Midlife Crisis

She's a career woman at the top of her form. She has soared past the men, eclipsing them with her sheer bravado. But lately, her work has lost its edge. Time for some soul-searching and a makeover. Sound like a Lifetime woman-in-trouble flick? It is. The channel's rise and fall in cable stardom could double as one of its original movies.

Job one: Reinvigorate the brand. When Lifetime was on top—the most-watched cable network in 2001 and 2002—life was grand. Now the celebrations, like the ratings, have cooled. "They have a loyal audience, but their audience has seen everything," observes one veteran programmer. Season-to-date, audiences are off 7% among women 18-49 and 13% among women 25-54; women 18-34 were down but started to turn around in recent weeks.

The challenge for Lifetime is to keep its core but attract new viewers. How will it get its buzz back? Fade to Black.

CEO Carole Black is the architect of Lifetime's rise. A former Buena Vista and KNBC executive, she faces the daunting prospect of finding something for everyone. Armed with $800 million for programming through 2006, she has laid out her battle plan: variety. More theatrical movies, like The Hours
and Love Actually, and fewer movie-of-the-week tearjerkers. More sitcoms, such as freshly acquired Frasier, slated for 2006, and Will & Grace, set to arrive in the fall, and more original reality shows and dramas.

That these changes work is critical.

Black has to combat a key concern: Some Lifetime viewers, a fanatically loyal bunch, are defecting, tempted by Law & Order
on TNT and Law & Order: SVU
on USA Network. Both channels are enjoying growth across women's demos, particularly the older end. By contrast, Lifetime is missing that marquee acquired drama, having lost CSI: Miami
to A&E and Without a Trace
to TNT. One upcoming contender is Cold Case, a procedural drama with a strong female lead, but industry execs expect the estimated $1.5 million an episode to be too rich for Lifetime. NBC's whimsical and romantic relationship drama Ed, coming to market soon, could be a less expensive option.

"They have a few learning curves to overcome," admits Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Entertainment Media. More original dramas and acquired series, she says, would add viewers. Leading that charge are Lifetime General Manager Rick Haskins and programming chief Barbara Fisher. Haskins, a marketing vet, is painstakingly examining Lifetime's schedule. The goal, he says, is finding "the best possible way to bring in the most women."

Anchoring Lifetime are established hits Strong Medicine
and The Division, firmly ensconced on Sundays. Golden Girls
grabs ratings wherever it airs. But weekday prime time needs work. Last spring, tired Unsolved Mysteries
was axed from the 8 p.m. slot, replaced by movies. Then, in November, The Nanny
moved in, an arrival that was widely popular with younger viewers but snubbed by older ones.

On the scripted side, Fisher, in her second development season, is playing with two new drama pilots: The Coven, about suburban witches, and Class Action, with a hotshot lawyer who moves to teach at a small college. One or both could be picked up in time for summer.

Fisher's team is ratcheting up original movies, too, working toward scheduling two in some months. Lifetime is also getting back into original miniseries, emphasis on broad-based appeal. "We try to take a multigenerational approach where we can," Fisher says.

Going forward, Lifetime's newest originals might have to carry a heavier load. Freshman dramas 1-800-Missing
and Wild Card, both recently renewed, might move from Saturday nights to a weeknight. Reality shows Merge, a Trading Spaces
knockoff, and Head to Toe, a makeover show, could be ready for prime time. So could upcoming home-makeover show How Clean Is Your House?, from American Idol
producer FremantleMedia.

However, Lifetime has been cautious with its reality. Rather than plunk these shows in prime and watch them flail, the network has sheltered its reality in late night and weekends. "We let the audience find them," Haskins explains. "Once the shows find their legs, we look at different options."

Despite Lifetime's softness, the network is still tops with media buyers looking to reach women. "When you need a 60% female skew on a product," says one top agency buyer, "you can't really do that without buying Lifetime."

In fact, no one disputes the power of Lifetime's brand. It's like a big sister, powerful yet empathetic. Lifetime's advocacy efforts on women's issues, such as domestic violence and breast cancer, reinforce that message. "Our mission is to entertain, inform, and support women. None of that has changed," says Black. "These are small adjustments along the way, not major shifts."

For all the changes, Lifetime still knows how to treat its ladies (and men). It turns 20 in May, and Black is planning to celebrate with staffers at a chic restaurant. "It's something to make them feel on the top of the world," she says.

Now all they need to do is really get there.