When cable’s digital transformation took hold in the late 1990s, it inspired the creation of dozens of new outlets to fill the expanded capacity the technology offered. There were channels devoted to music, to health, to science, to sports and to ethnic audiences — nearly every genre and every subject imaginable, including chick flicks.
Executives at Lifetime Television, the women’s cable network owned by ABC and Hearst, knew from experience they could attract sizable audiences by televising movies aimed at women. By stocking a library with made-for-TV titles, some inspired and some unremarkable, Lifetime theorized it could leverage its popularity with women through the sort of brand-extension channel that prevailed during cable’s digital heyday.
In the summer of 1998, adhering to a simple formula, Lifetime Movie Network launched with the movie Sophie and the Moonhanger.
LMN struck a chord with MSOs that understood the appeal of a fresh channel devoted to women and were anxious to catch up with their channel-rich satellite TV competitors.
Within four years the network was available in close to 35 million U.S. homes, and by the following autumn it would crack the 40 million mark. Although LMN was invented during cable’s digital renaissance, its affiliate-sales team aggressively pursued, and often attained, carriage on expanded-basic packages that were more widely viewed than digital tiers.
Audiences responded, too. By 2002, Nielsen ratings showed LMN was consistently the second-highest rated cable network for women, behind its sister Lifetime.
LMN’s formula of movie-of-the-week titles became an occasional punch line for TV critics, but also produced a television haven for viewers who enjoyed storylines about women rising above distress and challenge.
“It was a great concept. I wish I could take credit for it,” said Louise Henry Bryson, who joined Lifetime shortly after LMN’s launch and is now executive vice president and general manager of the channel. “Women loved our movies, and it was more of what they loved already.”
The formula also produced economic success for ABC and Hearst. According to estimates by SNL Kagan senior analyst Derek Baine, by 2003 LMN was generating $69.5 million in annual revenue.
Cable and satellite distributors paid an average of 8 cents per month per subscriber to carry the network, and its 0.51 average 24-hour rating helped to attract $30 million in advertising support, Baine estimated. After programming expenses of $31.5 million and $16.5 million in overhead, Lifetime Movie Network generated $21.5 million in cash flow in its fifth year.
In 2005, when Bryson began running LMN, a subscriber base of 50 million helped push total revenue above $100 million for the first time, according to the SNL Kagan estimates.
FORTIFYING THE LIBRARY
It was around that time that Lifetime executives began contemplating plans to fortify the network’s acquired movie library with original productions. In 2006, LMN announced it would produce and run a new original movie each month.
Since then, a stepped-up focus on original content and more aggressive promotion have helped renew ratings momentum for the 10-year-old network.
Through May, LMN has strung together nine straight months of double-digit ratings gains, and is up 43%, year-over-year, among women 18 and older in total-day household delivery. In primetime, the network’s average household delivery of women 18 and older has climbed 38%, to an average of 334,000 viewers in a prized demographic category.
Behind the surge is a concerted effort to make Lifetime Movie Network more relevant and current — and to align more closely with what women say they want from television.
In part, that means responding to a perception women have that their lives are extremely busy, said Lifetime executive vice president of research Mike Greco.
Based on hundreds of focus groups and polls, Greco said, “Today’s woman, whether it’s real or perceived, feels like she’s really busy and has a fully loaded, hectic life.” Knowing that, LMN executives are attempting to portray and position the network as a TV destination that allows for a temporary escape. “It’s a place designed specifically for them, where they can take a break and escape, unwind, and have some personal time,” Greco said.
The “escape” theme is voiced repeatedly by LMN executives, and is influencing the way the network selects scripts for original movies, sets up its schedule and flow of programming, and writes its promotions. “It shows up in all of our research and it bears out every weekend: our movies are the ultimate escape for women,” said Andrea Wong, a former ABC programming executive who was named president and CEO of Lifetime Networks last April. “I think all women can relate to this. We all have incredibly busy times.”
Wong certainly does. Since succeeding Betty Cohen as Lifetime’s top executive, she’s put her own imprint on LMN, a network she barely recognized when she took the job — partly because it wasn’t carried by the cable company serving her former Los Angeles home.
“Lifetime Movie Network was this huge asset sitting here that I thought was terrific, and Louise and her team deserve huge credit for growing it into that asset,” Wong said. “On the flipside of that, I thought there was tremendous upside, and maybe it just needed a little care and feeding.”
Wong wanted more potent marketing and promotion for LMN, and she enlisted some former business colleagues in Los Angeles, former WB marketing executives Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein, to supply it. The two marketing consultants have since signed on full time with Lifetime to support the mainstay Lifetime network and invigorate LMN.
Wong gave them resources to work with by approving a paid-media budget for the channel for the first time — allowing Bibb to start running day-and-date radio spots promoting LMN premieres. She also increased the money available for original productions designed not just to elevate ratings, but to give the channel a more current feel and brand. And Wong gave the marketing team access to more advertising time on Lifetime to cross-promote movies on its sister channel.
The wider promotional latitude was exactly what LMN needed, said Bibb. “When we first came here, LMN was kind of still this hidden juggernaut in the world of cable, with absolutely no promotion,” he said.
Together, the changes Wong instituted have contributed to LMN’s recent ratings roll, along with improved financial performance.
Last year the network produced a record $122 million in revenue, according to SNL Kagan estimates. When the LMN miniseries The Capture of the Green River Killer set a new ratings record for the network in March, it seemed to affirm Wong’s master plan.
“I thought we could take it to the next level with stronger marketing, weekend stunts, better navigation and cross-promotion, along with a real investment in original programming,” said Wong.
At the same time, there’s room to grow on the distribution front. With 59 million homes, LMN is in front of about 70% of U.S. multichannel video households. “There are a few holdouts,” said Bryson. “But I absolutely see the channel going higher than 60 million.”
To get there, Lifetime hopes to convince distributors that women have a big influence in buying advanced cable and satellite services. Research commissioned by Lifetime last year found 89% of women said they had influenced or were involved in the purchase of an HDTV set, and 92% influenced decisions about what level of cable service their household receives. “Yet when was the last time you saw an acquisition advertisement from a cable provider targeted to women?” asked Lori Conklin, Lifetime executive vice president of distribution. “We’ve had distributors begin to ask that question.”
Conklin thinks distributors can apply Lifetime’s research findings and the media consumption habits of women to broaden sales of advanced digital services and broadband Internet packages. “We’re looking at how we can use our expertise about women, and particularly how they’re consuming movies and content on multiple platforms, to work with distributors to target their acquisition efforts,” she said.
In that regard, Wong has stepped up LMN’s place in the digital media ecosystem by overseeing the launch of an HD variation of the network and making a Spanish-language version available for on-demand distribution.
The network is also increasing its online presence with a reconstituted Web site that lets fans mash together movie clips. Later this year, the site will add trailers from close to half of LMN’s 1,200-title library. Officials also are exploring ways to port some of the channel’s content to mobile video devices. “We’re trying to enhance the way people can experience movies in a linear and a non-linear way,” said Dan Surratt, Lifetime executive vice president of digital media.
But the new media exploration, along with the mainstay linear cable channel, flows from the same underlying asset, said Bryson. Movies remain the centerpiece of the network and continue to endure as a storytelling medium that women love, she said.
“It’s all about the content. Even though women are loyal, they won’t stick with you if you don’t have something good,” said Bryson, who is so enthusiastic about Lifetime Movie Network’s new original programming commitments that she has suspended for now a plan to retire. “I love the channel,” she said. “And it’s at a very good time in its life.”
According to Script: 10 Years of LMN