Lifetime Television's new series, Army Wives, picked up steam last week. The show's third episode beat the record-breaking viewership of the program's premiere. The drama looks like a bona fide hit, perhaps Lifetime's biggest ever.
Also last week, Oxygen took to the streets of Manhattan to stage a stunt. The seven-year-old network transported a mobile boxing ring to various locations, near ad agencies, to promote its newly launched reality series, Fight Girls.
And WE TV debuted “WE Go Bridal,” a Sunday-night block of original wedding-themed programming anchored by Bridezillas, the channel's signature reality show about difficult, demanding brides-to-be. WE blanketed Grand Central Terminal in the Big Apple with signage promoting the programming.
All in all, it was a busy seven days for the three women's-targeted cable networks, which are each using the summer to launch programming aimed at further differentiating them, and their brands, for female TV viewers.
Lifetime is committed to scripted dramas, developing original programming that aims to reflect the lives of everyday women. Oxygen is doing edgy reality fare aimed at younger women, which is perhaps why the word “girls” is used in several of its show titles. And WE is focused on original programming related to relationships, personal style and pop culture.
Lifetime, far and away the dominant women's programmer, faces a challenge the other two don't have. It is trying to revisit its glory days as the most-popular network on basic cable. Oxygen and WE, in contrast, are striving to build viewership numbers that remain, at this juncture, dwarfed by Lifetime's audience.
The stakes are particularly high for Lifetime, which had hit a rough patch. In 2002, the The Walt Disney Co.-Hearst joint venture was the top-rated network in primetime for all basic cable. But it slid from that spot, going without a new hit show for several years.
Last year, Lifetime was also dropped for about a month by EchoStar Communications' Dish Network. It was reinstated, but as a result of the squabble, Oxygen won a berth on Dish and direct-broadcast satellite rival DirecTV sued Lifetime.
With all those clouds hanging over her, Lifetime CEO Betty Cohen abruptly left the company two months ago, replaced by ABC alternative-programming guru Andrea Wong. Wong declined an interview request, but is expected to discuss her vision for Lifetime next month at the Television Critics Association press tour.
Before Cohen left, and to regain its luster in primetime, Lifetime made a calculated decision to get a jump on rival programmers by debuting Army Wives early in the summer season. The June 3 premiere was meant to give the ensemble drama, about a diverse group of women on an active U.S. Army post, a toehold before competitors debuted their new shows.
That tack appears to be working, paving the way for the second part of Lifetime's ambitious — and risky — game plan: Creating a full evening of compelling original programming at the start of each week.
Lifetime is using Army Wives as the launch pad and cornerstone for a three-hour block on Sunday nights that will premiere July 15. On that date, two more scripted dramas will debut: Side Order of Life, about a young woman who re-evaluates her life; and State of Mind, about a therapist with her own personal problems.
“The common thread for all three series is they're all really smartly written and executed,” said Lifetime president of entertainment Susanne Daniels. “We've never launched this much scripted-series programming at once. The financial commitment of launching these shows and marketing these shows and producing these shows is greater than in past years.”
Overall, Lifetime has said it is increasing its programming budget by 31% in 2007 compared with last year, although it would not reveal specific figures.
BLOCKING AND TACKLING
Rainbow Media's WE, the third-ranked women's player in terms of audience and distribution, is also creating a three-hour block of original shows, “WE Go Bridal,” on Sunday nights.
Trying to expand on the success of Bridezillas, its highest-rated show, WE added companion program Platinum Weddings to the evening on June 17. WE will swap out Platinum Weddings for a new anthology series, All Things Bridal, on Aug. 12.
“Of the programming on WE that has really risen to the top, the one thing that keeps bubbling up time and time again is the wedding-themed programming,” general manager Kim Martin said. “We have always run Bridezillas on Sunday night. And we have done really well.”
Independent Oxygen, the second-ranked women's network, June 12 rolled out two key reality shows, Fight Girls, a series spin-off from an Oxygen reality movie, as well as Bad Girls Road Trip, a spin-off of The Bad Girls Club, the network's highest-rated original series.
Oxygen continues to see growth with younger women, with a median age of female viewers about 10 years younger than Lifetime and WE, according to its president of proramming and marketing, Debby Beece. In primetime, the median age of Oxygen's female viewers is 39.2, compared with 51.4 for Lifetime and 46.9 for WE, according to Turner Research from Nielsen Media Research data.
May was the network's most-watched month ever, and Oxygen “wanted to keep the momentum going” with new summer shows, Beece said.
Several media buyers credited Lifetime, Oxygen and WE with succeeding in creating their distinct programming identities in the women's arena.
“Each one of them very cleverly has carved out a unique area for them to own,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president and entertainment director for Starcom USA. “When you're channel surfing, I think you get the personality of each one as soon as you land on it, in their graphics and how they promote their own channels. That's probably been their biggest challenge in the past.”
Under Daniels, the former entertainment head at The WB, whom Cohen hired in 2005, Lifetime's “big-picture strategy” is to be a “very contemporary and fresh and relevant” channel for women 18 to 49.
When she came to Lifetime, Daniels said she noticed how one big hit drama can make such a difference for a cable network, like The Closer did for TNT.
“And I just thought to myself, wow, if we could just have one really strong iconic drama that's right for Lifetime it could make a huge difference,” Daniels said. “It could rise all tides on the network. And we are very hopeful that Army Wives is going to be that series for us.”
The value of a hit can't be overemphasized, according to Katz Television Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll.
“Anytime you have a breakout show it is critical, because what it does is it energizes the perception of the network and it also allows for sampling,” Carroll said. “At a time where there are so many choices, it's so difficult to break through the clutter. If you're able to do that with a particular show, and get sampling of that show, the network becomes a destination.”
With its first three episodes, Army Wives is tracking to be a hit. Its debut posted a 2.9 rating, or 3.5 million viewers, making it Lifetime's most-watched series premiere in the network's 23-year history. The show's third installment beat those numbers, garnering a 3.1 rating and 3.8 million viewers. A third episode hasn't topped a premiere in cable in five years.
Lifetime's last scripted-series hit, Strong Medicine, averaged a 2.6 rating during its peak season, and went off the air in 2005, said Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.
“Our whole strategy for 2007, and we've had some dry years recently, was to start off right at the top of the summer with the strongest show we could, which was Army Wives, give it the maximum promotion we could, try to get some momentum going at the top of the summer, then build on that in July as the other two [scripted series] come in on the same night,” Brooks said.
Lifetime is banking that Army Wives will be a strong springboard to promote Side Order of Life and State of Mind, so viewers will try the shows in July and make the network's new Sunday block a destination.
“They could lock viewers in for a night of TV on Sundays,” said Shari Ann Brill, senior vice president and director of programming services at Carat USA.
If two or three of the Sunday dramas remain strong, Lifetime could eventually move one of them to another night “and launch something else behind it and open up another front, so to speak,” Brooks said.
Five years ago, when Lifetime was No. l in primetime households, it was doing a 2.0 rating. Last year, Lifetime's rating fell to 1.4. Year to date, Lifetime slipped down from that, at 1.3, according to an ABC Disney Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data.
But it's still a top-10 cable network, and far ahead of Oxygen and WE. Oxygen is managing a 0.3 rating, flat compared with last year, while WE is at a 0.2, down 33%.
“I don't think they [Lifetime] look at WE and Oxygen as their competitors, more so USA and Turner,” Caraccioli-Davis said.
In pure numbers of viewers, Lifetime towers over its female-targeted rivals. Year to date, Lifetime has averaged 1.5 million total viewers in primetime, up from 1.47 million in the year-ago period. Oxygen is averaging 300,000 overall viewers, up from 227,000; while WE is averaging 189,000 total viewers, down from 211,000.
All three networks have seen gains in the delivery of women 18 to 49 years old so far this year in primetime. Lifetime has averaged 438,000 women 18 to 49, up from 422,000 a year ago. Oxygen is drawing 115,000 women 18 to 49, up from 76,000; while WE is averaging 63,000 women 18 to 49, up from 59,000.
“Lifetime is in better shape than it's ever been in quite a few years,” Brill said. “Lifetime has clearly established itself as the top-rated destination for women.”
Oxygen and WE, in turn, have established themselves with niche programming that reaches out to different kinds of women viewers, according to Brill.
“I think we're really touching a nerve,” Oxygen's Beece said. “We are one of the only networks to show growth year to year and we are the only women's network showing any kind of good growth year to year in prime, which is the most important. On a total-day basis, we've had 13 quarters of year-to-year impressions growth, and on a household basis, growth.”
Oxygen is targeting younger women with a roster of reality fare that includes The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, Tori & Dean: Inn Love, Snapped, Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance and the newest additions, Bad Girls Road Trip and Fight Girls, in which 10 female fighters travel to Las Vegas to compete for the chance to go to Thailand and compete in the sport known as Thai boxing.
“Generally, when we think of our viewer, and we meet our viewer, and we talk to our viewer, they tend to be very optimistic, very bold women,” Beece said. “They like a lot of irreverence. They're very rebellious. They've got their tongue in their cheek and they're really looking to mix it up.”
The series premiere of Fight Girls averaged a 0.5 rating with women 18 to 34, up 67% from that group's average last year. The debut of Bad Girls Road Trip did a 0.9 rating with women 18 to 34, 200% above the year-ago average for that demographic.
Citing research that found weddings were attended by a total of 380 million guests last year, WE believes its Sunday block of “WE Go Bridal” programming will appeal to a far wider audience than just women who are getting married, as evidenced by the prior ratings success of Bridezillas, Martin said.
WE has launched a big marketing effort behind “WE Go Bridal,” including creating a broadband site, and promotional partnerships with Comcast and Modern Bride magazine.
The bridal block's debut June 17 drew more than 1.4 million viewers, and the Bridezillas fourth-season premiere that night scored WE's highest delivery of women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 — 287,000 and 290,000, respectively — for an original series premiere.
It remains to be seen how the three female-targeted networks end up the summer, particularly how Lifetime's new Sunday block does in July. That may determine the fate of Daniels, who was hired by Cohen in August 2005 to head up Lifetime's programming.
Ironically, Army Wives, which was developed on Cohen's watch, is shaping up to be a hit after she's gone.
“It's a shame, because she doesn't get to enjoy the fruits of her labor,” Brill said.