In the past, it was unthinkable an event like the Miss America pageant would appear on ratings-challenged WE: Women's Entertainment.
Yet sources close to it said the Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. network — under the tutelage of general manger Kim Martin — is at least a contender in negotiations to secure rights to the 84-year-old September event, which has fallen on hard times and is in search of a TV home.
Though it's declined in popularity over the years — and has conceded it needs some jazzing up to stand up against American Idol and other reality-TV shows — the Atlantic City, N.J.-based pageant could be a breakthrough event for WE, a network in turnaround that's had some recent success though it still trails category leaders Lifetime and Oxygen in the ratings.
WE officials would not comment on the channel's pursuit of the 84-year-old Miss America pageant, available since ABC dropped the show last year. Neither would the William Morris Agency officials shopping the show.
But sources described WE as pitching hard and still in the running, and said that either way, a deal could be announced soon.
How big an event might it be? At its nadir, last year on ABC, the pageant drew 9.8 million viewers — about 70 times WE's average viewership (137,000).
Even if WE swings and misses at Miss America, the attempt is another indication of the new programming and brand-building strategies Martin is using to carve out a place for her channel within a crowded cable market.
WE is already experiencing a ratings uptick under Martin, the former longtime Rainbow affiliate executive who assumed leadership at WE six months ago.
She's got WE sporting a more-defined programming focus, backed by an influx of new original reality series and specials. It is also engaging in heightened advocacy and marketing efforts, looking to raise its profile and regain the footing it lost in the aftermath of the Rainbow accounting scandal that surfaced in June 2003.
Former WE GM Martin Von Ruden was one of the 14 AMC Network executives fired after a five-month-long internal review by Rainbow owner Cablevision Systems Corp. uncovered alleged improper expense accruals at its programming unit.
With that episode behind it, WE is now focusing on targeting women 25 to 54 who are often the decision-makers in the home.
“That [audience] is the bread and butter of the cable industry,” Martin said. “They're comfortable with the technology and they're making 80% of the purchasing decisions and paying the cable bills.”
FILLING A VOID
In sizing up the landscape, Martin wants WE to fill a void among 25-to-54-year-old working women, looking for content that, in her view, touches every woman relative to relationships, lifestyles and pop culture.
Other distaff-targeted networks like Lifetime Television and Oxygen, as well as services like E! Entertainment Television, don't offer an abundance of such programming, she said.
“Those networks each have different components of what we're doing,” Martin said. “We're the only women's network that's offering those three things in terms of being contemporary and with celebrities. The fact that everyone seems to do a little bit of those things shows that it's a popular genre.”
But industry observers said WE, now at 55 million subscribers, faces an uphill climb in its efforts to catch its competitors. Genre leader Lifetime, currently in 89 million households, has used original movies and scripted dramas to re-establish itself as a ratings power after its performance fell off over the last two years.
Lifetime posted an 8% increase in primetime ratings to a 1.4 in May, its seventh consecutive month of household ratings gains.
Meanwhile, the 55 million-subscriber Oxygen is reaching out to younger women with its edgier reality and comedy based original programs. The network's May 0.3 rating was flat from the same period last year.
“[WE] still has a presence [within the category] and that's an advantage for them as they start to program more aggressively,” Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said. “But at one point, the anticipation was that they might be able to give Lifetime a run for their money. Perception helps, but delivery is the final arbiter, and right now they're not in that elite league — they're in that more specialized region of [networks].”
WE is making some headway in the ratings. After suffering a 33% primetime household ratings decline in the first quarter, the network was up 14% in April and May to a 0.25, from a 0.22 mark over the same period a year ago.
“Ultimately, success over the next two to three years will be a 0.5 to 0.6 rating,” Martin said.
The network's also lowered the median age of its female viewers over the past six months, to 47 from 52. Martin said WE has attracted younger viewers by presenting such new and timely fare as more than three hours of live coverage of the April 9 wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.
WE also capitalized on some big events, airing the live The WE Awards Bathroom Break Party, in which comedian Sandra Bernhard critiqued the fashions, acceptance speeches and other award novelties during commercial breaks of the Academy Awards telecast on ABC.
It rode the coattails of Desperate Housewives with the special Secrets from Wisteria Lane, a live show that aired immediately after the first-season finale of ABC's hit series.
Looking to pull in more young women, WE plans to roll out several new shows later this summer, including American Princess, in which a group of regular American women travel to England to compete for an actual royal British title. I Can't Believe I Wore That? — a not-so-flattering tribute to fashions favored in the 1970s, '80s and '90s — is also on the docket.
The three shows join a list of new programs announced within the last six months, including The Secret Lives of Women, Daddy's Little Spoiled Girl, Kiss & Tell and Cutting It, as well as fresh episodes of returning series Bridezillas, Full Frontal Fashion, and Single in the City.
At the moment, the network doesn't plan to develop any dramas of its own. However, it has made a strong commitment to Australian import McLeod's Daughters, which centers on the lives of two sisters who run a cattle ranch.
WE is currently airing the show's second season and has the rights to seasons three and four. Martin also said the network may again be active in the syndication market.
“Our focus is more and less on originals, but if we see a good series that fits our brand, we're going to buy it,” she said.
With the additional programming and improving ratings, Martin hopes that the network can influence operators into bolstering its distribution base. To add value for MSOs, Martin said the network plans to launch a free video-on-demand service later this year, featuring content from all of its original shows and specials.
In concert with its aggressive programming push, which would be ratcheted up another notch if WE secured a high-profile event like the Miss America pageant, the network has been attempting to bolster awareness through off-network avenues. It's picked up the marketing pace through a number of consumer print and trade ads touting new shows.
Moreover, it's tried to create buzz through such initiatives as a bachelor roping contest in Manhattan's Union Square Park tied to McLeod's Daughters.
A June 7 push behind the June 12 second-season premiere of Bridezillas saw 20 brides-to-be dive into a giant wedding cake in Times Square for a chance to win $50,000.
Lifetime, in particular, and Oxygen have both bolstered their images with significant public-affairs initiatives tied to such issues as cancer treatment, violence against women and mentoring.
Martin's chose the recent Cable Television Public Affairs Association convention to make a splash in that space for WE. Rather than continue to support a variety of causes, WE rolled out an umbrella initiative in April under the heading “WE Empowers Women.”
The channel will fund and back a number of female-targeted health and educational groups, such as Girls Inc., which provides mentoring and help to girls who are at risk.
Sandy Dukat, a decorated member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team since 2002, is serving as WE Empowers Women's designated spokeswoman. The network is also talking to several other organizations about becoming partners.
“My feeling is that we're a women's network, so we need to have a public-affairs initiative,” Martin said. “These are all things that no one else within the industry are supporting and they're all important to women.”