Cable TV Upfronts 2009: Runway Comes Out Of 'The Ether'


Complete Cable TV Upfronts 2009 Coverage From Multichannel News

With the legal wrangling over Project Runway resolved in Lifetime's favor, the network can now get down to the business of polishing the brand and building on the buzz already generated by the saga of the top-rated cable reality show.

"We all know that some things in life are worth waiting for," said Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime Networks at the network's upfront presentation to reporters here Tuesday. "For everyone at the Lifetime and for our viewers, Project Runway was certainly at the top of that list."

Tim Gunn, Runway's irrepressible den father, said that he was "thrilled" that the show had "finally come out of the ether." Producer Desiree Gruber does not think that Runway's protracted hiatus will hurt the show. Rather, she said, the media attention generated by the lawsuit has put the show on the radar. "I think it will actually help us," she said.

Wong added that true to form, Runway was arriving "fashionably late."

But better than not all as Wong is now tasked with fulfilling the promise of making Lifetime a little hipper without alienating its still considerable Nora Roberts movie-of-the-week demo.

Lifetime's mission, according to the network's tag line is to "celebrate, entertain and support women." JoAnn Alfano, the network's executive vice president of entertainment, said Lifetime Networks' task is serve a "broad palette" of women with a robust slate of new scripted and unscripted programming and tent-pole movie events on Lifetime and the Lifetime Movie Network. (LMN recently had its most-watched movie premiere in its 11-year history with the Natalee Holloway movie.)

It was the logical counterpoint to the rhetoric at Oxygen's upfront last week, where the focus at the smaller network was on hyper targeting and granular psychographic data. At Lifetime, a much bigger network with more original programming and varied constituencies to serve, the trick is to remain the "destination for women" while bringing new, younger viewers into the tent.

Certainly, Lifetime executives are hoping that Project Runway can be their magic bullet. The reality hit returns Aug. 20 at 10 p.m. followed by the premiere of unscripted spin-off Models of the Runway. The finale of the Los Angeles-set season of Runway was filmed last February during New York's Fashion Week. Next season, Runway will return to New York, according to Wong.

Unscripted series in development include docudramas about a (male) lawyer who chases down deadbeat dads and four couples with triplets who all live in the same New Jersey town; a competition series that pits couples and their future in-laws in a contest to win various wedding-related prizes. And, breaking from form, the network is also developing a documentary series. Each hour installment of Real Women/Real Lives, which is thankfully a working title, follows multiple women grappling with the same issue. The pilot deals with infertility.

Lifetime is looking to capitalize on the success of original drama Army Wives, which returns for its third season Sunday, June 7 at 10 p.m. The network has already picked up a fourth season of the show, which is the top-rated original drama on cable among women 18 to 49. New drama Drop Dead Diva, about a shallow but beautiful woman who has a fatal car accident and wakes up in the body of a plus-sized lawyer, comes to Sunday nights beginning July 12 at 9 p.m.

"We believe that Drop Dead Diva is a series that can really break through and broaden our brand," said Alfano.

Dramas in development include series adaptations of feature films Mona Lisa Smile and Mystic Pizza; an adaptation of author T. Jefferson Parker's The Fallen, about a female detective with a sixth sense; Marry Me, a limited-run anthology series that covers one couple's courtship and marriage; and an adaptation of the British series Murder in Suburbia.

A second season of original comedy Rita Rocks bows in the fall. The network already airs off-net reruns of How I Met Your Mother and is working to beef up its comedy slate with three new sitcoms in development: a Sherrie Shepherd show; a laugher starring Valerie Bertinelli as a newly single mother raising teenagers and running her late husband's hardware business; and Alligator Point, which Alfano described as "Cheers in a Southern Oyster bar." Kelsey Grammer is a producer and also directed the pilot; Cybill Shepherd stars.

The Georgia O'Keeffe biopic starring Joan Allen in the title role with Jeremy Irons as O'Keefe's long-time lover, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, premieres Sept. 19.

Allen and Irons were in attendance at the upfront. Allen is also the executive producer on the project, which was originally optioned by HBO. The pay cabler relinquished the rights and Allen brought the project to Lifetime. She said she was grateful to HBO for giving her the rights back and to Lifetime for a quick turn-around.

"It's a tough market for making movies," said Allen. "It's a tough market for making movie about women of a certain stature."

Georgia O'Keeffe gave the production permission to film at Ghost Ranch, her former home in New Mexico. O'Keeffe also "endorsed us as being historically accurate," said Allen, "which means a great deal to all of us."

Irons quipped: "Despite my disappointment at not being involved in Project Runway, I am very happy to be involved in this."