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Lifelines for Lifetime

NOW THAT History’s Nancy Dubuc has officially added Lifetime Networks to her AETN portfolio—ending the lame-duck tenure of Andrea Wong—Dubuc can set to work polishing the women’s brand.

And she has her work cut out for her. Although Lifetime was ad-supported cable’s No. 1 network in total viewers as recently as 2002, it has tumbled precipitously, barely cracking cable’s top 20 in 2009 and shedding 20% of its primetime audience year-to-year.

Women are the biggest consumer group in the country, and the network has built a brand reaching the average woman. That approach now seems retro, and the queen of women’s brands has lost some of its luster in a fractured femme milieu. The lack of buzz in a crowded market has made the network less of a given ad buy.

“Trying to get out the easy way by buying Lifetime because your target is women 18-49, that’s so 2000,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. (AETN is a Horizon client.) “The number of channels has doubled since then.” And Oprah Winfrey’s OWN is on the way.

At History, Dubuc turned a solid brand into a vibrant one. The consensus on her in the industry is that her best attributes are her programming acumen and unwavering confidence. Here are the five most important ways Dubuc can put Lifetime back on top.

1. Define the brand. As the media landscape continues to fracture, clear branding becomes more important. Viewers may be increasingly DVR-addicted by broadcast primetime, but cable, where repeat marathons are scheduling staples, is a different model. Brand matters, and establishing flow across that schedule keeps viewers hooked.

2. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Lifetime needs to be relentless in its efforts to drive No. 1 home, using every available platform—especially mobile and social networking. Take a page from Lauren Zalaznick; know who you are and evangelize. If you can coin a new mantra—say, “affluencers”—even better.

3. Earn your CPMs. Smaller women’s networks are making inroads by touting targeted buys over totals. WE TV has cornered the wedding market. The Bad Girls Club at Oxygen embodies the “Generation O” mantra “Live Out Loud.” Lifetime must offer new proof points about why marketers should invest in its broader package.

4. Be your own woman.
The Project Runway debacle was costly and damaging. But it can also be a teachable moment: Don’t poach any more franchises from other networks. Programming discipline is paramount. Are you the network of Army Wives? (Cue Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”) Or of Drop Dead Diva? (I am plus-size, get over it.) Pick a direction and develop to the hilt. An original series that hits the Zeitgeist bull’s-eye can do wonders. Just ask AMC.

5. Retire the “woman-in-peril” mantle. It’s time. Granted, some of those movies generate significant ratings for the flagship network, but they fit best on Lifetime Movie Network, where many have migrated. “This is really stuff to fold your laundry by,” says Elizabeth Mehren, a media professor at Boston University. “But who folds laundry anymore?”