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IT’S A WOMAN THING

Lifetime, Romance skew female in different ways

Its slogan reads “Television for Women,” but cable’s Lifetime seems to have some rather unconventional ideas about just what constitutes a woman’s program.

Consider that, while Lifetime’s primetime lineup includes such female-skewing offnet efforts as “Sisters” and “Designing Women,” it also is populated by reruns of “Unsolved Mysteries,” “L.A. Law,” “One West Waikiki” (a Cheryl Ladd vehicle that lasted precisely six weeks on CBS in the summer of 1994) and “The Commish.”

“The Commish” is television for women?

“You have to remember that a lot of these shows were bought prior to Lifetime being branded ‘Television for Women’ three years ago,” explained Dawn Tarnofsky, who replaced Judy Girard as the network’s executive VP of programming and production less than three months ago.

“We’ve got a lot of this product in our inventory. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to get renewed. I mean, we had ‘Spenser: For Hire,’ too, and that wasn’t renewed.”

In fact, if Tarnofsky has her way, very little of the current nighttime programming will return as she sets her sights on phasing out the old (with a few key exceptions) and bringing in the new.

That strategy extends to Tarnofsky’s staff as well. Last week, she laid off three of Lifetime’s veteran program executives: programming VP Peggy Allen, director of original programming Lisa Nee and director of program planning Paul DeBenedittis.

Lifetime also took a big hit last week when VP-longform Sheri Singer, who single-handedly put the network on the original movie map and forged valuable ties to the Hollywood community, resigned to work with her husband, producer Steve White, in a new company.

“Losing Sheri is a big blow,” Tarnofsky said. “She really gave us a presence out in Los Angeles.”

Originals are the ticket

Far more than her predecessor Girard, who departed Lifetime in July, Tarnofsky is looking to original programming as the network’s ticket to the promised land as it prepares to celebrate its 13th birthday Feb. 1.

For instance, Tarnofsky is looking to add three to four new positions on the programming staff to work full time in Los Angeles and further establish Lifetime’s credentials in the creative community.

Tarnofsky also has received the go-ahead from Lifetime co-owners Disney-ABC and Hearst to develop five series pilots, with the goal to have a new original weekly drama series as well as a weekly original comedy series in place by early 1998.

“This network has never done that before,” Tarnofsky pointed out. “We’re working on a very different playing field here. And it will be done on a broadcast network-quality scale that’s extremely competitive with network license fees.”

Lifetime apparently is willing to spend in the high six figures each week for the new hour. Magazine series pilots and “some kind of talkshow” also are in the planning stages.

The idea, Tarnofsky said, is to have 80% of Lifetime’s lineup consist of original programming within five years. It currently stands at roughly 50%.

“Doing our own programs in primetime and in access is the most effective way to further brand the network,” Tarnofsky said. “We’ve got to find a signature show or two that becomes appointment television, like a ‘Politically Incorrect’ or a ‘Larry Sanders.’ We’ve got to make shows that get Lifetime attention.”

Previous pacts

But if Tarnofsky’s mandate is to move the programming focus inhouse, Lifetime still is bound by plenty of off-network series agreements. It is reportedly ponying up more than $600,000 per episode for the exclusive rights to “Ellen” and better than $400,000 per for the off-net rights to “Homicide: Life on the Street.” It also owns the rights to “Chicago Hope.”

Neither “Homicide” nor “Chicago Hope” are thought of as being predominantly female-appeal shows. But the women characters who populate both dramas are the kind of strong, positive role models that fit nicely into Lifetime’s female empowerment agenda.

“The same is true of ‘L.A. Law,’ ” Tarnofsky said. “But we need to schedule shows that cross over. Our audience is 65% women, 35% men. We don’t want to alienate the men we have.”

Indeed, Lifetime is run by a man: prexy and CEO Douglas McCormick. To some, that is odd enough. And until a few years ago, the network’s editorial board was made up primarily of men. It’s predominantly female now.

“The thing for people to remember is that perhaps the reason we’ve endured and experienced success is that we’re a gender-blind company,” McCormick said.

New net’s emotional investment

If Lifetime’s service to women tends to veer toward women’s socially aware side, the new cable film network Romance Classics – an American Movie Classics premium spinoff channel that launched Jan. 1 and features all love stories, all the time – is staking its future on tapping into the more emotional sensibilities of its female skew.

Kate McEnroe, prexy for AMC and Romance Classics (which launched in 2 million homes), made the point that women remain grossly underserved on cable.

“Men have ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, CNN/SI, Speedvision, Outdoor Life, the Outdoor Channel, Playboy … should I go on?” McEnroe said. “Besides Lifetime, we are the only network serving the women’s audience 24 hours a day.”

And of course, Lifetime isn’t exactly 24 hours of “Television for Women.” It airs infomercials in the latenight and early morning hours each day.

“Women should have more choice than they do,” McEnroe said. “We’re 52% of the population. We control about 80% of the wealth in the United States. We could support five different women’s channels.”

But in reality, Lifetime is having trouble getting women to support one channel. In the fourth quarter of ’96, its primetime ratings average was down nearly 20% from the year before, plunging from a 1.6 to 1.3.

Tarnofsky said she isn’t worried.

“So long as we develop more and more product inhouse and serve our core female audience, we’ll keep improving,” Tarnofsky vowed. “We just need to make sure we make programs that are different from what everyone else is doing.”

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