When Nielsen watchers look back at basic cable's performance in 2001, it will be notable for Lifetime Television's ascent to the top of the ratings charts.
Buoyed by a trio of highly rated Sunday-night dramas, some well-received movies and a heightened emphasis on its brand under president Carole Black, the female-targeted network has roared past USA Network and Turner Network Television this year to claim the No. 1 spot in primetime for three consecutive quarters — a first for a niche cable channel.
Given that success, some wonder if Lifetime's ascent will help or curtail the efforts of executives Geraldine Laybourne and Kate McEnroe, who are looking to fortify the identities and distribution of their women's networks — Oxygen and WE: Women's Entertainment, respectively.
Oxygen Media CEO Laybourne believes there's plenty of room.
"Just look at how many channels there are for kids, for news and sports," she said. "The best thing that's happened to Lifetime is Oxygen and WE. It's made the category a lot more interesting.
"We've been doing a good job of selling the importance of women, and women should be taken more seriously," she said.
The view of cable operators, naturally, is tinged by economics. "There's a huge difference between the way programmers and cable operators think about programming," said Massillon Cable TV president Bob Gessner. "We both start out with the same statement and we each end with a little prayer.
"The statement is, with 500 channels, there's room for everybody. The programmer's prayer is, 'On basic.' The operator's little prayer is, 'Who can hold their own weight?'
"I would say there's room for three, four or even 10 if they can figure a way to pay for it," Gessner concluded.
But executives at Cable One Inc. question if there will be enough support for three players.
"A third brand normally
doesn't do well unless it can position itself very strongly," said Cable One president Jerry McKenna. "I think what we have with Oxygen and WE are two services that haven't truly found their niche yet. It may not appeal to all women universally, but it has to have a strong appeal to a particular segment."
It took years for Lifetime's segmenting to yield its recent Nielsen fruit.
"We had a lot of failures," Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said of the network's earlier medical programming and women-in-distress films. "Brands are not declared, they're conferred on you by consumers.
"Until the public says you have a brand, you're just kidding yourself. And it took us a while to figure that out."
Buttressing the brand has been the goal of Black — a former KNBC-TV general manager and brand manager at The Procter & Gamble Co. — since she arrived at Lifetime in 1999.
"Women know what they want and we listen very carefully," said Black. "What we're doing is providing them with a kind of entertainment, information and support that they have told us is relevant in their lives today."
What's been resonant for viewers has been Lifetime's Sunday-night slate of primetime dramas. This spring, Strong Medicine
ended its second season with a 2.5 household average, while The Division
— in its first year — averaged a 2.4 rating.
The fourth and final year of the network's breakout series —Any Day Now —
is expected to top its 2.2 ratings average from season three when it concludes its first run in March.
Replacing the award-winning series will be challenging, Lifetime officials conceded.
"We are just concluding our pilot season," said executive vice president Rick Haskins, "I think we have a couple of very exciting options, which we will be going back and showing to our viewers to decide. We will be able to continue to grow Sunday nights as the place to be for women."
Lifetime's strength on Sundays has led viewers to the channel's Monday-night movie lineup, while also serving to bolster demand for Lifetime Movie Network, a spinoff network now available to 20 million digital and satellite subscribers. Lifetime is currently pushing a reality block on Saturday nights as it looks to grow its second digital offshoot — Lifetime Real Women, which debuted in August.
This month, the network took aim at its Saturday-morning roster, adding two magazine series: Lifetime Now
and Lifetime's Speaking of Women's Health.
Oxygen officially entered the fray in February 2000, backed by investments from America Online Inc., Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures Inc., producers Carsey-Werner-Mandabach LLC and Oprah Winfrey, among others. It launched to some 12 million homes, with holes in New York and Los Angeles, and subsequently made headlines for rounds of layoffs in its Internet and TV operations.
It's now breathing a little easier, thanks to the addition of several Time Warner Cable systems this spring. Indeed, Time Warner recently announced that Oxygen would move from digital to basic in Manhattan, a move that will not only lift Oxygen's profile among viewers, but with the Madison Avenue advertising community.
Laybourne said Oxygen will be in 29 million homes by year's end, and has commitments for more than 40 million households by fall 2002. The network will initiate Nielsen tracking early in 2002.
Oxygen launched with an adventurous slate of original sports, information and entertainment programs that center on celebrating women with "a lot of ovaries," said Laybourne.
"We believe that women are bold, fearless creatures," she added. "I think the more we can reflect that on TV for women who feel that way, the better."
The network's higher-profile offerings include: the talk shows Exhale
and Man Talk, hosted by Candice Bergen and Carrie Fisher, respectively; the daily information magazines Pure Oxygen
and She Commerce; Tracey Ullman's fashion show, Visible Panty Lines; the animated strip X-Chromosome;
and designer Isaac Mizrahi's eponymous "talkumentary," The Isaac Mizrahi Show.
But Oxygen has also taken a page from the more conventional book of programming, by acquiring second-run shows, most notably the syndicated Xena: Warrior Princess.
was one of those acquisitions that was very good in helping us define the brand," Laybourne says. "It had a rabid following."
Oxygen's partnership with Carsey-Werner has also allowed it to add Cybil
— Cybil Shepherd's self-titled off-network comedy — and Roseanne
, which will join the lineup in 2003. The network will also gain access to Winfrey's library of shows in September 2002.
WE — the former Romance Classics — also received a distribution boost from Time Warner this year.
The network, which relaunched in earnest in November of 2000, reached a deal with Time Warner that will put it in front of 10 million of the MSO's subscribers this year, including 1 million on basic cable in New York. WE will be in 41 million homes by year-end.
Programming on the Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.-controlled network is now focused on women's behavior and shows that promote simplicity, inspiration and relaxation.
"WE is about the millennium woman, and it's a unique opportunity, from an advertising and distribution standpoint, and it directly relates to women's lifestyle and viewing habits of today," said AMC Networks' president McEnroe.
Among the original series: the Debbie Allen-produced Cool Women, a biography strip about "ordinary women doing extraordinary things"; Journeywomen Off The Map, a reality travel skein; Everyday Elegance
with style guru Colin Cowie; and the Cinematherapy
franchise, which offers movies for any mood.
The network also hopes to gain exposure by backing theatricals created by independent women filmmakers. The first, The Yellow Bird, a film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, marked the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning actress Faye Dunaway.
"We're looking at green-lighting and developing three to five films next year," said McEnroe. "Assuming they're successful, they would be invited to festivals, and then released theatrically."
The network, which also recently unveiled a new on-air look and and tagline — "The Space We Share" — is also intent upon drawing attention from advertisers. Encouraged by an exclusive deal struck with Johnson & Johnson in March, WE plans to participate in the upfront next spring. McEnroe said the network, which will begin Nielsen tracking in the first quarter of 2002, expects to sell eight ad minutes per hour in September 2002.
"Johnson & Johnson came to us for that deal, which is a vital sign of the popularity of the brand and consumer acceptance," said McEnroe.
Advertisers have indeed taken notice. As women account for over 50 percent of the population, niche programming targeted to females has become increasingly attractive to advertisers attempting to reach that market.
"As it turns out, the growth of the women's audience to ad-supported cable is through the roof," says Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau president Joseph Ostrow.
"Targeting women was always key to certain advertisers like Kraft, Colgate and Procter & Gamble," he added. "But more and more advertisers in the automotive and tires categories, for instance, have recognized the importance of women in making purchase decisions."