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Lifetime turns to new series as lifeline

Once-dominant cabler rebuilds with fresh shows

They shouldn’t be hanging the “Mission Accomplished” banners at Lifetime just yet.

But the femme-centric cabler emerged victorious from its first battleground this summer, launching the new drama “Army Wives” to network-best premiere ratings. Better yet, the show has grown its audience in subsequent episodes.

“So far, so good,” says Lifetime Entertainment prexy Susanne Daniels, whose staff toasted the numbers with champagne and Sprinkles cupcakes. It couldn’t come at a better time for the combat-weary execs at Lifetime. Struggling to liven up its brand and freshen its programming, it has fallen — in both ratings and revenue — from its days earlier this decade as basic cable’s No. 1 network.

Most recently, Lifetime’s troubles led to the departure of president/CEO Betty Cohen, who was replaced in April by former ABC exec Andrea Wong.

The “Army Wives” numbers were a nice present for Wong, who is already injecting a little more programming savvy into a channel that seemed to be focused on everything but its on-air content.

“This success also positions us perfectly,” Wong wrote in an email to Lifetime staffers. “We are now moving in the right direction to make all of our programming, marketing and digital content more contemporary, relevant, entertaining and deeply resonant to millions of women.”

But the crusade to win those hearts and minds is by no means done.

It’s been a tough few years for Lifetime, as shows that defined the channel’s early 2000s success (“Strong Medicine,” “Any Day Now”) faded away and nothing came along to fill the void. And ratings for its library of women-in-peril movies took a tumble.

Meanwhile, the channel’s rebranding efforts muddled the message, as women who once saw Lifetime as their chief destination fell out of the habit.

Behind the scenes, a skirmish with EchoStar kept Lifetime off the Dish satellite service for a period of time, impacting revenue. And inside the channel, morale plummeted.

“So much damage was done over there that they’re literally building the company from the ground up again,” says one exec familiar with the net. ” ‘Army Wives’ will definitely help them, and it’s great that they got that shot in the arm. But the brand is very confused, and there are so many pieces that need to come back together. It takes time to build back a company. ”

Daniels was first recruited in 2005 to stir things up — and she did, with the reality show “Cheerleader Nation,” the drama “Angela’s Eyes” and the comedy “Lovespring International.”

But although some of those shows got decent critical notice, they didn’t last long. Daniels now blames it on the channel not properly launching or protecting those shows.

“I think we weren’t ready in some ways,” she says. “Those shows were islands, they didn’t have the timing and the scheduling didn’t come together.”

Daniels fared better with original telepics, including “The Fantasia Barrino Story” and a series of movies based on Nora Roberts novels.

“I learned from past mistakes, and we’re doing it different and better this summer,” Daniels says.

“Army Wives” is just one prong in Daniels’ aggressive summer strategy to remake the stale Lifetime brand into something younger and more buzzworthy. On July 15, the channel will launch two more Sunday dramas: The relationship entry “Side Order of Life” and the quirky, therapy-themed “State of Mind.”

“These were the three best shows I could find,” says Daniels, who decided to break from cable tradition and go for broke by airing all three on the same night. “The feeling was to aggregate these dramas to create a real go-to night in the summer.”

To help launch the shows, Daniels also enlisted a secret weapon: her old WB marketing gurus, Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein. Daniels finally got the greenlight to bring in Bibb and Goldstein, who helped turn the WB into the “It” network with shows like “Dawson’s Creek,” the moment Wong walked in the door.

“Our on-air is looking more contemporary and fresh” as a result, Daniels says. “They’ll help promote the shows and create an environment for them to thrive in. Our goal has been to bring our median age down, and I feel that Bob and Lew will contribute to that.”

Daniels is walking a delicate line, however, as she looks to recruit more youngsters without alienating the channel’s core aud.

“The No. 1 thing holding us back is we’re a 24/7 channel with a huge library of movies that right now take up a lot of our space and send the viewer a message that we’re the channel we were, and not the channel that we are now.”

It’s a tougher task than other channels that have completely blown up their franchise in order to get young.

“I look at A&E, they’ve got to be the most famous example of a complete 180,” she says. “They were the History Channel, and now they’re MTV. They successfully brought in a new audience. We’re trying to do it in a subtler way. Our way could be harder.”

That’s especially because, in the years since Lifetime ruled the cable world, several more channels honed in on Lifetime’s demo. ABC Family now targets young women, while Oxygen and WE, while still far behind Lifetime, have aggressively increased their programming output.

The most-watched series on cable, “The Closer,” should have been a Lifetime show, but runs on TNT. And Lifetime (which is co-owned by Disney and Hearst) competes more directly with its bigger cousins at ABC, which has zeroed in on young women with hot series like “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Everybody and their mother is developing for women,” Daniels says. “Every time you turn around, there’s a new women’s network.”

Moving forward, Daniels is looking to create more interest via projects like one hosted by Carson Kressley and a “popularity contest” reality show hosted by Graham Norton. Daniels also recently greenlit the movie “The Murder of Princess Diana” and even has a musical in development.

“I feel like we’ve taken the time to identify programs that have a unique point of view,” she says. “Hopefully that will bring the viewer back to us.”

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