Betty Cohen, the newly named president and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services, was first approached about the job at roughly the end of February by her former Nickelodeon colleague, Anne Sweeney.
“We stayed in touch over the years, and I’ve just always been so proud of what she’s done,” Cohen said of Sweeney, who is now co-chairman of The Walt Disney Co.’s Media Networks unit. “And I guess she’s been impressed with what I’ve done.”
Cohen, the founder and ex-president of Cartoon Network, was the surprise choice to fill Carole Black’s open slot after a nearly five-month search by Lifetime’s owners, Disney and Hearst Corp. Black announced back in November that she would leave at the end of her contract, in March, to take some time off.
Cohen, a 14-year veteran of Turner Broadcasting System Inc., said she’s eager to tackle the task of serving the complex female audience — and turning up signature hits for the veteran women’s network.
Cohen flew to Lifetime’s Manhattan headquarters Thursday night to start meeting staff, which she also did Friday before heading to the National Show in San Francisco. She’ll then swing south to stop by Lifetime’s Los Angeles office.
Cohen, who is relocating to New York from Atlanta, lauded Lifetime for its success with its original movie franchise.
“It struck me that Lifetime has a very solid foundation with their movies, but probably would like to be looking at what else can they do,” she said.
But hit series have been important in terms brand-building, she said — which has been Cohen’s strong suit.
“There’s no question that signature hits have defined and driven cable networks,” she said. “Movies say a certain amount about Lifetime and have attracted a strong audience, and I think we’re going to want to preserve that.
“But there’s a great interest here in both acquiring and developing series as well. Series are important for every network, not only in defining their identity, but they’re how you build habit viewing, too.”
At Turner, before overseeing the launch of the all-animation Cartoon Network, Cohen served as senior vice president and general manager of Turner Network Television. She joined Turner from a stint at Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite.
She left Cartoon in 2001 for parent AOL Time Warner Inc., developing multiplatform services aimed at teens and young adults.
“The whole reason I left Cartoon Network in the first place is I didn’t want to die the queen of cartoons,” Cohen said.
She exited AOL Time Warner in September 2002 to start her own consulting company.
Cohen, who actually worked at Lifetime in on-air promotion in the early 1980s, finds it ironic that she’s back at the women’s network, in light of what happened at last year’s National Show in New Orleans.
During a party on Paul Allen’s yacht, Cohen said she chatted with Black about leaving an executive job to take some time off, something that Black — like Cohen — had done before, and is doing now.
“We ended up talking about the value and the perspective and the self -confidence and security that you get from stepping back,” Cohen said. “I’m finding it just such a funny twist of fate that a year later, she is taking a break and I am ramping back up again. … That was a very special conversation, and a just funny and ironic one in light of what’s happened just one year later.”
One of Cohen’s top priorities is to decide who will permanently fill the vacant top programmer slot at Lifetime. Rick Haskins, Lifetime’s general manager, has been handling that duty.
Cohen, who’ll assume her new role April 26, will actually oversee two networks in addition to Lifetime, Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women. She’s also in charge of Lifetime Radio for Women, Lifetime Home Entertainment and Lifetime Online.
Under Black’s tenure, Lifetime rose to become the top-rated primetime cable network, a crown it lost several years ago as its ratings started to dip. Bu the network has seen a viewership resurgence.
In the first quarter, Lifetime’s primetime ratings rose 7%, to a 1.6 from 1.5 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by the Disney ABC Cable Networks Group. Lifetime Movie Network posted a 0.8, flat compared with last year.
Cohen pointed out that Lifetime’s household ratings in primetime have remained in the Top 5, and that it remains a top-10 channel for women 18 to 34.
“My passion is identifying audiences, whether it was kids, cartoon lovers, young adults, or this very challenging complex thing called women, which has a lot of different sub-segments in it,” Cohen said.
The issues relate to how a programmer engages women of various psychographics and demographics, according to Cohen. “And as I was watching Lifetime, I thought there was a lot that could be done here,” she said.