Cabler's original films gain depth, auds

“I Went to Bed With My Stepson: The Lara Bengal Covington Story” was a “Saturday Night Live” satire of the standard, low-budget exploitation movie that Lifetime has often doted on since it began creating original movies in 1990.

Too many Lifetime movies over the years were falling into the trap of showing the lead woman character as a victim of a scheming man, often a macho sleazeball, in the first hour. The turnabout comes in the second hour when the woman triumphs over the bad guy, usually in a courtroom setting, resulting in what Alan Sternfeld, senior VP of Lifetime, calls “the uplifting, heartwarming conclusion that resonates with our viewers.”

“Lifetime movies were always watchable, but they got bogged down in the mentality of ‘victim of the week,’ ” says Lynne Buening, a cable-programming consultant and former head of programming for Falcon Cable TV. “It seemed as though every one of them had to have the same storybook ending.”

But in the last year or so, Lifetime has begun veering off into more intellectually provocative directions — and taking sizable audiences along for the ride:

  • “Obsessed,” starring Jenna Elfman and directed by John Badham, turned out to be a genuinely disturbing movie about a medical journalist who suffers from erotomania. The male doctor she was victimizing had to go through a wrenching criminal trial before he was vindicated, with the mentally deranged Elfman character slapped in jail.

  • “We Were the Mulvaneys,” an adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel, presented a serious, unsparing anatomy of a close-knit family that disintegrates after the only daughter gets raped.

  • “The Pact,” Lifetime’s November movie, from the Jodi Picoult novel, deals with the effect on their families of a joint suicide attempt by two teenagers.

“Any woman will be the first to tell you that women aren’t perfect,” says Trevor Walton, Lifetime’s senior VP of original movies. “We’re trying to take real issues and real problems that come out of heartland America and not gloss over them.”

Barbara Fisher, executive VP of entertainment for Lifetime, says she’s eager to commission more movies based on serious novels. “We’re also going after talent that haven’t worked at the network before.” Forthcoming movies include vehicles for Thora Birch, Barbara Hershey and Diane Keaton.

One reason Lifetime is getting talent with a theatrical-movie pedigree is that the network’s original-movie ratings have shot up in the last few years, hitting an average 4.1 in cable homes this year, season to date, the highest in Lifetime’s history.

From 1995 to 2000, Lifetime never managed to place more than two movies among the 10 highest-rated originals each year. It got three in 2001, but 2002 looks like the breakthrough year: Lifetime had six of the top 10 through the second week in October.

Fisher says she’s convinced that more women are watching Lifetime movies, particularly women 18 to 49, because they’re responding to the more complicated characters and themes.

Robert Greenwald, one of the producers of “Obsessed,” says, “Lifetime is hitting home runs with its movies because it’s taking chances on content and not playing down to its viewers.”

Lifetime now produces an average of 12 original movies each year, a higher volume than any other basic-cable network. Lifetime’s license fees get costlier as the production budgets of these originals keep climbing. But the network can easily afford the higher made-for prices because it has never had to compete with TNT, TBS, USA and FX in the big-bucks theatrical-movie sweepstakes.

While TNT may have to pony up $10 million or more to share a window with a broadcast network for multiple runs of a TV-premiere theatrical, Lifetime can get the same rating by spending $125,000 for a four-year license term to the rerun of a made-for that played originally on ABC, CBS or NBC.

Lifetime can get these pictures so cheaply because it has no other serious cable-network competitor to increase the demand for TV-movie reruns (and drive up their prices).

Flushed with Nielsen success, Fisher says Lifetime may soon begin to commission more than 12 movies a year.

But Syracuse U.’s Robert J. Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture, says he’s hoping Lifetime goes easy on the Joyce Carol Oates adaptations. “Too many dark stories by Oates,” he says, “are not exactly the best kind of viewing you can indulge in right before you climb into bed.”

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