A Lifetime Achievement

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Timing is everything and apparently no one knows that better than Lifetime Television president Carole Black, who is striking forward while the group's signature channel is blazing red-hot.

At its upfront advertising event last week, Lifetime announced that it was launching a third network this summer, Lifetime Real Women — a reality-based channel — to complement its other two networks, Lifetime Movie Network and, of course, the mother ship, Lifetime Television.

Some might say that's a pretty gutsy move in this belt-tightening economy where new cable network launches are as rare as a dot-com posting strong earnings and a stock split.

But that announcement came just days after Lifetime staffers recovered from a heady, champagne-induced hangover after celebrating the 17-year-old network's victory of being the top-rated primetime cable network in the quarter for the first time.

Lifetime edged out good ol' boy, USA Network, which is still licking its wounds after losing its highly rated World Wrestling Federation programming.

The credit goes to Black, who has only been in her position and the cable industry for two years. While many, including some of her own staffers, were surprised when she said from the get go that her goal was to make Lifetime the number one cable network, I am not.

The network's programming and more important, branding, improved dramatically under her leadership. Remember; this is the network whose owners couldn't even agree what it should be or who the target audience was. Enter Black who came in and stuck to her guns.

It's been interesting to see her in action. I first met her at the National Show in Chicago two years ago at a black-tie dinner inducting cable pioneers. She had just come to cable from the broadcast-station world and didn't know anybody. But she made it her business to network.

I kept bumping into her at other events at that show, like the unforgettable 10-year anniversary celebration of Carlsen Resources, the executive search firm. Black was there working the room, dutifully standing in the reception line, waiting her turn to congratulate the firm's founder Ann Carlsen on her success.

Throughout our encounters, I learned a lot about Black, like how she waited tables in her youth at Cape Cod, about her years in packaged goods and, of course, her stint at running a television station in the crowded Los Angeles marketplace.

I also saw how respectfully she treats her own employees, one in particular, who was hobbling along on crutches at a cable trade show, but was there smiling, charged and motivated to make Black, her boss, shine.

Black is firing on all eight cylinders. Her influence in reshaping Lifetime's programming is well documented. But when you look under the hood, you can see what a well-oiled machine Lifetime has become in just two years.

Black's arrival came at a time when cable guru Geraldine Laybourne struck out on her own to launch Oxygen and Rainbow Programming Services launched Romance Classics, and recently renamed the network WE: Women's Television.

Lifetime's influence spreads beyond the television set to the Internet. LifetimeOnline, "Where Women Click," clearly shows Black's grasp of marketing to women. There's a tie-in to another site hosted by Procter & Gamble, which is all about women's health issues. The site is very sticky, with plenty of interactive discussion groups and quizzes — all features designed to engage users and keep them coming back.

But like I said, I'm not surprised, because Black herself is a very engaging woman who clearly has a grasp of what makes women tick and is, herself, a testimony to why Lifetime, at least for now, is cable's highest ranked primetime network.

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