1) to partner with one of the leading marketers in the world, the National Basketball Association; 2) to create affiliate opportunities in WNBA cities for cable operators; 3) to reach an audience that traditionally did not watch Lifetime.

In the body of the story there is a statement that Lifetime "proved that sports are not a cure all." No one from the WNBA, the NBA or Lifetime approached it as such. Nor did anyone from the FIFA World Cup, the Women's Sports Foundation, National Collegiate Athletics Association, National Football League, Ladies Professional Golf Association, USA Hockey or any of the other sports organizations that were featured in Lifetime Sports programs.

In the mid-1990s, the women's sports movement was, well, on the move, empowering young women across the country. Lifetime tried to present a small glimpse of that phenomenon to its viewers. Of the 6,552 hours of programming Lifetime offered in 1999, a total of 54 hours were devoted to live sports events, specials, a magazine series and vignettes.

Lifetime researcher and TV historian Tim Brooks stated, "Viewers want sports in logical places." In 1996, Lifetime was the logical place for women's sports. There was no WE: Women's Entertainment. There was no Oxygen. There was only one women's network and the management team in place decided if Lifetime was to cast itself as "Television for Women" that should mean something to all women — including those who enjoyed sports.

There is no right or wrong strategy for sports airing on any network. It is up to the management to assess a package, look at a property's strengths and weaknesses and then put those strengths and weaknesses up against that network's overall goals. That very little sports programming now airs on Lifetime must have come from an examination of sports in the light of the network's current goals.

This is just the course of the television business. NBC took this approach when it passed on the NFL in 1998. Earlier this year, ABC and ESPN did the same when the two entities jointly secured the rights to the NBA.

Did sports programming in general and the WNBA in particular not succeed on Lifetime? Like so much of the study of our times, which journalism is such a vital contributor to, it depends on which point in history one is focusing on and what are the perspectives of the participants.


Brian Donlon

Brian Donlon is the vice president and general manager of iVillage Television and former vice president of Lifetime Sports and executive producer of WNBA on Lifetime.