After six years building Lifetime Entertainment Services into a powerful brand, a public-service champion and a former primetime-ratings leader, CEO Carole Black is leaving when her contract expires in March.
Black said she told network co-owners The Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp. about two weeks ago she wanted to take “personal time” and escape the commute between New York and her Los Angeles home.
“It’s about someday,” she said. “Like, someday I’ll go to Italy and have the time to learn the language. It’s been the most wonderful journey, but there really is no place like home.”
Over the summer, Lifetime dismissed as inaccurate rumors that Black would leave at the end of her contract. Similar rumors had cropped up before Black signed her current pact.
Industry executives last week said six years was an unusually long run for such a high-profile network CEO.
Disney ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney and Hearst Corp. director John Conomikes will lead the search. Sweeney said Lifetime’s board will interview internal and external candidates, “but we’re not leaning any which way.”
Internally, sources pegged executive vice president and general manager Lynn Picard as an early favorite, with executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime Entertainment Rick Haskins also in the hunt. Neither could be reached for comment at press time.
Some stories called former Lifetime programming chief and current UPN president Dawn Ostroff a candidate, but a UPN spokesman said that was “inaccurate.”
Black won’t rule out a return to the cable spotlight, after some down time: “I think it works to take a break, but if something comes about that I feel very passionate about, then it could be enticing enough to do something again.”
While she was CEO, Lifetime became the No.1 brand in women’s television. The former Disney and KNBC-TV Los Angeles executive also managed the successful spin-offs of Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women, now in 43 million and 4 million homes, respectively.
“I was brought in to build the brand, and that’s what we’ve been able to do,” she said. “We set out to entertain, inform and support women in ways that are relevant to their lives, and I feel the group has done that.”
Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said Lifetime is still the primary cable outlet for advertisers seeking female viewers.
“They have a very strong, recognizable brand, and they have been reasonably successful in expanding that brand in their spinoff channels,” he said. “If you think cable and you think women, you think Lifetime.”
Led by its first major original-series hit, Any Day Now, Lifetime followed with Strong Medicine and The Division, in creating a Sunday-night destination with some of the highest-rated original series on cable for years.
An aggressive original programming slate — combined with fall-offs at general-entertainment channels Turner Network Television and USA Network — helped propel Lifetime to the top of the primetime household ratings list in 2001 and 2002.
But those Nielsen fortunes started to slip in 2003. Lifetime finished the third quarter of 2004 down 17%, to a 1.6 primetime rating, versus the same period a year ago.
Black said Lifetime has righted itself in recent months. She pointed to a Monday-night movie block that has served to boost ratings for that night by 80% among women 18 to 34.
In October, Lifetime matched the previous year’s 1.6 primetime mark
“We came up with a strategy on how to stabilize the numbers and I think, in a relatively quick fashion, we were able to grow again,” she said
Industry observers lauded Black for tireless efforts on behalf of women’s legal rights and health concerns.
“Her profound contributions to women and women’s issues will be felt for years to come,” Oxygen Media Chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne said.
This year, Lifetime worked with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to get Congress to pass legislation to eliminate the backlog of untested DNA evidence and help put thousands of rapists behind bars.
“What we’ve done in advocacy, I think, has been critical to women and their families,” Black said.
Black was chosen several months ago as HIV and AIDS advocacy organization Cable Positive’s honoree at the annual benefit dinner next May in New York.
“She represents in everyone’s minds what you can do with the power and influence of this industry in doing some good,” Cable Positive CEO Steve Villano said. “Whether it’s on the issue of violence against women or breast cancer or HIV and AIDS — which has now become a significant women’s-health issue — Lifetime has always been there, and Carole has always been out front.”
He also praised her as a leader “who so inspires people who work with her.”