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Lifetime Adding More Movies, Hoping for Lift

Stripped of its No. 1 crown in primetime, Lifetime Television is turning to the franchise that helped define it — original movies — to lift its viewership, which has declined in the past year.

This season, Lifetime is not only expanding its original-movie slate by 50%, to 19 from 12, but its forging ahead with its first original miniseries, officials said at the network’s upfront presentation here last week.

“We’re going to have almost two [new] movies a month,” said Rick Haskins, executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Original movies, initially heavy on the “women in jeopardy” genre, have traditionally been Lifetime’s strong suit in the ratings, with films in general acting as a staple of its weeknight primetime lineup.

“Talk to a Lifetime viewer, and when you say Lifetime, the first thing they go to, with 85% of responses, they say movies,” Haskins said. “Our consumer has always loved our movies. We think that it’s a very, very strong platform for us, and we want to focus in on the movie business.”

Lifetime’s plan to increase movie production comes as the ratings for several of the network’s veteran original series are starting to erode.

After roughly two years at No. 1 in the primetime cable ratings, under the tenure of then-newcomer president Carole Black, the women’s network about a year ago was supplanted by Turner Network Television.

“We’re confident the network is going to recover,” said Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Entertainment. “They have proven a niche network can reach a very broad audience.”

Lifetime was hurt by last year’s flood of successful female-skewing reality shows, such as Joe Millionaire, as well as the unprecedented ratings success of the two Law & Order franchises airing in heavy rotation on TNT and USA Network, according to Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.

Most recently, Lifetime posted a 1.5 rating in the first quarter, a 12% decrease from a year ago, according to an ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research. It ranked behind No. 1 TNT and USA, as well as Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and TBS Superstation.

Lifetime’s original movies have the highest average household rating this year in that category, a 3.1, and are tops in the key women’s demographics. The women’s network also has three of the top-five original movies in 2004 so far, according to network officials.

“When we run an original [movie], we run it at 8 [p.m.] and 10 the night of the premiere,” Haskins said. “That’s going to help us substantially.”

In fact, the original-movie franchise has historically been so strong that Lifetime spun off Lifetime Movie Network, a stand-alone network for the genre. It is now in 41.7 million homes, and tallied a 0.6 rating in the first quarter, up 20% from a year ago.

Lifetime’s first miniseries, from Hallmark Entertainment, will address the issue of sex trafficking, in which women and children are abducted and forced into domestic servitude and prostitution.

A new Lifetime movie, Infidelity, premieres tonight.

Lifetime will still depend a great deal on its original scripted series: It has more on the air, four, than any other basic-cable network. But the channel won’t bow any new dramas this year.

It declined to green-light two pilots it commissioned — Class Action and The Coven — and opted to bring back Wild Card and 1-800-Missing for a second season. Strong Medicine and The Division will also return.

“When we did those pilots, we had no idea how successful Wild Card and Missing would be,” Haskins said. “We always need to plan for success, but prepare for failure.

“With four dramas returning, there just wasn’t a place on our schedule for additional dramas.”

Ratings for some of Lifetime’s older dramas are down. This year, for example, The Division is averaging a 2.0, compared with the 2.4 to 2.5 it’s done in the past, said Brooks.

Nonetheless, these series are still performing strongly for a cable network, at a 2.0 or greater.

“I love my 2.3 and 2.4 that I got on them last Sunday,” Haskins said. “If that’s losing steam, I’ll take that.”

Lifetime, which will spend $800 million for programming last year and this year, is creating a Friday-night reality block anchored by a U.S. version of How Clean Is Your House, from FremantleMedia North America, the producers of American Idol.

How Clean Is Your House, which debuts this fall, is based on the British series of the same name and has the same hosts — a picky pair who give homes a cleaning makeover.

Sararuth Delice, senior research analyst at Carat USA Inc., called Lifetime’s movie-franchise expansion a strategic move.

“Lifetime movies usually score well with viewers and they have a second life on LMN,” she said. “The network also announced, with the help of Warner Bros., they will be distributing their movies on DVD. All around, it was smart decision-making. The investment in quality movie-making will be presented on three different platforms.”

Delice also likes that Lifetime isn’t “rushing out product for the sake of having new programs.”

“They took the chance to highlight their signature shows,” she said. “I find this commendable in an environment that is fraught with instability.”