Betting That Reality Shows Beat Fiction

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Fifteen months into the job as entertainment president at Lifetime, Susanne Daniels is still looking to put her mark on the 91 million subscriber network. Despite lackluster ratings for the distaff-targeted network this year (the network's prime time rating for 2006 to date is 1.1, down 15% from 1.3 in 2005), Daniels is optimistic fortunes will turn around in 2007 with a mix of originally produced scripted, reality and movie product. Daniels talked to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the year that was and what to expect from the network in 2007.

MCN: Are you satisfied with how the network has performed since your arrival?

Susanne Daniels: No, I'm not satisfied with it. I have big goals and big ambitions. I'm competitive, and I would like to see Lifetime do even better than it's doing, because I know we can. We had a hard year, but we're going to bounce back. I do believe, as I did when I joined the company, that this network has enormous potential. But it takes time. We have some new programming that's going to help us do that.

MCN: Up to this point, Lifetime has built its strength on original movies and scripted series. Will you continue to follow that template in 2007?

SD: What Lifetime didn't build itself on, which we have currently on the network and will have more upcoming that is fun and different, is reality television. I love reality programming. Truth is stranger than fiction. I know women are watching [reality programming] in droves and I'm hoping they'll come to Lifetime for our Lifetime versions of them.

We're very excited about the [psychic-based show Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead] that we have on the air. And then, in January, we have a reality dating-game show called Gay, Straight or Taken, where a woman has to figure out which of three men she's dated is gay, straight or taken, though a series of fun event schemes.

We also have a new [scripted] series that we're launching in late March tentatively titled Army Wives. I feel like that point of view from an army base, which is essentially a lower-middle-class world, isn't seen anywhere on TV. Nor is how the spouses of the people who join the army and have families survive.

MCN: So do you foresee offering more reality programming on Lifetime than scripted series going forward?

SD: We actually have a lot of both in development and I'm equally excited about it all. I can see as much reality programming as scripted programming on the air. We're piloting a new reality series next week which I love, called Hello, Goodbye, which is set at an airport. It's basically the comings and goings of people at an airport, but it's very emotional and is something that will appeal to women.

I am very taken by reality programming. For whatever reason, I feel reality programming takes more chances with exploring different kinds of formats than scripted programming. It's harder to take chances and break with scripted series than it is with reality.

MCN: I also assume reality television brings a younger audience than scripted series.

SD: That's one of our goals. I'm not aiming at teens like I did at The WB, but I would like it to be around 39. [The median age of Lifetime viewers now is 49.]

MCN: Lifetime recently cancelled two scripted series that debuted this summer, Lovespring International and Angela's Eyes. Why didn't those shows meet your expectations?

SD:Lovespring was a matter of it not being the right time and place. We just didn't have the right schedule to offer Lovespring the best support at Lifetime. I hope it goes on to have a life somewhere else.

As for Angela's Eyes, we really needed to have original scripted programming badly on this network, and so we went straight to series — we didn't have the chance to go through the normal pilot process. At the end of the day, we were left trying to do what we could to develop a show that was already in production and moving forward at rapid pace. I think the project suffered creatively from the speed at which we all moved forward to get it done.

MCN: How important a role will movies play in the overall development of Lifetime's schedule going forward?

SD: In 2007, you'll probably see us make close to 65 original movies. I think that they remain important, but we're continuing to look at what drives viewers and what's most important to our viewers. I think movies will always have a place on Lifetime but they may have a more important place in the future on Lifetime Movie Network. We'll see how that evolves.

MCN: Lifetime has also been very aggressive acquiring off-network series like Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Medium. Will you continue to remain aggressive buyers in the syndication market?

SD: Acquisitions will always be a mainstay for cable networks. If that were to change, that would radically change the [broadcast] network business, as well, because [their shows] wouldn't have a second window for sale.

MCN: Will Lifetime become more aggressive in offering programming to alternative platforms such as video on demand and the Internet?

SD: We are being as aggressive as possible in this environment with ancillary businesses relating to the digital world and VOD.

But we're limited by the fact that everyone in the business is wary of making these deals and carving out what they feel are fair and equitable agreements because the potential is unknown.

Garnering these rights as cable networks is not a simple equation, and that has limited us. We'd like to be more aggressive than we've been.

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